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A key to creating effective assignments and exams is the concept of constructive alignment. This means starting with the intended learning outcomes of the module/programme and working backwards so that the assignments and examinations reflect and support them.  

For an assessment to be effective, it must be valid, reliable and practical:

  • For an assessment to be valid, it needs to measure what it claims to measure.
  • For it to be reliable, it needs to be possible for the same results to be generated regardless of when or where it is taken.
  • It needs to be practical so the assessment can be delivered and marked reliably and effectively within the resources (time, space, facilities) available.

Consequently, when designing an assessment, it’s important to start with what needs to be assessed and why this is the most appropriate method, rather than ‘how’ it is going to be assessed e.g. ‘classroom-based examination’. 

The prominence of digital technology has opened the door for higher education institutions to diversify the way that assessment is delivered. This can help staff build assessments that are not only more engaging, but also more inclusive. For instance, students could be tasked with creating a video as opposed to an essay. Not only could this help engage students in the assessment, but it could also allow for different skills and competencies to be demonstrated, such as presentation skills or the ability to articulate an argument verbally. 

Providing them with choice of response format which still allows for an assessment to be reliable and the learning outcomes achieved is an option. Be aware, however, that the response format/text type (e.g. written or verbal) and students’ familiarity with it may impact on the results of the assessment and act as a confounding variable. It’s therefore good practice, before requiring students to respond in a particular format for a high-stakes assessment, to provide them with opportunities to become familiar with the format of the response/required genre and the tools they will need in order to complete the task. The transferrable skills required to produce assignment responses in the less ‘traditional’ genres, can, in turn, also be included in the learning outcomes for the module/programme and can play an important role in demonstrating how your module/programme can develop students’ skills as well as their knowledge.   

Effective assessment is appropriate to the level of study. To help you may want to consider Bloom’s Taxonomy, which defines levels of reasoning into the following six categories:

  • knowledge
  • comprehension
  • application
  • analysis
  • synthesis
  • evaluation

For instance, assessment that is designed to test students’ knowledge may just require them to memorise a mathematical formula or a definition. However, analysis may require students to write a report comparing the effectiveness of different approaches to. 

Best Practice Tips

  • Consider the washback effects of your assessment design on your curriculum – does your assessment encourage students to develop the knowledge and skills that you would like them to develop? Are there any key areas which students will omit because they aren’t assessed? How will you ensure that these key areas are included? 
  • Ensure students are familiar with the assessment format and what they are required to do before they do a high-stakes assessment. 
  • Consider how you can design out plagiarism (see Designing out plagiarism). 
  • Check intra-rater and inter-rater reliability where subjective testing is used (e.g. with marking criteria and rubric). 
  • Follow University guidelines, as set out in the Learning and Teaching Handbook, Chapter 6. 
  • Remember that if you make changes to the assessment format, these amendments need to be made to the module outline well in advance (for further information, contact Student Registry Examinations and Assessments Team). 
  • Consider prior learning and what you are asking students to achieve in this next stage of their learning – is there a logical progression? What do you need to put in place to allow students to succeed? 
  • Ensure that your assessment can produce a full range of responses, allowing the full range of students the opportunity to be appropriately challenged.  
  • Pilot your assessment adequately before setting it as a task/exam. 
  • Change assessments every year (as far as practical) to encourage students to fully engage with the task and reduce the risk of plagiarism, multiple submission, facilitation and/or collusion. 
  • Design with inclusivity in mind. The assessment should be accessible to all students. Seek advice from Disability Support advisors if in doubt.


Durham University Student Registry Examinations and Assessments Team

Durham University Teaching and Learning Handbook

Durham University Disability Support

Further Reading

Brown, S and Race, P. Using effective assessment and feedback to promote learning University teaching in focus a learning-centred approach. Second edition. Hunt L, Chalmers D, editors. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge; 2021.

Sambell K. Assessment for learning in higher education. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge; 2013.