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Course Design Blueprint

Assessment for learning

The assessment set out for a module will often be a driving force for students seeking to achieve well in their studies.  If students can see value in their learning activities in supporting their completion of planned assessment activities effectively they are often more motivated to engage with the activities.  Integrating assessment activities into the curriculum provide students with opportunities to gain feedback on their learning and plan further development activity.  Designing summative assessments that prompt and drive students learning can also be an effective strategy for module design, as explored in part in the section on Problem Based Learning.

Integral to all learning are opportunities for students to gain feedback on how they are progressing with their learning.  While summative assessments posed to measure achievement of module learning outcomes contribute to this, it is essential that other formative opportunities are integrated into the learning and teaching strategies adopted for modules. Such opportunities should normally have the following two outcomes:

  • Students are able to comprehend the extent of their learning, to identify where that have made both good and poor progress against any expectations associated with the planned learning for their studies, and be able to plan independent learning activities that enable then to rectify where they are short of expectations, and to gain confidence from where they are reaching or exceeding expectations.
  • Tutors are able to gain an appreciation of the student cohort’s progress in their learning, and thus be able to adapt subsequent learning activity plans in response.

Well designed formative opportunities may also have further outcomes:

  • Encourage or require students to connect learning from the current module to that of a previous module, encouraging them to see the course as a holistic whole rather than a set of disconnected modules.
  • Enable students to develop, practice and gain confidence in more generic and subject based skills and attributes.
  • Particularly where peer feedback mechanisms are employed, gain critical and judgemental attributes that will inform their own understanding and development.  

The assessment that students are set tends to be a key, if not the key, driver for their learning activities.  While this can be seen as a negative aspect of student approaches to learning, making sure that planned assessment activity is integrated into the students' intended learning experience can ensure students engage with the course curriculum meaningfully. 

Purposed in-class interaction is a key element to linking assessment and learning, with clear sign posting through a module to students on how the planned learning activities will support their completion of the assessment tasks.  However, the design of the assessment component themselves can have a significant impact on the students' engagement with the whole of the module's learning activities.


Designing assessment for learning

In the discussion below we look at some of the standard forms of assessment used within the University and consider how these can be configured within the curriculum to encourage and enhance student learning.  The Course Team Guidance content below further illustrates how assessment can be designed to ensure it is an integral part of students' learning experiences.

  • Exams. Exams are an effective means by which students can be encouraged to engage with the whole of a module's content as they have no way of knowing which elements will be present on the exam paper.  However, with pass marks at just 40%, poorly designed exams can allow students to focus their exam preparation on a limited portion of the module contents rather than its whole.   Some possible approaches to ensuring exam preparation and revision form an integral part of the students' learning experience include:
    • While allowing students the freedom to choose the questions they answer can free them to demonstrate their higher level skills and achievement in later parts of a course, it isn't so helpful when we are aiming to ensure students have a good foundation of theoretical knowledge and understanding in earlier parts of a course.  Thus, it is common to require students to answer all exam questions at level four exam whilst building in more optionality in later levels.
    • Where possible, set exam questions that will require students to use multiple parts of the module's content rather than just a limited part of it. 
    • The activity of revising and completing mock exam questions both act as a means by which students are encouraged to engage with content, in some cases through using higher order thinking.  Setting mock questions throughout the module's delivery helps students see how their learning might be assessed: students are motivated to tackle them as they can see the benefit of the activity, and the discussion of possible answers within a seminar session or at the start of the following week's content presentation may encourage students' timely completion.  One further possibility is to let the students know that one of the mock questions will be on the exam, thus further encouraging engagement. 
    • Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) can be an effective assessment tool in exams.  However, employing a simple pass mark of 40% does not always meet either the learning or the assessment needs.  Two possible options include:
      • requiring all questions to be answered, with a scoring system that penalises wrong or uncompleted questions.
      • employing MCQs for a pass/fail portion of the exam for which a higher percentage is required for a pass (say 70%), with another section of short or long written answers providing the exam mark.
    • Building up a bank of MCQs for students to access and practice on can help them in their revision and self-evaluation of learning progress.  Indicating that some or all of the exam questions will be taken from this bank will further encourage students to engage with them, and presenting them through weekly quizzes to connect with the relevant content will further support students in developing a habit to following their contact learning with their own learning activity.
    • Another option is to get students to write MCQs and submit them for peer review and completion, possibly with the indication that a number will be included in the exam. 
  • Essays. The selection of an essay title can make a significant impact on a student's engagement with module learning, and care should be taken when employing essays as assessment components.  If a student can choose an essay title that allows them to believe that they can focus their attention on just a portion of the module's content, they are likely to be less engaged with those parts of the content that they perceive are not pertinent to their chosen essay title.  Similarly, such choice can excuse students from engaging with parts of the curriculum they either have particular difficulties with or have little personal interest or confidence in. Providing students the ability to negotiate their own essay titles can allow them to explore areas connected to their own passions and interests, improving their motivation and helping them achieve to their potential.
  • Portfolios. Providing a structure to students' development of skills and understanding, the completion of structured portfolios can be an effective means by which students are required to engage with subject learning through a module's delivery.  By integrating periodic portfolio reviews, or by requiring submission of portfolio elements at particular times, students can be encouraged or required to follow a time line of development, and be provided with formative feedback.  The use of on-line tools for portfolio submission allows the students to collate their elements into a single artifact for submission.  Portfolios are commonly employed in arts based subjects, but are also employed effectively in other subject areas, particularly in support of academic skills development and personal development planning.
  • Reflective Diaries.  Many students will feel constrained when required to write according to academic conventions and particular formats.  The opportunity to express themselves freely in reflective writing can be very powerful for students in allowing them to express their thoughts, explore events and decisions critically, and to develop higher order thinking skills.  Requiring students to collate diary entries over a period allows them to observe their personal progresss in learning, and provides an evidence base that can then be drawn upon within more formal written assessment submissions (thus allowing students to have a diary that might be discussed within tutorials, submitted as evidence of engagement, but not taken into direct account in the determination of module marks).
  • Peer assessment.  Requiring students to make judgements on their peers’ work can have great value in developing their skills of judgement and evaluation, equipping them to complete both self-evaluation and to support each other informally within their learning community.  As explored in the content on Peer and Group Assessment on the Assessment types page, peer assessment can be used for summative assessment, using peer marks to partially determine the marks formally awarded. 

