Designing assessment

The following article provides an overview of assessment design considerations that align with the Southern Cross model.

Stages of the Assessment Cycle

In this article, our focus is on Designing Assessment, the first stage in the assessment cycle. Find out more about the Assessment Cycle.

The assessment processes under the Southern Cross Model involve six key stages, as illustrated in the following graphic. 

What is assessment design?

Assessment design considers the what, when, and how of assessment - through a complex and iterative process that incorporates the task, weighting, marking criteria, rubrics, and submission requirements that support academic integrity.  Effective assessment design requires a high level of academic judgment and expertise. Many complex decisions have to be made about what and how to assess, what methods to employ, the technologies to use, and how to communicate this to students in a clear and transparent way.

Assessment design under the Southern Cross model is based on constructive alignment with the unit content, activities, and learning outcomes(ULOs). The unit assessor is involved in the assessment design in consultation with the course coordinator (or nominated reviewer/moderator). There are several phases in the design of unit assessment;

  1. First Phase: The Course Coordinator(with support from the UCMS team) develop an approved unit outline that specifies the assessment scheme (week due, weighting, length, assessment method).
  2. Second Phase: Assessment specifics are fleshed out by the Unit Assessor, task sheets and rubrics are written. 

ISCM Assessment Design resource and Practical Guide

The academic Portfolio Office and the Centre for Teaching and Learning have developed a comprehensive Southern Cross Model resource, which includes an Assessment Design Module. For detailed guidance about the implementation of assessments, please visit the Practical Guide: Assessment in the Southern Cross model.

Analyse the unit context

The following broad questions help shape an assessment design, particularly concerning addressing inclusivity and tasks that are fit for purpose.

  • Where does this unit belong in the course? (1st year? core? elective?)
  • How is this unit to be delivered? (internal only? online? blended? residential?)
  • Who are my students? (prior knowledge, language proficiency, technology experience, background)
  • What are the unit outcomes? Note verbs such as ‘describe’, ‘critique’ or ‘evaluate’. These words provide important cues about the nature and level of required assessment tasks.

Selecting appropriate assessment methods

Although many assessment methods are available, it is essential to determine which are appropriate for your unit. In the table below, a list of broad learning outcomes and suitable assessment methods have been mapped.

Learning outcome

Suitable assessment methods

Thinking critically and making judgementsEssays, reports, journals, case studies, debates, blogs, wikis
Solving problems and planningScenarios, group work, role play, case studies
Performing procedures and techniquesDemonstrations, role plays, oral or video assessments, poster presentations, laboratory reports
Managing and developing oneselfJournals, portfolios, autobiography, learning contracts
Accessing and managing informationAnnotated bibliographies, applied tasks or problems, wikis and other online search tasks
Demonstrating knowledge and understandingOnline quizzes, oral exams or vivas, essays and reports, student-created assessments and marking criteria, group problem-solving
Designing, creating, performingPortfolios, projects, performances, presentations, group work, brainstorming activities
CommunicatingOral or online presentations, group work reflection, discussions, debates, role play, e-portfolios

Design for manageable assessment

Assessment must be manageable and paired with constructively aligned rubrics that measure the unit learning outcomes (ULOs).  Manageable assessment is designed to support students achieve their learning goals, and is easily administered and assessed. Manageable assessments suit a variety of formats, including written tests, quizzes, projects, and presentations. The key is to ensure that the assessment tasks are clear, relevant, and aligned with the learning objectives of the unit.

Determine an appropriate assessment load 

Weighting, frequency and timing are a critical part of the fine-tuning of your assessment. Consider the following questions:

  • What is considered to be a reasonable volume of assessment for a unit in your course?
  • Are all planned assessment tasks necessary? Is there overlap? Can the assessment be reduced?
  • Are the weightings of each task in proportion with the relative time spent on and the degree of difficulty of the task? Do the weightings send an appropriate message to students about time on task?
  • Do students have sufficient time to prepare each assessment task adequately? Is there sufficient spacing between tasks to allow the feedback to be included next time by students?

It is worth remembering that overloading students with assessment has a counterproductive effect, often creating anxiety and surface approaches to learning.

Assessment Volume Guidance

Refer to the Guide to Assessment Volume. to create an achievable and manageable assessment plan.

