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Steps in Assessment Design Decisions

Decisions and considerations around assessment design are critical to ensure that assessment supports learning (Gibbs and Simpson 2005). The steps outlined below are intended to promote thinking around the various stages and contexts of assessment, and to support the design and implementation of learning-centred assessment that stimulates learning and provides feedback. Each recommended step is followed by a brief set of questions that might be useful in guiding the decisions you make relating to assessment at each of the key stages of designing, delivering and reviewing programmes and modules. Your specific teaching context will determine which questions will be most pertinent and where your assessment priorities lie.

It is important to recognise that assessment design is an iterative process. The steps below will help you to structure your thinking but you may find that the way in which you respond to some of these critical prompts will send you back to an earlier stage in the process. It is also likely that you will need to work through the cycle more than once in order to refine your assessment tasks and overall strategy. We also recommend that you keep assessment under constant review, and return to these prompts at regular points throughout module delivery, evaluation and development.

Assessment design and practice cannot be considered in isolation but need to be situated in the context of the overall programme of study; professional bodies’ requirements; students’ prior experiences and backgrounds; disciplinary culture; institutional policies; and learning environments. These elements are probably beyond your direct control, but you should still consider your own assumptions and expectations in relation to all of these factors, throughout the design process.

Prompts for critical thinking:

  • Does your context enable you to co-design assessment in partnership with students?
  • How does your module articulate with the programme/s within which it appears, e.g. core, elective.
  • What assessment patterns are already in use across the programme/s within which your module will sit?
    • What sort of assessment will students have experienced to date?
    • What sort of assessment does your module need to prepare them to undertake?
    • What sort of assessment will students be undertaking on parallel modules?
  • Are there any professional accreditation requirements that you need to consider?
  • Generally speaking, what are the characteristics of enrolled students?
    • Will students who don’t share those characteristics be disadvantaged when trying to demonstrate achievement of intended learning outcomes in ways which are not related to academic ability?
  • What disciplinary ways of thinking, doing and being need to be embedded within assessment practice?
  • How will the learning environment impact on your assessment approaches, e.g. class size or mode (online/face-to-face/blended)?
    • Will all students undertake the module in the same mode, e.g. are some part time and some full time, some distance some face-to-face?

Assessment should align with intended learning outcomes, although assessment can be designed to develop learners in broader ways than the specific learning outcomes.

At this stage it is also important to verify that the learning outcomes identified can be assessed, and that the way in which they are written makes explicit precisely what will be evaluated through assessment. You should also consider how module learning outcomes contribute to programme level learning outcomes.

Prompts for critical thinking:

  • Do your learning outcomes clearly and unambiguously communicate what students should know and be able to do by the end of the module? [1]
  • Is it possible to assess your intended learning outcomes? (If intended learning outcomes cannot be assessed they will need to be reconfigured).
  • How well do your learning outcomes map to the QAA Qualifications Framework,[2] i.e. are they level appropriate?
  • How well do your learning outcomes articulate with the programme outcomes?
    • Are certain outcomes under/over represented across the programme (and therefore under/over assessed)?
  • Do you wish to incorporate skills, knowledge, attitudes and/or behaviours which aren’t represented in your intended learning outcomes?
      • Is it important that these are assessed? If so you should add them to your intended learning outcomes.
      • If they are developmental and do not need to be assessed, or do not need to be assessed at this point in the programme, how are you going to ensure that student performance in these areas will not impact (positively or negatively) upon the way in which students are able to demonstrate achievement of intended learning outcomes?

    [1] For example, intended learning outcomes which contain phrases such as be familiar with, show knowledge of, or demonstrate understanding are too vague and should be rewritten to state explicitly how student familiarity, knowledge and understanding will become manifest. What will they have to do to evidence you that they are familiar with, show knowledge of, or demonstrate understanding and use those verbs in your learning outcomes.

    [2] See UK Quality Code for Higher Education. Page 17 for the table showing the frameworks – we are FHEQ, and pages 21 to 30 for the level descriptors. The descriptors often make more sense if you compare one level with another rather than just looking at a single level.

    Select assessment methods and tasks that are valid, that is that they are able to measure how well students have achieved the intended learning outcomes. Implementing a range of assessment methods can contribute to a more meaningful learning experience and provide different ways for students to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning outcomes.

