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The co-creation of unit assessments based on the principles of ‘backward design’

The aim of the Project

The aim of this project was to develop an effective method for the co-design of assessment, and to apply this to a series of disparate units. The co-creation of unit assessments based on the principles of ‘backward design’ was the title of an exploratory workshop, extending over a weekend in which students and staff from across three culturally distinct faculties designed a series of summative assessments for each other’s units. Students have a unique and valuable part to play in design for teaching and learning in general, and in assessment design in particular. It is, after all, students who must process, respond to, and undertake the assessments that staff determine. Students, if given the opportunity, will express insights about particular assessments, but such feedback is often too piecemeal, and too late, to make any immediate impact on the teaching and learning.

What happened

The workshop was held in early May 2017. “Lively discussion, some fresh thinking, and some creative ideas” is how the session was summed-up by Richard Wallis, one of the joint-PIs, in Insight 1: an overview of the project. Staff and students were drawn from three of the University’s faculties: Science & TechnologyHealth & Social Sciences, and Media & Communication. The workshop was led by Ashley Woodfall, who began the session by explaining the ‘backwards’ approach being taken (Insight 2: Introduction to the workshop): ‘we want you to look at the aims of a unit, then to consider what a student is expected to know, to do, and to understand, before moving forward to look at the assessment’ he explains. Students worked in small groups, and examined a number of unit specifications drawn from programmes across the three represented faculties. In each case, they began with the unit’s ILOs, and were not shown the exisiting assessment tasks. This process is illustrated by two brief case studies, one from an HSS programme, and the other from a SciTech programme (Insight 3: The first case study; and Insight 4: The second case study).

Lessons to be learned

Our approach to curriculum/assessment design and delivery warrants critical and creative examination. By sharing details of this project (and having engaged a group of Media Production students to film the event), we hope to contribute to the search for more coherent and strategic approaches to student involvement within assessment design. Whilst the goals of our units are mostly non-negotiable and pre-determined (with ILOs normally enshrined in our validated programme specifications) our assessments are (generally) entirely flexible.  That is what makes this aspect of our teaching and learning ripe for experimentation. There were many lessons that we, as staff, took away from the workshop (Insight 5: The Staff De-brief). We discovered, for example, how little our student collaborators (all highly motivated, and engaged) had previously understood the systematic approach taken to curriculum design generally. Something as straightforward (to us) as understanding the necessary correlation between ILOs and Assessment Critieria, came as a revelation to many (Insight 6: Student reflections). It was also clear that there was no single approach to an exercise of this kind that could be universally applied to all programmes. There is no one size that would fit all. Rather, what became clear is that, when invited, students can play a key role in this aspect of curriculum design. And when we make the time and space to engage them in this way, it can be a powerful and positive experience for everyone.

The staff team for this project was: Fiona Cusack; Tom Davis; Kathryn McDonaldRichard Wallis (joint PI); and Ashley Woodfall (joint PI).