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Our colleagues at CfAP are often on the receiving end of poor assessment design. In this post, Kate Coulson, Head of CfAP, describes the impact on the student experience and looks at ways to ensure this won’t happen to your students…

“Maya* is an undergraduate in the second year of her degree. Throughout her first year, she was averaging a C grade in her assessments. Maya has just received her grade and feedback from her first assessment of her second year. She was given a D grade and the marking tutor advised her to visit CfAP to get some support and guidance in “understanding the question”.

When Maya meets with a CfAP Tutor she becomes very distressed and states that “the question didn’t make sense” and “I don’t know what I needed to include”. She also states that she spoke to her tutor directly as she was unclear about the assessment but their conversation left her more confused. When chatting to her course mates about the assessment, they had interpreted the requirements in a totally different way and she panicked and didn’t know what to do.”

When writing questions for essays or assignments it is imperative that you think about the student. Badly written essay questions confuse the student and can affect their confidence and performance in the task – sometimes even leading them to question whether University is the right place for them.

Tips to help you avoid the pitfalls:

  • Allow time to plan your questions or tasks.
  • Be clear about what knowledge and skills you want the students to demonstrate (these should be informed by your learning outcomes).
  • When you are writing a question or task, consider the stage of the programme and module where it takes place, and evaluate whether the students have the content knowledge and the skills necessary to respond adequately.
  • When scheduling, be aware of other assessments students will be given from other modules on the programme. Nobody benefits from students having to divide their time and energy between multiple deadlines.
  • Discuss the assessment with your students – both the task itself and the purpose of it. Explaining why you have chosen this task, and how it will help them to reach the learning outcomes, will help them feel ownership. Be prepared to adjust in response to valid feedback.
  • Share grading criteria and rubrics ahead of the assessment. Students should know what they are aiming for, and what satisfactory performance looks like. Better still, consider writing a model answer. This will help you to reflect on the clarity of the essay question, even if you choose not to share it with the students until after the deadline. It could also serve to inform the grading of students’ responses.
  • Use your colleagues to critically review the question or task, the model answer and the intended learning outcomes for alignment.
  • Use formative tasks to help students to develop their understanding of expectations and standards. Better still, plan out the ‘assessment journey’ when planning your module, to ensure students have opportunities to learn the process as well as the content of the assessment. The Assessment and Feedback cards from the JISC Viewpoints project can help you do this.

Writing good essay questions is a process that requires time and practice. Review your questions after the students have completed them, think about how the questions have been interpreted. Studying the student responses can help evaluate students’ understanding and the effectiveness of the question for next time.

Useful reading and resources:

The University’s Assessment and Feedback Portal provides more information about assessment design, including links to published research in this area.

The Assessment Brief Design project from Oxford Brookes gives detailed guidance on writing clear and targeted briefs.

For more on the great work done by the Centre for Achievement and Performance, visit the CfAP tab on NILE.

*”Maya” is a fictional character, although her story is based on real events.