Guiding principles for assessment design

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Acknowledgement: The following information consists of extracts from QAA. (2018). UK quality code for higher education – Advice and guidance: Assessment. Some of the extracts have been slightly amended to make sense in the GIHE context. Some of the guidelines refer to best practice at the course level, for which the faculty are responsible. Other guidelines refer to best practice at the program or institutional level which require collaboration between faculty, academic management and academic administration. If you have a doubt, refer to your program director for specific guidance.


Assessment is a fundamental aspect of the student learning experience. Engagement in assessment activities and interaction with staff and peers enables learning, both as part of the task and through review of their performance. It is a vehicle for obtaining feedback. Ultimately, it determines whether each student has achieved their course’s learning outcomes.

Well-designed courses provide a high-quality academic experience for all students and enable a student’s achievement to be reliably assessed. Courses are designed so that curricula, learning outcomes and assessment are aligned with each other, enabling reliable assessment and an effective learning experience. Assessment measures accurately and consistently, the extent to which students have achieved the learning outcomes for the course.

Assessment supports students’ learning: it is designed to enable students to learn through preparing for and undertaking the assessment and from feedback on their performance in the assessment.

Ten guidelines for assessment

1. Assessment methods and criteria are aligned to learning outcomes and teaching activities.

There is alignment between intended learning outcomes, teaching strategies, methods of assessment and assessment criteria. Constructive alignment is a model where learning environments and activities are designed to enable all students to achieve the desired learning outcomes, measured through assessment activities using clearly aligned criteria. Learning outcomes, assessment criteria and learning and teaching activities are developed in accordance with the academic level of study, using appropriate descriptors and consistent language.

The four major steps to constructive alignment

2. Assessment is reliable, consistent, fair, and valid

The assessment process is objective and repeatable over time. All assessment activities have clearly articulated assessment criteria, weightings and level descriptors that are understood by all students and staff involved in the assessment process. Assessment criteria are sufficiently robust to ensure reasonable parity between the judgements of different assessors. Policies and procedures for marking assessments and moderating marks are clearly articulated, consistently operated, and regularly reviewed. Where borderline marks are identified, policies for the consideration of grades to be awarded are consistent, fair, and freely available to staff and students. The validity of an assessment – how well a test measures what it claims to measure – is reviewed through annual and periodic review.

3. Assessment design is approached holistically

Assessment is designed ‘top down’ – beginning with the program, then going down into course level . Assessment design considers all modes of course delivery and environment, including where employers may be involved in assessment for work-based learning programmes such as internships. Variety in modes of assessment meets a need, based on academic judgement, and is not just for the sake of variety. Variety helps develop a range of skills and competencies and assesses a range of learning styles – the variety itself should not become a barrier to learning. Assessment design needs to develop across levels as the student progresses as part of the overarching program design process.

4. Assessment is inclusive and equitable

Every student has an equal opportunity to demonstrate their achievement through the assessment process, with no group or individual disadvantaged. In designing assessments, the needs of students are considered, including those studying at different locations, from different cultural/ educational backgrounds, with additional learning needs, or with protected characteristics. Assessment procedures and methods are flexible enough to allow adjustments to overcome any substantial disadvantage that individual students could experience.

5. Assessment is explicit and transparent

Assessment policies, regulations and processes are explicit, transparent and accessible to all staff and students involved in the assessment process. Students are clearly informed of the purpose and requirements of each assessment task and the standards expected. Feedback on assessments explicitly relates to the stated learning outcomes and assessment criteria, and students have the necessary support to understand and interpret assessment criteria and how these are used to enable staff to recognise differential student achievement.

6. Assessment and feedback are purposeful and support the learning process

Assessment relates directly to course aims and learning outcomes, reflecting the nature of the discipline or subject and ensuring that students have opportunities to develop a range of knowledge, skills, and attributes. Assessment is fit for purpose and methods are valid in measuring achievement against learning outcomes. Assessment enables students to benchmark their current level of knowledge or skills, identify areas for improvement and make judgements about the overall progress made. Feedback (including ‘feed-forward’) reflects attainment relevant to learning outcomes and marking criteria for the assessment task. Feedback on assessment builds on dialogue and opportunities for students to reflect on their learning. The teaching and assessment strategy progressively enhances students’ assessment literacy to enable them to increasingly regulate their own learning and performance.

7. Assessment is timely

Assessment tasks and feedback are timed appropriately to promote student learning and facilitate improvement. Students are given sufficient time and opportunity to engage in learning and teaching activities that build their capacity for assessment. A holistic view of assessment deadlines can help to ensure that they are timed appropriately, to avoid over-burdening students. Expectations in relation to feedback and feedback turnaround time for each assessment are consistent and clearly articulated. Feedback comments are provided in sufficient time to enable students to enhance their performance in subsequent assessment tasks.

8. Assessment is efficient and manageable

The scheduling of assignments and the amount of assessed work required provides a reliable and valid profile of achievement without overloading students or staff involved in the assessment process. Assessment requirements take into account the notional learning hours for any given unit of study. The spread, number and methods of assessment are considered with other, concurrent modules in mind to ensure that the burden of assessment is not excessive. For example, an overview of assessment deadlines across the course of study is taken to avoid ‘bunching’ where possible.