    Prompts for critical thinking:

    • How will assessment align to learning outcomes?
      • What sort of work will students need to produce in order to ensure that you are able to evaluate how well they have achieved the intended learning outcomes?
      • What sort of task will enable students to achieve standards beyond threshold level, and for you to accurately gauge their performance against agreed standards?
      • Can one method of assessment evaluate all learning outcomes or will you need to include a variety of activities to cover all intended learning outcomes?
      • Does the weighting of assessment tasks reflect the overall importance of the intended learning outcomes that it evaluates?
    • Does the assessment enable all students to demonstrate that they have achieved intended learning outcomes?
    • Do the outcomes require you to assess the process of learning or the product of learning? How will this impact upon the sort of work which you are assessing?
    • Are you assessing individual activity or group activity? If group activity – how will you ensure that grading is perceived to be fair?
    • Will your teaching strategy and planned student learning activities enable them to achieve the intended learning outcomes that you intend to assess?
    • If you are amending an existing module: how will changes to assessment design affect changes to teaching?
    • Will engagement in the assessment task be a worthwhile learning activity in its own right?
    • Will assessment tasks offer students intrinsic motivation for students to engage?
    • Will undertaking the assessment tasks contribute to student learning?
    • Does assessment enable students to feel ownership over the assessment tasks, or will they experience assessment as something that has been done to them?
    • Are there opportunities for students to take an active role in assessment processes, strategy and development beyond simply doing the assessment tasks? e.g. Can students select or create their own assignment topics, provide peer feedback, act as an audience for presentations, or create resources for future use?
    • How does each assessment task/s connect to:
      • other assessment tasks;
      • the module assessment strategy;
      • the programme assessment strategy?
    • How reliable is your assessment strategy:
      • Can you be confident that the work produced for assessment is the work of the student you think you are assessing?
      • How far does your assessment task/s/strategy design out opportunities for plagiarism?
    • Are you using authentic assessment methods?
    • Are you assessing (either formatively or summatively) or asking students to document the process of developing an assignment, e.g. work-in-progress reports, annotated bibliographies, drafts, revisions?
    • Are you using individualised assignments, which require students to draw upon personal or local experience, or adding individual components to group work?
    • Are you evaluating work produced in-class, or under examination conditions?
    • Are you including oral components?
    • Are your assessment titles sufficiently distinctive year on year to avoid students copying the work of previous students and across modules to prevent self-plagiarism?
    • Do the assessment tasks emphasise higher order thinking skills (e.g. synthesis/application/evaluation/analysis) rather than gathering/ recalling content?
    • How well will your assessment foster deep approaches to learning within your students?
    • How will the tasks enable learners to track their own development over time and identify what they will need to focus on in future study and practice?
    • Might cross-programme assessment be appropriate for your learners?
    • Are there professional skills, dispositions or values which need to be integrated into assessment design?
      • What do learners need to be able to do in practice in the industry/profession?
      • Are there any tasks which will mirror future professional assessment activities, ‘signature assessments’ which are important for learners to know, in and of themselves (e.g. the legal moot, the medical case presentation, the designer portfolio).
      • Can you collaborate with business, industry, government or community groups to identify:
        1. necessary skills;
        2. projects that could be packaged as authentic assessments; or
        3. work-based opportunities for assessment?
      • What logistics and resources are required to support each stage of the task (e.g. simulators, materials, permissions to access work locations)?
      • How will you manage any work-based assessment processes and procedures?

    The amount and timing of assessment are important considerations in ensuring fairness. These must be addressed at the design stage and need to be considered both within the individual modules and across the whole programme. As a general rule students should have multiple assessment opportunities within each module to minimise high stakes assessment, and to offer a variety of assessment methods to promote inclusivity.

    It is also important to ensure that assessment is timed to ensure that there is an opportunity for students to benefit from the feedback they receive. Carefully connecting tasks with areas of overlap provides an opportunity to create an assessment narrative for a module, with multiple opportunities for learners to act upon feedback and demonstrate how they have improved. This assessment narrative includes alignment with other activities such as lectures, tutorials and practicums. The effort required to complete a task should also be considered. Scheduling feedback opportunities is an important issue, as time must be allocated for judging assessment and providing feedback. Talking with colleagues about the assessment in their units can help pre-empt assessment ‘pinch points’ throughout the term where learners have many tasks due at once. It is also essential to remember that not every outcome has to be explicitly assessed in every task, but students should generally have more than one opportunity to demonstrate the achievement of an outcome.