Formative assessment

While the majority of formative opportunities will be integrated into students learning programme, there is also a critical value in setting assessment activities that are specifically designed to prepare students for their engagement with their summative assessment components.  In particular, formative assessment will:

  • Enable students to understand the forms and expectations of summative assessment components and gain feedback on their ability to produce these and the quality of what they produce.
  • Provide students with the experience of completing (in part or as a whole) summative assessment components, enhancing their understanding of the activities involved, their complexity, and their essential qualities, thus informing students forward planning of assessment time.
  • Where peer feedback mechanisms are built in, gain familiarity in, and experience of, the application of marking criteria and how these are applied.

It should be recognised that, typically, getting students to engage with a formative assessment will require a significant portion of the student’s learning time within a module.  Consequently, such opportunities should not be employed unless there will be a clear benefit for the students.  Any formative assessment must be complemented with an effective feedback process that will allow each student to gain meaningful feedback that is pertinent to, and proportional to, the work they have invested in, and will support their onward learning and development planning in preparation for the subsequent summative component.

Below we explore some possible formative assessment activities and when and how they can be employed effectively for students.

  • Mock exams and time-constrained assignments.  It is important that students are prepared effectively for any assessment that will involve them in completing tasks in a limited time frame.  Many students find such situations a cause of stress, and this can easily impact the quality of their work.  The provision of formative assessments can reduce the stress involved by reassuring students that they will not be surprised or needlessly ill prepared for their assessment activity.
  • Essay plans.  We do not usually provide students with opportunities for draft versions of their work to be reviewed by tutors (see below) but it is often helpful for students to be able to submit outlines of their essays or other planned submissions or presentations for review and discussion.  Such opportunities can help them gain assurance that they are making a good start to their work, give them an opportunity to try out key ideas and their planned arguments, and receive guidance on further sources or areas of knowledge or theory that they would benefit from exploring.  Where assessment can be configured such that each student's title or focus will be significantly different from their peers', students could be encouraged to share plans and provide feedback to each other within scheduled sessions or through on-line tools.
  • Draft Work.  The review of draft work by tutors can be a time-consuming activity but can also be very helpful for students, particularly in the early stages of their studies. 
    • Integrating opportunities for students to submit short pieces of draft academic writing and receive detailed feedback on this in the first few weeks of their studies will enable them to identify areas of further development they should embark on, and allows the course team to signpost academic support workshops, on-line content, and one-to-one support.  Such pieces of work could form part of academic development portfolios, with students' marks being more heavily weighted towards their reflection and further develoopment planning on the basis of the feedback received than on their actial piece submitted.
    • In later parts of courses, providing opportunities for students to submit rough drafts of work where they are required to display critical thinking and the use of evidence to back up their arguments can be very helpful.  The tutors would not provide detailed feedback on the form of the text or grammer, focussing rather on the quality of the critical thinking and the students' selection and use of evidence.
    • For students completing final dissertations it is normal for students to have an opportunity for one or two draft chapters to be submitted to their supervisor for feedback.  Course teams need to be careful in setting, publishing and abiding to expectations so that each student will have similar opportunities regardless of which tutor is their supervisor.