9. Students are supported and prepared for assessment

Students are given opportunities to develop assessment literacy, practise subject-related skills and knowledge, engage with content and develop the competencies required to meet learning outcomes. This often involves formative assessment opportunities. Students are provided with appropriately timed feedback that is understandable, constructive and helps them meet their developmental needs.

10. Assessment encourages academic integrity

Assessment is designed to minimise opportunities for students to commit academic misconduct, including plagiarism, self-plagiarism and contract cheating. Wherever possible, a suitable variety of assessment methods should be used, to minimise the availability of opportunities for students to incorporate plagiarised work by another author, or previous work by the student, either within the level of study or across levels. Policies and procedures relevant to academic integrity are clear, accessible and actively promoted rather than simply made available.

Practical advice

This section provides practical, contextualised advice to providers on assessment. Where relevant, we have indicated which guiding principles the advice will help you achieve. Please bear in mind that this guidance is illustrative and intended to inform the approaches you consider and ultimately implement.

Assessment literacy (Guiding principles 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10)

Staff and students engage in dialogue to promote a shared understanding of the basis on which academic judgements are made. Engaging students and making use of examples and/or self and peer-assessment activities, where appropriate, helps students to understand the process of assessment and the expected standards, and to develop their assessment literacy. This helps students to develop their ability to evaluate, and improve on, their performance. It contributes to students’ confidence that assessment is fair and consistent and is designed to be inclusive.

Students are provided with opportunities to develop an understanding of, and the necessary skills to demonstrate, good academic practice and integrity. Assessment literacy helps students to become confident in recognising and applying good academic practice and be clear about the types of activity which are unacceptable.

Key aspects of good academic practice include:

  • acknowledging the ideas of others through appropriate referencing and citation
  • meeting expectations about ethical behaviour
  • fulfilling confidentiality requirements in particular subjects
  • understanding the permitted boundaries between individual and group contributions.

Formative opportunities and feedback can be informal (for instance, classroom or seminar activities) or more formal (for example, an essay, self-assessment, reflective blog or report). They may or may not be graded. Regardless of the approach used, assessment is timed appropriately so that students are given sufficient opportunity to apply formative feedback and improve their performance in the subsequent summative task. Use of formative assessment at an early stage of the module can provide an indication of how well students are engaging and enable early identification of who may need additional support.

Assessment design (Guiding principles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10)

Effective design of assessment ensures that course-level learning outcomes (which themselves fulfil the requirements of program learning outcomes and EU and Swiss, UK qualification frameworks) are addressed through the assessment of the course.

The weighting, volume, timing and types of assessment tasks, and the clarity of assessment criteria are important factors in enabling students to demonstrate their achievement of the intended learning outcomes and in maintaining the standards of awards. The timing of reassessment opportunities (resits), where these are permitted, allow students sufficient time to engage in further learning following the initial assessment, while not delaying unduly students’ opportunities to progress within, or complete, their program.

Inclusive assessment (Guiding principles 2, 4, 9)

Assessment tasks provide every student with an equal opportunity to demonstrate their achievement of learning outcomes through inclusive design wherever feasible and through individual reasonable adjustments as required. In designing assessments, consideration is given to all students, including those with protected characteristics. Barriers which impede access to assessments (such as biased language, inaccessibility and cultural assumptions) are avoided or removed. Inclusive design implies a more strategic approach, which reduces the likelihood of making one-off, reactive modifications. Individual modifications are made where necessary and appropriate, but reliance on reactive modifications can place both students and staff under additional pressure and increases the risk of inequities.

GIHE monitors and evaluates inclusive assessment practices across, courses, and programs, and incorporates consequent learning in their policies, procedures and practices. GIHE facilitates staff access to sources of advice, both from within the provider and externally, about inclusive assessment strategies and practices, and assessment implications for individual students

Feedback to students (Guiding principles 6, 7)

Feedback on assessment is timely, constructive and developmental. While some assessment may be classed as entirely formative, summative assessment often includes a formative element. Effective feedback enables students to understand the strengths and limitations of their performance, and to recognise how future performance can be improved. Mutually constructed feedback can engage students in their feedback and their own learning. The process includes helping students understand how to make effective use of feedback.

Academic integrity (Guiding principle 10)

GIHE operates effective processes for promoting academic integrity and identifying, investigating and responding to unacceptable academic practice. GIHE also implements effective measures to encourage students to develop and internalise academic values and good academic practice.

Practical steps include:

  • avoiding the recycling of work and assessments too regularly
  • training invigilators appropriately
  • having good exam room etiquette and procedures in place, as well as appropriate security measures for exam questions
  • making everyone aware of the consequences of cheating.

Ensuring that students do not obtain credit or awards through any form of unacceptable academic practice relating to assessment (including plagiarism, cheating in exams, contract cheating, collusion and impersonation) is fundamental to securing academic standards. Familiarity with students’ work, which can identify when students have used assistance or commissioned work, is balanced with the principle of anonymous marking.

GIHE implements clear processes through which unacceptable practice can be reported by anyone with relevant knowledge and investigated objectively and fairly. Students about whom a concern has been raised have the opportunity to put their case, challenge the evidence and its interpretation, and offer mitigation. Penalties for proven cases of unacceptable practice are clear, proportionate and consistently and equitably applied.


QAA. (2018). UK quality code for higher education – Advice and guidance: Assessment.