Charles Sturt University
Charles Sturt University

Designing assessments for first year students

Design of assessment exercises for first year students is important for first year subject educators. Assessment serves several purposes, from asking students to demonstrate what they have learnt through to an act of communication between educators and learners. Designing assessment exercises is a high order skill, and a complex one! We bring our skill, knowledge and values to this important complex task of design of assessment.

  • Design of assessment exercises will have features which are specific to a discipline (e.g. accounting, education, health sciences) yet also generic to the education of an adult learner in a tertiary institution.
  • It is important to consider the interest of stakeholders such as our profession and our discipline or the future communities our learners will serve e.g. rural enterprises. Some professions may be involved in accrediting our courses, and will have an interest in our assessment design.
  • When designing assessments for first year learners in our subjects, we can also be mindful of the unique experiences of the first year in an Australian — and regional —university. First year students are a diverse group of people: age, cultural background, and educational background. Yet many share a common need to decipher or decode the complex mysteries of the university and of being a student. We can assist them to achieve this by designing assessments which are, readily understood by them and yet also challenge them to do the hard labour required to learn and to demonstrate that learning. We can also design assessment exercises to encourage them to aspire to succeed at the assessments.

First year students are not a homogenous group and neither are we. The practices and values of our professions and our disciplines are important to us, and should be respected as part of the diversity found in Australia or internationally. We also teach at a regional university situated within a tertiary landscape that is undergoing rapid change. Among these changes is the implementation of policies and codes that we need to be mindful of while developing assessment exercises. Among these are the driving principles of the Assessment Policies and Moderation Policy of CSU, and the adoption of the First Year Curriculum Principles.

Let's look at some ways to bring all this together so that we design assessments that both challenge first year students but also enable and encourage their learning and progress. Here are some key pointers for designing assessment for first year students, drawing from models compliant with Biggs work on constructive alignment, offer some comments based on teaching experience, and suggest a tip or two.

Consider the Intended Learning Outcomes

Making your intentions clear to students and to your marking team is vital and can seem to be common-sense to experienced educators and assessment designers. Doing it well is a high order skill. It is also at the heart of "constructive alignment" and this is the link to the first step.

This is described in an approach outlined by Biggs and Tang 2010 in the fourth edition of their book "Teaching for Quality Learning at University".

When writing for our students, we need "just enough words" many is that? They will look to us to be role models of good academic writing.

An example: I prepare a weekly online posting and email for my students. I use FAR, far too many words. But I should avoid it in my design of assessment exercises so as to avoid overwhelming and confusing my students

Authenticity and real-world applications

First year students may or may not have much experience of the working world(s) of their future professions. They often do have an idea of what the real-world of their future profession is going to be like, but it is a hazy idea, half-formed and often based on watching too much TV fiction.

Your students may or may not already be working in the area, with access to workmates and colleagues who keenly understand the real-world applications of university teaching and learning. We can embed authentic learning opportunities into our assessments in order to motivate, and even inspire them to hang-in-there for the long haul from the hard work of first year through to graduation and employment. Authentic design of this sort may also encourage aspiration. The second step therefore is to identify a real-world setting or context for the assessment activity.

Before we take our third step, let's pause and note that we need to write challenging assessments for our students, and to write them well. A colleague can be asked to "walk in the shoes" of a nervous first year student, perhaps for whom English is NOT their first language, in order to give you feedback. Keep in mind too that your marking team needs to easily understand your intentions.

Rubrics - communicating your criteria of assessment and the levels of performance

Rubrics are the major format at CSU to communicating your criteria of assessment and the levels of performance to your students and fellow markers. It makes the criteria explicit to learners.

Let's now take another step – aligning the assessment task with the rubric.

Align the assessment task with the rubric. Make any necessary amendments as you go through this iteration of your work: the task and the rubric need to match.

Align the actual teaching and learning practices.

