Ask most academics, and they’ll admit that marking assignments is one of the most laborious aspects of teaching. How do you assess student work in a way that is consistent, fair and appropriate to the subject level?

If you’ve spent some time with a learning designer, you’ll know that one of the first things we start with when codesigning a subject is the assessment. Knowing when, how and against what criteria an assignment will be assessed helps us plan and design a sequence of activities that effectively scaffolds the learning and sets the student up for success.

From a design perspective, we want to ensure that the alignment of subject learning objectives through to the specific assessment criteria is clear and obvious to the student, as well as to the teacher. One great way to keep it all upfront is to use a rubric in Canvas where the learning outcome is embedded and ‘distilled’ into relevant assessment criteria. 

In the postgraduate, online subject Delivering Customer Value, one of the low-stakes assessment tasks was to read a case study and provide a response to two questions. Each of the questions had been ‘distilled’ from the relevant subject learning outcome that was being assessed. The performance descriptors (or ‘ratings’) were then articulated to capture typical performance associated with each level. 

The rubric with the two ‘distilled’ assessment criteria based on the case study questions, and the overall subject learning objective, which is rated but does not carry any marks. Instead, students are marked only on the criteria (which, of course, are derived from the SLO)

Students, too, are interested in knowing all about the assessment the moment they start learning. Postgraduate students in particular can be very strategic about their time and commitment, and will often jump directly to the assessment section in Canvas to see when and how they will be assessed.

Unfortunately, assessment can sometimes appear as an afterthought in some subjects. Vague instructions and a lack of clarity on what criteria will be used to mark the assessment are common issues for students. Here are three tips for improving the assessments in your postgraduate subject.

1. Align it

You probably don’t need to reinvent the wheel here; curriculum stipulates what subject learning objectives (SLOs) are assessed in each assessment task. But there’s no reason to stop there. Think about the SLO and how it would be broken down to specific assessment criteria. As with the example above, use the SLO to ‘distill’ some specific performance criteria relevant to the task at hand. 

2. Keep the criteria simple

Your assessment criteria may appear in marking rubrics, so it helps to keep them relatively succinct. Use words that correspond with the level of learning generally associated with postgraduate study. Use these four verbs as starters for your assessment criteria:

  • Identification and discussion of challenges currently facing the chosen organisation
  • Analysis of the complete dataset including decisions on aspects to include or omit from the analysis
  • Application of methods covered in the learning material to the selected case study
  • Formulation of recommendations to key stakeholders

If it’s the first time you’re using an assessment task, you may wish to write free-form comments next to each criterion when marking in SpeedGrader rather than using pre-written performance descriptors. You can then return to your comments, analyse them and come up with your performance descriptor that you can then use the next time you run the subject. 

3. Ensure authenticity

Authentic assessment means that the assessment resembles a task that students would perform in a professional setting that relates to the field of study. Postgraduate students often look for immediate applicability. If they’re learning a new skill, they want to see how they could apply it in a work context. Reflection and critical thinking, key attributes in postgraduate courses will also need to be accounted for, and are great to include as performance descriptors for each assessment criterion.

Finally, be open and transparent about the assessment. Start communicating early on about what students will need to prepare, offer plenty of reminders for when it is due and reference it regularly in the learning material.

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