Tips for new staff
Basic advice for
people new to university teaching
This section is for people with little or no
experience in assessing student learning. Often people new to
university teaching are not yet in a position to determine the
nature of assessment in the courses in which they are involved.
However this should not stop consideration of the twelve principles
fundamentals of effective assessment: Twelve principles
The twelve principles
below address practical assessment issues. They are united by
a single idea: assessment is at the heart of the whole teaching
and learning process.
should help students to learn.
must be consistent with the objectives of the course and what
is taught and learnt.
in types of assessment allows a range of different learning outcomes
to be assessed. It also keeps students interested.
need to understand clearly what is expected of them in assessed
for assessment should be detailed, transparent and justifiable.
need specific and timely feedback on their work - not just a grade.
much assessment is unnecessary and may be counter-productive.
should be undertaken with an awareness that an assessor may be
called upon to justify a student's result.
best starting point for countering plagiarism is in the design
of the assessment tasks.
assessment needs to be carefully planned and structured.
planning and wording assignments or questions, it is vital to
mentally check their appropriateness to all students in the class,
whatever their cultural differences.
analysis of students' performance on assessed tasks can help identify
areas of the curriculum which need improvement.
An explanation of
1. Assessment should help students to learn.
Educational assessment has at least two main functions: it
is part of a system of accreditation and it fosters student
learning. These functions are generally described as 'summative'
and 'formative' respectively. It is a useful theoretical distinction,
although in practice the two purposes tend to be intertwined.
Too often, the former function dominates discussion at the expense
of the latter. Yet formative assessment is crucial to effective
learning. In its broadest sense, it refers to the whole process
of learners testing their understandings with and against others,
especially the experts - their teachers. On the basis of feedback,
learners modify and develop those understandings. This feedback
can be given in different forms: in responses to students' contributions
in class, as well as written or oral commentary on their work.
Some of these views will also form the basis for a summative
judgement and the generation of marks and grades. A good deal
of it will not. If assessment is conceptualised in this way,
it is not an irksome 'add on' to teaching and learning, but
is understood to be an integral part of the process.
2. Assessment must
be consistent with the objectives of the course and what is
taught and learnt.
The stated objectives of any given course of study in a university
cover a wide range of understandings, higher order intellectual
skills and values. If the assessment tasks do not test these
outcomes, the statements remain empty pieties. Students behave
in a quite rational way in 'reading' the true objectives of
a program from the nature of the assessment. If an exam tests
rote learning, that is apparently what is valued by assessors.
Even if classes have encouraged more interesting and probing
thought, students will judge that to be peripheral if it is
not reflected in the nature of the required tasks. Assessment,
then, is very powerful in driving students' learning behaviours.
Assessment tasks must be designed to foster a more demanding
and challenging approach to learning, so that valued outcomes,
such as the capacity to analyse and synthesise,
are in fact rewarded.
3. Variety in types of assessment allows a range of different
learning outcomes to be assessed. It also keeps students interested.
Until recently, there has tended to be a predictable uniformity
in university assessment - if not across, then certainly within
disciplines. The 3,000 word essay, the lab report, the multiple-choice
or short essay exam, have been standard in different fields.
A long tradition suggests that such forms have been quite valid
for the assessment of certain outcomes but, as increasing emphasis
has fallen on the development of skills (generic as well as
subject-specific), some gaps have become obvious. To take the
most obvious examples, as oral communication and teamwork skills
are increasingly defined as important outcomes in many courses,
these skills have to be assessed by new means. Teachers have
started to question how often a student needs to show that he/she
can write a 3,000 word analytical essay, for instance. Innovative
and creative approaches to assessment are increasingly in evidence
- often the result of probing thought about what a course is
really trying to achieve. As long as they are clearly explained,
such tasks can enhance student interest and motivation - and
are usually a lot more interesting and rewarded
for academics to assess.
4. Students need to understand clearly
what is expected of them in assessed tasks.