Did or will the teaching team prepare the students for the assessment? Is this preparatory work aligned or congruent with the assessments? Will you or have you met with or written to the markers and the teaching team to bring their efforts onto the same page or into alignment? Discipline-specific (e.g. finance) and profession-specific (e.g. law) study skills are thought to be different to generic ones, and best taught by staff with an understanding of the discipline and profession (see: Goldingay et al 2014, p. 50). Preparing students for the assessment can be linked to the actual design as part of your strategy of enabling and encouraging the learning and progress of your students. It is also a feature of constructive alignment to match the teaching and learning activities to both your intended learning outcomes and to the assessment activities (Biggs and Tang 2007).

Here are four teaching examples from an academic!

Example 1: I warn my students that I push them hard, and have high expectations of their abilities. I push them and myself hard during the teaching. I sometimes stop and say "This is hard work isn't it? Come on, we can do it, hang in there". The tricky bit is getting the scaffolding, pitch, pushiness and motivators in the right balance.

Example 2: I was once running a small group exercise in my class in the first few weeks of their first year, and handed them a written copy of the exercise and one of the groups (who I suspected were going to become my high-achievers) asked "What does the word inevitable mean?" I explained it, thanked them for trusting me enough to ask, and told my teaching team later. It reminded to include in my own reflection-in-practice that I elaborate on some words for the sake of students without our vocabulary, especially in the first half of their first year. In that class they trusted me enough to ask, but is some assessment forms there are no such opportunities to ask clarifying questions or to turn to a dictionary. I must admit I was taken aback but I was glad to know that the vocabulary of some students is different to my expectations.

Example 3: On the way home after a long weary day of teaching, I was mulling over my teaching and realised that I had sometimes said "assignment one", sometimes "assessment A" and sometimes "umm, you know, the first thing you do, the annotated bibliography" – not only to my face-to-face classes but to my online ones. I was able to "fix it" with a posting and an email – and tried to stay more alert in future to not confuse my students.

Example 4: When preparing them for an assessment I teach my first years how to decode the assignment (e.g. the difference between an essay and a report; the difference between an annotated bibliography and a literature review; what "compare and contrast" means in academic speak) and I also refer them to study skill resources offered by support units such as the library and study skills units. I explain to them that the library and other resources are there to complement my work, that we are partners in supporting their learning and that they can make good use of all that is available to them. This is a normalising strategy that reduces any shame or stigma experienced by students about help-seeking behaviour. I also do this early in the teaching period, and ask myself to consistently, but succinctly, address discipline-specific study skills. Discipline-specific (e.g. finance) and profession-specific (e.g. law) study skills are thought to be different to generic ones, and best taught by staff with an understanding of the discipline and profession (see: Goldingay et al 2014, p. 50).

A checklist of the reflective high order thinking you integrate into the final design of assessments

Consider the intended learning outcomes


Biggs, J & Tang C, 2007, Teaching for Quality Learning at University, third edition, McGraw-Hill Education, Maidenhead.

Cole, J. S., Bergin, D. A., & Whittaker, T. A, 2008, Predicting student achievement for low stakes tests with effort and task value, Contemporary Educational Psychology, vol. 33, pp. 609-624.

Fetherston, Tony, 2007, Becoming an Effective Teacher. Cengage Learning Australia, South Melbourne.

Fetherston Tony, date unknown, "A practical guide to creating authentic assessment tasks", downloaded April 28th 2014, <>.

Goldingay, S, Hitch, D, Ryan, J, Farrugia, D, Hosken, N, Lamaro G, Nihill, C & Macfarlane S, 2014, ""The university didn't actually tell us this is what you have to do': Social inclusion through embedding of academic skills in first year professional courses. International Journal of the First year in Higher Education, vol. 5. no. 1, pp. 43-53.

Hughes, C, 2009, Assessment as text production: drawing on systemic functional linguistics to frame the design and analysis of assessment tasks, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 34, no.5, pp. 553-563.

Kift, SM and Moody, KE, 2009, Harnessing assessment and feedback in the first year to support learning success, engagement and retention. In: ATN Assessment Conference 2009 Proceedings, 19 – 20 November, 2009, RMIT University, Melbourne.

Murdoch, D, Baines, W, Attree, K, Small, F, Hodges, J, Hood, J, McIntyre E, 2013, Final report on the Star Program for the Faculty of Business 2011-2013. Courses Unit of the Faculty of Business, Albury.