About Academic Assessment

Academic assessment in higher education serves two major purposes: first, to foster student learning appropriate to the discipline and level; and second, to measure or accredit that learning. Development of graduate attributes or capabilities and lifelong learning is often stipulated as a further aim. The term "authentic assessment" has also been used to promote linkage between assessment tasks and the professions or communities that contextualise them.

While each of these purposes is worthy, depending on the assessment method chosen they can be in conflict with one another. This can be seen in the different emphases placed on formative and summative assessment by teaching staff. Different conceptions of formative and summative assessment abound, in terms of function, process and sequence.

Formative assessment enables students to know how they are progressing and how they can improve as they move through their curriculum. Feedback involves a process of task completion, task evaluation, and then student effort to close the gap between performance and desired standard.

Students take most notice of verbal (written or oral) feedback – especially when it is fast – and their attention is greatest when the feedback is not accompanied by a grade. The grade can possibly be provided later as a part of the summative or determining assessment which summarises the quality and extent of the learning at a particular point.

Assessment rubrics can be used to indicate to students the desired performance characteristics and how different levels of achievement may be demonstrated. The two key features of assessment are validity and reliability.

Validity in assessment tasks demonstrates that the tasks are assessing the stated learning outcomes. The more purposes assessment has, the harder it is to do with validity, e.g. to demonstrate that certain graduate attributes have been acquired, or may be in the process of being developed into the future. To have predetermined outcomes (so-called constructive alignment, when learning objective, task and outcome are aligned) also tends to preclude unanticipated, but worthy, instances of student learning.

A second key feature is reliability, where different markers make the same judgements about a piece of student work. A recommended practice is for markers in the same unit to ‘dummy mark’ samples of student work and then compare results preparatory to adjusting approaches for greater consistency. Some would say that without reliability there is no validity.

Traditionally, teaching staff have conducted all assessments. Active engagement with real life learning tasks can be fostered by greater student involvement in the assessment process. Students can discuss or even create the criteria, engaging in self and peer assessment. Fast feedback (the most desirable) can be provided by peers and this input can be valued as part of the assessment.

Are there immutable objective standards? Or is there collective expert opinion, based on what is accepted knowledge, understanding and wisdom for a specific community of practice? Desirable features of assessment practice have been identified as:
  • Cultivating profound and meaningful learning
  • Consistency in the level of student learning and hours of work required within and across similar programs
  • Equality of opportunity for all members of the diverse student body
  • Practicable workloads for staff, such that optimal feedback can be provided to students
  • Clarity and consistency of criteria, marking schemes and rubrics (including scaffolding via provision of exemplars of satisfactory work)
  • Feedback which can facilitate demonstrable uptake by students
  • Efficient means of upholding academic integrity such that it is possible to demonstrate that the work was produced by the student

The design and management of assessment follows a cycle in which staff move through planning and design of the assignment, implementation of student tasks, scaffolding of student learning, giving formative feedback at appropriate points, doing summative assessment, documentation and communication of student results, gathering evidence about how the assignment worked, and finally evaluation of the success or otherwise of the whole process, in preparation for the next cycle.

There are many resources available on assessment research and practice. The links below provide access to some of those resources:




Page source:
Gray, K., Waycott, J., Thompson, C., Clerehan, R., Sheard, J., Hamilton, M., & Richardson, J. (2011) Using Social Web (Web 2.0) Activities for Student Assessment: Resources for University Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from https://web2assessmentresources.wikispaces.com