This issue has two dimensions,
one intellectual, the other practical. Confusion in either can make
students very anxious and lead to unproductive work. The second
is the easiest to address. Students have the right to a clear statement
of the assessment schedule in any subject, preferably in the first
class, with topics, dates, weightings, submission procedures, penalties
for late submission, etc. They should also have a strong, specific
statement about the nature of plagiarism and its consequences (this
can perhaps be dealt with at the course level, early in first year).
Any variation of these requirements during a program could have
legal implications and should be approached very carefully (and
probably with the advice of a head of department).
The second dimension
requires a delicate balance, which is perhaps part of the 'art'
of teaching. Understandably, students want to know exactly what
they have to do to gain good marks or grades. Teachers can do a
lot to assist them with this - and a great deal more than has usually
been done in the past. They can set out criteria by which each task
will be judged (see below), they can discuss the task in class before
submission (and afterwards, with a view to the next task), they
can provide sample answers, offer examples of good writing in the
discipline, and so on. What they cannot do is reduce success to
a formula that is easy to follow. To do so would be to discourage
some of the higher order skills that university study attempts to
develop. These skills require some room for individuality, originality,
creativity, the unexpected. A graduated approach may be part of
the answer, with strong direction provided in the early years and
increasing encouragement of individual approaches as students progress.
5. Criteria for assessment should be detailed, transparent and
In recent years, many
academic teachers have provided students with statements of criteria
against which their work is assessed. Many students coming straight
from secondary school are used to working with such statements and
may expect them. The question of how detailed these should be is
a matter of judgement. It seems that students find very general
statements about 'advanced analytical skills' and the like of little
use. On the other hand, as discussed above, it is reductive and
counter-productive to try to pin everything down. Probably such
statements can never be more than a guide, but in certain ways their
usefulness is clear. They can indicate, for instance, that grammar
and spelling will be taken into account, or that a certain range
of reference to sources is expected. It is probably helpful to look
at some examples from colleagues. In drafting these statements,
it is important to keep checking against the subject and course
objectives and to give some thought to how the criteria - and the
balance between them - can be justified to students and perhaps
6. Students need specific and timely feedback on their work -
not just a grade.
As argued above, an important
(and arguably the primary) function of assessment is helping students
to learn. A mark or a grade tells students something about the effectiveness
of their learning, but not very much. They will know that they have
succeeded or failed by the assessor's standards, but often will have
little idea of why. If they are to recover from failure, or deepen
their understanding, they need to have explanations - and suggestions
for improvement. This means that blanket statements about the general
quality of analysis, say, may be of little use. Really conscientious
marking involves pointing out each individual flaw in logic or inadequacy
of treatment. The reality of academics' workloads means that a strategically
selective approach is required, particularly if one considers the
second aspect of this issue - that feedback needs to be relatively
quick to be effective. A guiding principle is that students should
get feedback on one piece of work in time for this to be of benefit
for the next. A useful strategy for overwhelmed markers is to comment
intensively on one section of a piece of work, as an example of how
the student should go about addressing any problems. This is particularly
useful when dealing with poor expression.
7. Too much assessment is unnecessary and may be counter-productive.
In setting an assessment regime for any subject, academic staff
need to be aware of students' overall workload - and, as far as
possible, the deadlines for other subjects they may be doing.
A very heavy assessment load does not allow students time to comprehend
and explore material: it tends to push them into shallow, rote
approaches to study, where they try to find shortcuts and formulae
for tasks, without really understanding underlying principles.
If students are faced with too much 'busywork', particularly if
this involves a repetitive approach, they are likely to lose interest
and motivation. As suggested above, there is no need to keep asking
students to demonstrate a particular skill. Academic staff often
worry about ensuring that students 'cover' a given body of knowledge.
This concern can dominate thinking about how a course should be
taught and assessed. Given the rapid expansion of knowledge in
all fields, it is increasingly accepted that students cannot be
expected to retain everything in working memory, and that greater
emphasis should be placed on their learning how to access information
when they need it - and how to use it when they do. If this approach
is accepted, it is possible to define the important principles
and concepts that need to be understood and to ensure that students
cover these by strategic structuring of assessment tasks. Apart
from the benefits to students of carefully targeted assessment,
it is obviously in the interests of staff to avoid an oppressive
8. Assessment should be undertaken with an awareness that an
assessor may be called upon to justify a student's result.