The following tips provide suggestions for managing assessments.

Tips for Designing AssessmentsBenefit for markersExample(s)

Scaffold assessments across a unit, such that a task is part-completed or drafted in one assessment and then built upon or refined in the next.

Formative feedback (i.e. identify three main areas for improvement, rather than proofreading the whole assessment) is given in the earlier task, with only summary feedback or feedback on new sections required in the final task.
  • Assessment 1 Draft report > Assessment 2 Final report
  • Assessment 1 Paraphrase articles > A2 Report incl. articles
  • Assessment 1 Short written response > Assessment 2 Presentation
  • Assessment 1 plan/outline or do part of a task > Assessment 2 Full task

More examples: Interlinked assessments

Where suitable, use a small, quicker-to-mark item as the first assessment.

Markers can give greater time to the most important tasks for formative feedback.More examples: Manageable assessments

Design rubrics (3-5 criteria) that are easy to interpret.

Reduces time involved in making judgements against many, or very detailed, rubric criteria. The rubric can be used to provide feedback.

Rubric guidelines: Recommendations and guidance for writing rubrics

More information about rubrics: Rubrics

Rubrics workshop recording: Design efficient and effective rubrics

Set the due date for major summative assessments no later than Friday of Week 6.

Markers have more time to complete marking at a time-critical point in the term.See: Key dates and teaching calendar

Cognitive Load Resources

Throughout the assessment design process, the application of cognitive load principles is vital for student success. To learn more about how students absorb information and the barriers to learning, read the following article series: Understanding Cognitive Load Theory.

Developing marking criteria and grading standards for tasks

Assessment tasks are normally accompanied by marking criteria and standards. Designed well, assessment tasks should inform and guide a student.

  • Criteria are the categories that the marker will be using to judge the student work. (e.g. quality of argument, research, technical aspects, etc).
  • Standards are statements about the level gained within each criterion (e.g. HD, D, Credit, etc).
  • Rubrics combine the criteria and standards into a matrix or table.

Criteria and standards should be explicitly clarified with students and integrated into teaching and learning activities so that students learn to understand what is expected and how they can improve their work.

Assessments and Rubrics

Under the SCU Assessment, Teaching and Learning Procedures, all graded assessment tasks must be assessed using clear, explicit criteria in the form of rubrics, where appropriate, aligned to the Unit Learning Outcomes, and provided to students as part of the assessment task one week before term starts.  For more guidance around using rubrics at Southern Cross University, please see the Recommendations and guidance for writing rubrics

Communicating assessment tasks effectively to students

Well-designed assessment tasks can be undermined by inadequate information on what is required. Consider some of the following strategies:

  • Provide rationale for the task – explain to students the logic of your assessment.
  • Terminology needs to be clear. Give students explanations of assessment terms they might misunderstand (e.g. ‘critically analyse’, ‘reflect’, ‘evaluate’).
  • Assessment tasks take different forms. Explain your expectations (the report format, the essay form).
  • Inexperienced students need assistance in how to approach the task.

Review of tasks before release to students

All assessment tasks should be reviewed by an academic colleague before released to students. The review should ensure that:

  • tasks are aligned with unit learning outcomes
  • tasks are developed to an appropriate level of skills and knowledge
  • the overall assessment load is appropriate
  • criteria and standards are clear and are developed into an effective marking scheme
  • the tasks are actually answerable or feasible for students to complete
  • instructions and supporting information to students are clear, complete and unambiguous.

Refer to the SCU assessment, teaching and learning policy for principles that reflect our objectives and expectations about how we teach and assess our students.

Assessment brief template

The Centre of Teaching and Learning has developed CTL templates to support assessment designs. An assessment brief ensures that students clearly understand what they must do and what they must demonstrate to achieve the grade standards for an assessment task. This template will help you write an assessment brief that aligns with a unit's assessment design and learning outcomes (as specified in the UCMS)

Further Assessment Resources


Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university. (3rd ed.). Maidenhead, UK: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Morgan, C., Dunn, L., Parry S., & O’Reilly, M. (2004). Student assessment handbook: New directions in traditional & online assessment. London: Routledge.

Nightingale, P. et al. (1996). Assessing learning in universities. Sydney: University of NSW Press.

(Please note - it's better to refer to the Online version rather than export, as it's always up to date)