    Prompts for critical thinking:

    • Does your department have any rules about the scheduling of assessment tasks?
    • What are the assessment schedules of the other units/modules your learners are undertaking? Are there potential synergies or conflicts?
    • How much time do you expect each task to take learners? How do you know if these are reasonable estimates? Does the planned assessment fit with the CATs allocation for the module?
    • Is the assessment you have designed manageable – for students and for assessors?
    • What arrangement of these tasks will most encourage a sustained engagement and development over the module?
    • Are any of your intended learning outcomes sequential – does the pattern of assessment reflect this? When is the best time in the module to assess each of the intended learning outcomes? Do intended learning outcomes need to be assessed in sequence, so a student masters one aspect knowledge, skills, behaviours consolidating learning before moving on, or are learning outcomes developed concurrently?
    • How will you support learners who underperform or miss earlier tasks so they have a chance to complete later tasks?
    • What formative assessment will students undertake to prepare them for the summatively assessed tasks?
    • How will you distribute formative and summative assessment tasks to ensure that they provide useful and timely opportunities for students to practice, to ensure assessors and learners have multiple opportunities to engage in feedback? [See section on feedback strategy below.]
    • What adjustments might you need to make to the teaching schedule so assessments can be completed and feedback provided in a timely fashion?
    • What activities will you integrate into your teaching strategy to ensure that students are assessment literate, i.e. they understand the nature of assessment and the standards against which they will be evaluated? [See section on assessment literacy below.]

    Both formative and summative assessment should be seen as a vehicle for providing opportunities for learning, therefore in designing assessment tasks consideration should be given to the opportunities which will be provided for students to obtain feedback. Feedback is most helpfully conceptualised as an iterative process through which the learner submits work, receives verbal or written comments, and then has the opportunity to put what they have learnt into practice, ready for another cycle of feedback.

    Prompts for critical thinking:

    • What types of feedback information will be provided and by whom?
    • How can learners be given information about feedback and how they are expected to incorporate it into their activities?
    • How will feedback be framed so that learners can respond to it constructively?
    • How can peer feedback be designed creatively to engage learners in improving their own and others’ work and understanding?
    • How will you facilitate dialogue about assessment, so that feedback is a reciprocal conversation, rather than a one-way process from tutor to student, enabling clarification of the feedback and increasing understanding?

    Assessment literacy develops student understanding of the nature, purpose, and methods of assessment, and the criteria and standards against which their work is evaluated. This enables students to develop as independent learners and to improve their performance. Regular opportunities for feedback will be an integral part of any assessment literacy strategy (see feedback strategy). Developing the ability to make a confident and accurate judgement of their own work against accepted academic standards will require practice and time. Therefore adopting a range of approaches will promote greater assessment literacy, for example, use of exemplars, marking exercises, and self- and peer- assessment. The prompts below are designed to help you create an effective assessment literacy strategy.

    Prompts for critical thinking:

    • Are learners familiar with the kind of assessment tasks you are using or will these be new to at least some of your learners?
    • What does the learner need to be able to do or know about the assessment format (e.g. how to participate in role-plays, how to format portfolios, public speaking?)
    • How will learners know why they are completing the assessment?
    • How can you best convey to learners what they need to do to address the assessment tasks?
    • Are there adequate opportunities for learners to discuss and clarify what is expected?
    • How might you use examples of past learners’ work to clarify what constitutes good work for present learners?
    • Are there opportunities for learners to practice assessment tasks in class, e.g. through activities, short presentations or quizzes and/or discuss formative assessment activities which facilitates dialogue around expectations and standards?
    • Have you integrated opportunities for students to engage in self- and peer-assessment which enables them to work with assessment criteria and standards in order deeper understanding?
    • How can you best use marking rubrics with your learners to clarify expectations?
    • How will you develop students’ understanding of academic integrity?

    An important part of the assessment design and implementation cycle is the gathering and review of feedback and evidence to ensure that the assessment approaches and processes you have adopted are effective.

    Prompts for critical thinking:

    • How can you collect high quality feedback from your learners on the assessment tasks in order to improve these tasks for your next cohort?
    • How will learner performance be used to influence the (re)design of later tasks?

    The prompts for critical thinking that accompany each of the steps above have hopefully encouraged you reflect on the rational for your choices in assessment design and on the quality of the assessment procedures on your modules. The next set of questions are intended as a final prompt to think, reflectively about your approaches and how they could be improved.

      • Does assessment align with and promote all of the intended learning outcomes?
      • Is assessment fit for purpose (valid) - i.e. does it measure what it sets out to measure?
      • Is there an appropriate balance between formative and summative assessment?
      • Is assessment manageable - for students and for staff?
      • Do your assessment tasks offer an appropriate level of challenge?
      • Do the assessment and feedback strategies work to keep students motivated, on task, and on track?
      • Is assessment inclusive?
      • Is assessment on this module aligned with assessment across the programme?
      • How will you ensure that students understand the processes, expectations and standards by which there performance against intended learning outcomes will be measured?
      • How will you know how well your assessment strategy is working?

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