Designing assessment

Assessment design requires high levels of academic judgment and expertise.

It incorporates the assessment tasks, weightings, marking criteria, and due dates for submission. Assessments need to be well balanced to prompt the right kind of learning. 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.

The unit assessor, in consultation with the course coordinator or an academic nominated as reviewer/moderator, is involved in assessment design. Consider the prompts below when designing your assessment.

Throughout the assessment design process, your understanding of cognitive load is vital for student success.

Analysing the unit context

The following broad questions help to shape the assessment design, particularly in relation to issues of inclusivity and tasks 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 methods

There are many assessment methods available, however, only a relatively small number may be appropriate for your unit. Below you will find a list of broad learning outcomes and the corresponding assessment methods commonly used:

Learning outcome

Assessment methods commonly employed

Thinking critically and making judgements

Essays, reports, journals, case studies, debates, blogs, wikis

Solving problems and planning

Scenarios, group work, role play, case studies

Performing procedures and techniques

Demonstrations, role plays, oral or video assessments, poster presentations, laboratory reports

Managing and developing oneself

Journals, portfolios, autobiography, learning contracts

Accessing and managing information

Annotated bibliographies, applied tasks or problems, wikis and other online search tasks

Demonstrating knowledge and understanding

Online quizzes, oral exams or vivas, essays and reports, student-created assessments and marking criteria, group problem-solving

Designing, creating, performing

Portfolios, projects, performances, presentations, group work, brainstorming activities


Oral or online presentations, group work reflection, discussions, debates, role play, e-portfolios

Determining an appropriate load, weighting, frequency and timing

These factors 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.

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.

Communicating your 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.


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.