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Assessment design

'Students can, with difficulty, escape from the effects of poor teaching, they cannot (by definition if they want to graduate) escape the effects of poor assessment. Assessment acts as a mechanism to control students that is far more pervasive and insidious than most staff would be prepared to acknowledge.'

Boud, 1995, p.35

Since assessment drives student learning behaviour, a well designed assessment is crucial for student learning. The process of thinking about designing the teaching to best deliver the intended learning outcomes and then designing the assessment to test whether those outcomes have been appropriately delivered allows us to look at the alignment of the teaching with the assessment. This structure or strategy for planning teaching is very popular, particularly as it makes it easier for courses to comply with QAA regulations which tend to take a Learning Outcomes approach to ensuring consistency and quality.

Perhaps more importantly a well aligned piece of teaching is also more likely to result in a positive learning experience for the student and be easier for the teacher to manage and deliver.

The guiding principle of assessment design is that of constructive alignment. To read more about constructive alignment and to get more guidance on writing appropriate learning outcomes, visit our pages on these topics.

Looking at programme level assessment design

Evaluating assessment on individual courses is important, however what is even more important is thinking of design on a programme level. The modular nature of our programmes can lead to problems with overassessment, feedback that lacks feed forward qualities that links advice to learning in other modules, and students focussing on individual modules without seeing connections between them. Looking at assessment at a programme level means taking a more a more holistic (as opposed to modular) look at assessment design and potentially avoiding the previously mentioned problems.

Gibbs and Simpson (2004) came up with a series of pedagogic principles that underlie assessment design that supports learning. These conditions should be taken into account when designing assessments at the module and programme level. These include:

  • There should be sufficient assessed tasks to capture sufficient student study time
  • Assessment demands should be designed so as to orient students to distribute appropriate amounts of time and effort across all the important aspects of the course
  • Tackling the assessed task engages students in productive learning activity of an appropriate kind
  • Assessment should communicate clear and high standards
  • Sufficient feedback needs to be provided, both often enough and in enough detail
  • Feedback should focus on students’ performance, on their learning and on actions under the students’ control, rather than on the students themselves and on their characteristics
  • Feedback should be timely: received by students while it still matters to them and in time for them to pay attention to further learning or receive further assistance
  • Feedback should be appropriate in relation to students’ understanding of what they are supposed to be doing
  • Feedback needs to be received and attended to
  • Feedback should be provided in such a way that students act on it and change their future studying

(Gibbs and Simpson, 2004)

Below are some things to consider when looking at your overall programme level assessment design:

Consider when looking at your overall programme level assessment design

While exams seem to be the traditional and reliable way of assessing students, overreliance on exams risks catering to the needs of a certain type of learner while neglecting the others. Having 70% of all of your assessment methods is thought to be high and therefore having a more varied assessment diet with a more even split between exams and other methods is recommended for a more inclusive environment.

Having variety within your assessment diet is important as it gives students a more fair way of showcasing their knowledge and skills. However, having too many assessment types can be confusing to the students as they need to learn how to approach a method of assessment, especially if it’s something they haven’t encountered before. It is best for the students to have an opportunity to be assessed using a given method a couple of times throughout their programme.

Having too much variety can also potentially increase the staff workload. This is because of the planning involved in setting the assessment (for example writing a marking scheme, communicating the requirement to the students etc.) and in feedback.

Therefore a balance should be struck between having too many and too few assessment methods throughout the course.

How might this affect how students approach learning on the programme?

How does it affect the tutors and their workload?

The general advice from the sector is to decrease the number of summative assessment points but increase the number of formative assessments. This will create more opportunities for feedback (formal and informal) and help distribute students’ effort throughout the year better. Having formative assessments closely linked to the summative ones has the potential of decreasing or evenly distributing tutors’ marking load. This also means that feedback can be frontloaded and summative feedback can only focus on justifying the grade.

How might that influence students’ perceptions of how much feedback they receive?

Students often complain about the lack of feedback. There is sometimes a misunderstanding about what feedback is and in what form it is delivered.  Hence when the majority of feedback is conveyed to students verbally or as a group discussion, this might give the students an impression that no feedback is given.

For feedback to be effective and actually used by the students to inform their learning it has to be delivered in a timely manner, i.e. when they still remember the assessment and what it tested. Imperial College regulations stipulate that timely feedback is one returned to students within two weeks of submission.

In order to better monitor feedback return date, following Imperial College Union’s recommendation, the College introduced a traffic light system which indicates where this deadline has not been met across modules.



Boud, D. (1995). Enhancing Learning Through Self-Assessment. London. Routledge Falmer.

Gibbs, G and Simpson, C. (2004). Conditions under which assessment supports students' learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education vol.1 pp.3-31.