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Designing an assessment program


What is an assessment program?

An assessment program is a plan of how you are going to find out how well students have achieved the learning goals of your course and how you are going to provide feedback to students to help them to achieve these goals. The program may be as minimal as a timetable listing when and how students are to be assessed, or it may consist of a detailed portfolio, including the actual texts of assessment items; analyses of the ways in which goals are tested by these items; categorisation of the items as strictly for feedback, strictly for grading (not recommended), or an amalgam of feedback and grading; feedback pro formas; and other items. For further discussion of the nature of assessment programs and of the constraints on them generally and at UQ read the PDF document titled Assessment programs: Characteristics and constraints.

There is no simple recipe for designing an assessment program. Even if you restrict yourself only to a program aimed at giving you enough information to assign valid grades to students' achievement, you will still find the task a complex balancing act. You will be trying to balance what might be desirable were you and the students not human and fallible against what is realistic given various constraints.

In these pages we will try to provide tools and ideas to help in this planning and balancing process. The assessment portfolio is a key tool in documenting your program.

The assessment portfolio template

Download an assessment portfolio template. This template contains a set of tables and other documents which you may complete in order to compile a useful record of your assessment program. A fairly complete portfolio would include the tables as well as the actual texts of the assessment tasks, course level and task level assessment criteria, marking schemes, and a means of assigning grades to students' work in the course. This portfolio is a private document which you will use to plan and document your assessment program for a course. Unlike the Course profile it is not a published public document.

The assessment portfolio

A completed assessment portfolio will contain:

  • a draft assessment program
  • the learning goals for the course
  • assessment criteria for these learning goals
  • a set of assessment tasks which make up the substance of the assessment program
  • for each assessment task, details of the criteria which will be used in assessing students' attempts at completing the task
    for each assessment task, details of the marking scheme which will be used in assigning grades to students' attempts at completing the task and/or giving students feedback on their attempts
  • a timetable showing week by week what assessment tasks are to be attempted by students
  • a table showing the relationship between the assessment tasks and the course learning goals
  • a table showing the relationship between the course level assessment criteria and the criteria used for the individual assessment tasks
  • a scheme for translating a student's results on the various assessment tasks into a grade for the course
  • a final assessment program.

Completing the assessment portfolio for a course you've already taught

You will need to use the template to create a new assessment portfolio document for each course you plan to work on. If you have already taught the course then you may already have an assessment plan for it. Your goal in working with this portfolio will then be to complete and to fine tune that plan.

  • Gather together all the assessment tasks you used in the most recent offering of the course (examinations; other assessment tasks, both during and outside semester; tasks which you or others marked solely for feedback purposes).
  • Classify each according to its main purpose: to help assign a grade to a student; to provide feedback to students on their learning; both of these.
  • Describe what each task is designed to assess.
  • Where the task is at least in part to help assign grades, write a brief description of how it feeds into a student's grade.
  • For all tasks describe briefly how, if at all, students are to receive feedback on their attempts.
  • Enter all this information into the table in the assessment portfolio for this course.

Completing the assessment portfolio for a new course

If the course is completely new then your goal in completing this portfolio will be to define and to set out in detail an assessment plan. You should use the same table as that for an existing course.

  1. Start by trying to formulate at least some possible assessment tasks for the course. Possible sources of inspiration are:
    • tasks others have used in teaching previous versions of this or of somewhat similar courses
    • tasks you encountered in this area while yourself a student
    • tasks in text or reference books
    • common practice in your School
    • consultation with others (in other universities, for example) teaching similar courses.
  2. You will be seeking to include in your assessment program tasks serving the dual purposes of grading students' achievements in the course and helping them learn, as well as tasks aimed solely at helping students to learn. Tasks aimed solely at assigning grades are not recommended; where the task is a final examination, feedback is still desirable, even though the resultant learning may not take place until after grades have been decided.
  3. Your assessment program should include a variety of tasks to be completed under a variety of conditions. For example, it might include tasks to be attempted:
    • during semester, after semester, and during mid-semester breaks
    • in class and out of class
    • under examination conditions (or not)
    • by students individually or in groups.
  4. Try to classify each according to the main purpose you see for it: to help assign a grade to a student; to provide feedback to students on their learning; both of these.
  5. Describe what each task is designed to assess.
  6. For all tasks describe briefly how, if at all, students might receive feedback on their attempts.
  7. Where a task is at least in part to help assign grades, write a brief description of how it feeds into a student's grade. This may not be possible until you have reduced your array of possible tasks to a program.
  8. Enter all of this information into the table in the assessment portfolio for this course.

You are now in the same situation as a teacher refining the assessment program for an existing course. Your goals now are to refine and to fine tune the draft program you have just developed in your assessment portfolio.
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Completing the assessment program

Goals and criteria

You need a set of learning goals for the course (statements of what the students ought to achieve as a result of studying the course). If you are already working on a course profile then probably you will have written the learning goals already. They then simply need to be copied from the course profile to the assessment portfolio. You also need a set of criteria against which the extent of achievement of the learning goals can be judged for each student. Assessment criteria might be thought of as dimensions along which students' achievement of the course learning goals can be judged, or as yardsticks against which such achievements can be measured. The possible extents of a student's achievements on each criterion are called the standards which might be achieved. These might be thought of as the lengths marked on the yardsticks.

