Shirley Bennett, Head of Academic Practice, talks about how the C@N-DO CPD scheme supports the development of effective assessment and feedback practice.


What needs to be assessed?

“It would be satisfying if we could reply “let’s simply measure learning”. But it is more complex than this … we can’t actually measure understanding. We can only measure what learners produce as evidence of the understanding that they develop. We can’t plug a knowledgometer to our learners and measure how much they know – we can only measure what they show of what they know.” (Race, 2005, p. 66)

If the purpose of assessment is to demonstrate achievement (for any of the stakeholders involved), then it must always begin from this question: what do successful students need to achieve?

At the programme level: what to assess?

Assessment design cannot be separated from the design of other aspects of the programme, not least the learning goals and the learning and teaching process. The question above forms the starting point for a course design process referred to as ‘backwards design’ (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005). The process usually begins by establishing the desired outcome(s) of a given programme of study: a graduate of programme ‘x’ should know and be able to do ‘y’. In this case, ‘y’ could include ideas, competencies and practices, depending on the remit of the course. This diversity is reflected in the documentation for programmes and modules, which separate learning outcomes into knowledge and understanding, subject specific skills, and key (or transferable) skills. So our graduate from programme ‘x’ should understand the concepts that form the foundation of the subject, as well as being able to apply them to practical contexts, by using a range of key skills. Together these form the outcomes for the programme, and in turn, the outcomes for the individual modules, which are the core of each assessment activity – these are the attributes a student must demonstrate to be considered successful.

These attributes could be determined with input from a range of stakeholders and sources. The resources available to you in shaping the purpose of the programme or module include your peers (usually but not exclusively the course team), critical friends, data from market research, national and international standards, potential employers, and the students themselves. This process of defining parameters and goals is a key part of the University’s CAIeRO course design workshops.

Once these goals are established, the next step in the course design process is usually to identify modules that can deliver the learning in logical ‘chunks’; although in some cases the sequence is reversed, and programmes are formed from a combination including some existing modules. For new modules, the design process continues (see below). Once all the modules are outlined though, it is important to revisit the plans for assessment from a holistic programme-wide perspective.

A programme level view can provide valuable insight into what should be assessed (as well as how it could be assessed, see How to Assess):

  • It will help ensure consistency and a sense of progression through the programme as a whole, and where programme level outcomes are developed in individual assessment tasks, it will help to link these to the ‘big picture’. This can be helpful for student motivation, as well as for the specification of module-level learning outcomes.
  • Individual modules may not have the scope to develop more complex understanding and skills, or to deliver the “cycles of continuous reflection” necessary for lifelong learning (Jessop et al. 2014, p74). Considering how assessment tasks may be linked together across modules can support the process of synthesis for the learner, as well as allowing staff to give feedback on “slowly-learnt literacies and complex learning” (Price et al., 2012, p. 48).

At the module level: what to assess?

Once you have a clear idea of the aims or goals of each module, you can use these to define the learning outcomes, assessment tasks, and supporting learning and teaching activities using a process of constructive alignment (Biggs, 2011). The learning outcomes specify what the learner should know and be able to do by the end of the module, and the assessment tasks will be selected to enable effective demonstration of the specified knowledge and skills (see 1.4.4). Teaching and learning activities can then be planned out in support of the learning. This process of alignment helps ensure validity and reliability, by specifying which outcomes are assessed in each task, and what level of achievement is expected. A CAIeRO workshop can help you with this process.