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Learning and Teaching

1. Specifying

Specifying means determining the details of a course or programme of study and consequently specifying the assessment strategy within it. Specifying takes place following a new course proposal or when an existing course undergoes periodic review.

At the specifying stage, you determine the type of assignment, give an idea of the scale eg, a 4000 word essay, and indicate its value as a percentage of the overall marks for that module.

Assessment Strategy

Word Count

Regarding written assignments, York St John University traditionally adopted a policy whereby 20 credit modules were assessed by assignments of 5000 words. This is high compared to the sector, so many course teams have moved away from this. The most important point to bear in mind when thinking about word count is whether the assessment task(s) are fit for purpose. As such, a word count which rises from 2500 – 4000 words over the three years of a typical undergraduate course should be seen as an effective guideline.

Purpose/'Constructive Alignment'

'Constructive alignment' is an approach to curriculum design devised by Biggs (1999). For Biggs, assessment tasks and feedback should be so designed to ensure that all intended learning outcomes can be demonstrated through the completion of the assignment, and our marking and feedback should be directed to demonstrating the extent to which students have met such outcomes. This points to the importance of establishing learning outcomes which accommodate some degree of flexibility.

Formative/Summative Balance

York St John has committed to moving the focus of assessment away from summative tasks and towards formative work; from assessment of learning to assessment for learning. In contemporary HE, as in the world at large, gaining access to information is rarely a problem, so it makes sense for staff to place less emphasis on providing their students with content and more on helping them to develop the skills which will enable them not only to perform well in assessment but, crucially, to learn from assessment. To this end, shorter summative assessments can be used where more formative work is employed. In one sense, 'formative assessment' is a misleading term because what we really mean by it is the use of approaches to teaching which provide opportunities by which students can learn and which enhance the work that they eventually submit as summative.

Programme Level Assessment Design/Timing (Bunching)

One of the problems for both students and staff is the bunching of assessments towards or at the end of modules. Unfortunately, the semester system engenders this. We need to be vigilant and to find ways to avoid this. It may be that in semester 1 we schedule some assignments to be submitted before the Christmas break and some after it. Where those scheduled after Christmas are assignments that can be marked as they happen, such as presentations and practicals, this can help us to manage our workloads. As we move towards introducing more formative assessments into our courses, we may find that shorter assignment tasks mean that the overall assessment workload is easier to manage for both staff and students.

Rob Creasy (May 2015)

Curriculum Design

The Academic Development Directorate (ADD), working with Registry, would like to help you with programme development. Through tailored support, we can give you the tools to help you build innovation into new programmes or to use contemporary pedagogies to enhance existing programmes. We can also increase your awareness of key strategic issues in Higher Education and equip you to design curricula which reflect
the priorities of the sector.

For more information on how ADD can help you, please see the Curriculum Design webpage.


Module Leader

  • Are there opportunities within classes for students to receive formative feedback?
  • Does the assessment task enable students to demonstrate achievement of the learning outcomes?

Head of Programme

  • Do assignments bunch together at the end of the semester, and if so, can they be scheduled more effectively?
  • Are students being over-assessed, and / or are word counts too high?
  • Does summative assessment dominate, and if so, is their scope to develop more formative work?
  • Are students able to receive formative feedback on their development of a range of skills?

Assessment Lifecycle by Academic Development Directorate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at Manchester Metropolitan University Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, some of which was developed as part of the JISC-supported TRAFFIC project.