Ideally the criteria are associated with the learning goals, and the relevant criteria are stated more specifically for each assessment item. In reality assessment criteria are often specified only in relation to specific assessment tasks.

Assessment tasks, marking criteria, feedback and marking schemes

Before adding these to your assessment portfolio please browse through the PDF document on Assessment programs: Characteristics and constraints. This document includes information on commonly used assessment methods, together with their generally claimed strengths and weaknesses.

In your portfolio you should try to include for each task:

  • the text of the task. Where the task is to be given to students as a handout, ideally that handout will be written now and included in the portfolio. Where the task is to complete exercises from another source (textbook questions, for example) only the relevant references need to be included
  • the criteria against which students' attempts at the task are to be judged
  • a feedback scheme and, if some kind of mark or set of marks is to be provided, a marking scheme, where marks and feedback are linked clearly to the specified criteria.

Assessment timetable

At this stage you almost have a complete draft of the assessment program for the course. All that remains is to timetable that program over the period in which the course is to be attempted and to design a scheme for allocating grades to students. In defining the timetable you probably will consider:

  • the teaching and learning program in the course - assessment is part of this program
  • the demands on the students, especially their likely assessment loads from other courses. In unit programs (Arts and Science, for example) there may be no common pattern of course choice among students studying your course, so this may not be possible
  • the demands on your own time over the semester (and the demands on the time of others likely to be involved in marking and in giving feedback)
  • common practice in your School (always remembering that 'common' practice is unlikely to be mandatory).

Grading scheme

For many courses this is the most difficult step in the design of an assessment program. It is also an important one. The grade a student gains in your course may help to determine or even to constrain the future possibilities for that student. It may influence the courses the student studies in the future and even the nature of the student's future career. However, it is possible to overstate that importance; one of your main tasks is to help students to learn your course - given their inclinations and interests, to help them to achieve to the best of their abilities the learning goals for the course. A final grade is not the only, nor necessarily the main outcome, of a student studying your course.

Grades are an attempt to reduce the complex process of evaluating what a student has achieved in studying your course to the awarding of a single label. When seen this way, it is clear that the grading process is bound to be somewhat unsatisfactory and simplistic. A good grading method will reflect as accurately as is feasible the student's achievements.

The grade will be linked to the extent to which the student has achieved the learning goals in the course. The student's results on the various assessment tasks will be the input to any grading method. Assessment criteria and standards at both course and assessment task level will be used to ensure that these results and the ultimate grade will be as valid as is feasible.
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Refining the assessment program

In refining the draft assessment program several questions need to be asked. They may even need to be re-asked several times in successive cycles of refinement. The questions are:

Is the timetable feasible and reasonable for both staff and students?
This question needs to be revisited repeatedly as other aspects of the program are brought closer to finality. If the time and work demands either on yourself or the students are markedly excessive then tasks simply will not be done or, if done, will not be done on time. It is especially important that feedback on students' assessment attempts be provided at appropriate times. See the PDF document Grades and feedback for further information on feedback.

Do the assessment tasks assess all of the course learning goals that you have decided to assess?
There is a table in the assessment portfolio designed to help you to check this. Remember that it is not necessary or even necessarily desirable to assess all course learning goals for grading purposes. Some may be assessed only for feedback purposes; some may be completely unassessed, but included to show students what they might aspire to gain from the course.

Are the course level assessment criteria consistent with the task criteria - for example, do the task level criteria reveal that there should be other course level criteria, or even another course learning goal?
There is a table in the assessment portfolio designed to help you check this. One criterion often included at the task level, but omitted at the course level, is the quality of students' expression. If quality of expression is used to determine a student's marks on various tasks and, therefore, to determine grades, perhaps it is worth including as an assessment criterion at the course level. Doing this may then lead you to include being able to write clearly in the course area as a course learning goal. In turn, this will require that you provide students with the opportunity to learn to do so.

Does the grading scheme provide at the very least a defensible evaluation of each student's achievements in the course?
This is a crucial question. If you have written grade descriptors (descriptions of what a student must achieve to be eligible for each grade) then you can check to see whether your grading method awards grades appropriately according to the descriptors.

The final assessment program

When you have answered all of these questions to your satisfaction, you are then in a position to complete in the assessment portfolio the table which sets out your final assessment program. Now you should also modify the timetable to reflect the final version and modify the grading scheme to reflect your final decision. All tasks included in the program should be documented in as much detail as possible, including the marking criteria for each task, and, where possible, marking schemes. When they become available, insert copies of the actual handouts given to students at the various stages of each assessment task.

If, in the course of finalising the assessment program, you have discarded some assessment tasks, do not throw these away. They may be a useful source of ideas and inspiration when you redesign the program in future years.

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Authorised by: Director, TEDI     Last modified: Friday October 29 2004