It is important for
universities that their assessment practices are transparent and
demonstrably fair and reasonable, especially when assessment is
associated with professional accreditation. Staff need to be careful
about assessment procedures and records, without becoming paranoid
about possible dangers. They should be able to demonstrate that
students have been given adequate information and notice about
assessment and that uniform procedures have been followed in grading
them. There will always be room for 'professional judgement' but
this should be arguable in terms of standards generally recognised
within a field or profession. In areas where a high level of subjectivity
is involved (such as some of the humanities and arts) it is highly
advisable that an individual assessor's judgement is confirmed
by others. Some areas require panel assessments (of artistic performance,
for instance); in others, key pieces of work are double-marked
or, minimally, failing marks are referred to a second examiner.
Practice in this area varies considerably according to discipline.
It is vital that new academics are thoroughly acquainted with
their departmental or faculty policies relating to marking. It
is a good idea to consult with colleagues to moderate the assessment
of student performance, especially when there is
a high level of subjectivity involved.
9. The best starting point for countering plagiarism is in the
design of the assessment tasks.
Plagiarism can be a
problem in many areas of university teaching. A wide range of
strategies for countering plagiarism is set out in another section
of this website. Many university teachers believe that the most
effective plagiarism minimisation strategy lies in the design
of the tasks set for assessment. This involves not only avoiding
the practice of repeating a few well-worn questions from year
to year, but also requiring the kinds of analysis and/or creativity
that preclude the direct use of others' thinking. In some areas,
students can be required to base their reflection on a context
specific to the course. They can be asked to critique others'
work, such as journal articles. While not solving all problems
associated with plagiarism, such measures can
go a long way towards making it pointless.
10. Group assessment needs to be carefully planned and structured.
More and more courses
are incorporating group projects into their assessment regimes.
in response to an increasing emphasis on the need for students
to be able to learn and work together. This development opens
up many opportunities for innovate thinking about assessment,
but it is fraught with dangers. At the moment, many students dislike
group work and group assessment, particularly when the assessment
is of the group as a whole (that is, when all members receive
the same mark). Certainly there seem to be students, and academic
staff, who have had bad experiences with this form of assessment.
Nevertheless, group work is a valuable component of the higher
education curriculum. It needs to be planned and structured very
carefully, and students have to be systematically prepared to
undertake group tasks. Another section of this website offers
suggestions about how to make this important
form of assessment effective and rewarding.
11. When planning and wording assignments or questions, it is
vital to mentally check their appropriateness to all students
in the class, whatever their cultural differences.
Staff working with
students of non-English speaking backgrounds point to the fact
that the phrasing of many assessment tasks often needlessly exacerbates
difficulties for these students. They also argue, however, that
simpler, clearer wording would benefit all students. Sometimes
essay topics, for instance; seem to be aimed more at a teacher's
colleagues than at undergraduate students. Beyond the issues associated
with language, there are many ways in which tasks can be unintentionally
biased against some student groups - if references are quite specific
to a particular culture, for instance, or if a task, such as oral
presentation, may be more difficult for women for some countries.
The important thing is for teachers to be sensitive to such implications.
This does not necessarily mean that tasks such as the latter example
should be eliminated, but it may mean that students disadvantaged
in such ways should be given special assistance. Many universities
or faculties have special provisions relating to assessment for
disadvantaged students. Disabled students, for example, may be
allowed extra time for examinations or the use of special equipment.
New staff should acquaint themselves with all policies in this
area. The Equal Opportunity office, or its equivalent, is a good
12. Systematic analysis of students' performance on assessed
tasks can help identify areas of the curriculum which need improvement.
The work submitted
by students for assessment is a valuable source of feedback for
staff on the effectiveness of their teaching. If certain areas
are clearly not understood by significant numbers of students,
this signals the need for urgent attention. It can be very helpful
to approach the analysis somewhat formally - perhaps in the form
of a regular review by all staff involved in the subject or course.
Such a review can also monitor the effectiveness of assessment
procedures in testing the desired outcomes of the program.