Assessment in Higher Education

“Our assessment practices are the single most influential driver of what our students do…” - David Boud

We know assessment drives learning, so we should use this to our advantage and assess what will be important to learn.

Updated Round Delta Framework Graphic

This phase is about ensuring that your teaching practice is responsive to the context.  This is about yourself as a teacher, understanding your students, the SU environment, the national HE context, South Africa and beyond.

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Outcomes are the end goals of the learning process. They are formulated to describe the result of student learning at the end of the learning opportunities.  This is not about content but rather about the concepts and underlying principles of the field of study.

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Assessment is about how well your students achieve the intended learning outcomes.  This is not about them reporting back what you have taught them, but rather about how well they demonstrate their understanding of the key concepts and underlying principles of their field of study.

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Learning is about what the students do, not about what you do as the teacher.  Your role is to design learning opportunities that engage students and enable them to access disciplinary knowledge.

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This is where you consider whether you have achieved what you had set out to achieve with your module.

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Assessment is an integral part of the teaching and learning process and can be defined as: “the systematic evaluation of a student’s ability to demonstrate the achievement of the learning goals intended in a curriculum” (CHE, 2016). This is often interpreted as making judgements about students’ abilities at the end of the module or course to decide if a student can pass or progress to the next level. This is also referred to as summative assessment, or assessment of learning.

The Council on Higher Education (CHE) policy however suggests that assessment is not just about the measurement of outcomes, but could also be “a means to develop lifelong learning”. Assessment should therefore be more than the conclusion at the end of a module or course, and some authors argue that more emphasis should be placed on formative assessment, or assessment for learning and sustainable assessment, or assessment as learning.

Find more information on this in the following sections.

On a national level, the CHE’s Policies on the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), Credit Accumulation and Transfer, and Assessment in higher education set out to provide directives and procedures guiding our assessment practices and can be found here.

At an institutional level, the Assessment Policy and the Implementation plan for flexible assessment at Stellenbosch University can be found here. Both of these documents are currently under review.

It is essential that your assessments are aligned with your learning outcomes and learning opportunities. Refer to the Outcomes Resource for information on outcomes and constructive alignment. Ask yourself if your assessments provide evidence of students achieving your learning outcomes and if your chosen assessment strategies promote the kind of learning you want for your students. One way to improve this alignment, is to design your assessments before you plan your learning opportunities. We will therefore not leave the assessments as a last afterthought, but start with how you will gather evidence of learning and then design learning opportunities that will enable this.

Why do you assess your students? Is it just to pass or fail them?

What is the purpose of assessments? (the ‘why’)

Broadly the two main purposes of assessment are:

  • To provide certification of achievements
  • To facilitate learning

David Boud therefore suggests assessment should be used to engage and direct learning, enable feedback and demonstrate & celebrate outcomes.

Assessment can also be used for diagnostic purposes, when the strong and weak points of students in the academic sphere are determined in order to, for example, as a pre-assessment to determine the students’ knowledge or skills prior to the start of the module / contact session / tutorial, to decide what action(s) are needed by the students and/or lecturer, or for the purpose of selection, admission and placement.

1. Summative Assessment

This is probably what most of us and our students think of as an assessment – the test or exam at the end of the module/semester/year… The purpose is to judge students’ knowledge / performance to make decisions about progression. This is therefore Assessment of Learning. A mark or grade is allocated, which allows students, educators and society (including employers) to judge how well a student performed. These are seen as high stakes assessments for students, meaning it contributes significantly towards their marks. Students therefore want to foreground what they have learned and hide their mistakes. This could potentially lead to learning strategies aimed at passing the test and not at learning. The focus is on the end-product of learning.

Many authors problematize summative assessment and even question its reliability. See Knight (2002) in the References section for an interesting perspective on this.
Summative assessments may be more useful for student learning when combined with formative and sustainable assessments.

2. Formative Assessment

The purpose here is not judging, but rather on providing feedback to students on how their current knowledge or performance compares with the expected criteria. This will be Assessment for Learning with the focus on allowing students to still make changes to improve. Formative assessments are supposed to be low stakes assessments where students are encouraged to reveal their gaps in knowledge / understanding / performance in order to learn from the process and make adjustments for future learning. The focus here is on the process of learning.

A question you may ask is: should a grade or marks be allocated in combination with feedback? Students may not take assessment tasks seriously if no marks are allocated. In this blog (from Top Hat) you will find a perspective on how summative and formative assessments can work together.

Classroom Assessment Techniques

Classroom Assessment Techniques or CATs can be used for formative assessment. Patricia Cross and Thomas Angelo (1988) are the pioneers in the field and in their book (a copy is available in the library), they describe how CATs can be implemented as a quick way of giving lecturers and students feedback about the level of students’ learning.

Find more information in this document.

The results of the formative assessment activities can be used to improve your teaching.

Feedback is an integral part of formative assessment. See feedback section for more on this.


3. Sustainable Assessment

“Commonly, assessment focuses little on the process of learning and on how students will learn after the point of assessment…. (it) is not sufficiently equipping students to learn in situations in which teachers and examinations are not present to focus their attention. As a result, we are failing to prepare them for the rest of their lives” (Boud & Falchikov, 2007:3)

The focus in sustainable assessment is on preparing students to become life-long-learners, who will be able to judge their own performance after graduation, in a workplace with no formal assessments. This is Assessment as Learning, focusing more on the process than the product of assessment. The idea of sustainable assessment is extensively researched by David Boud. In his AssesmentFutures website (University of Technology in Sydney), he provides examples of how to engage your students in authentic & integrative assessment tasks, where they learn to judge their own work. It is suggested that students are actively involved in creating assessments and the assessment rubrics.

Some of the key aspects in sustainable assessment is:
When designing sustainable assessments, consider these features of the assessment (Boud & Soler 2016:410):

What about feedback?

Feedback is: “a process whereby learners obtain information about their work in order to appreciate the similarities and differences between the appropriate standards for any given work, and the qualities of the work itself, in order to generate improved work” Boud & Molloy, 2013:205

Feedback can have a significant influence on your students’ learning. It is key to formative assessment. Students are however often not satisfied with the feedback they receive and similarly lecturers are complaining that students do not use their feedback. Professor David Boud (watch he video for more) believes this could be due to misconceptions about feedback, and that it is not merely the lecturer providing information to the student. Feedback should be an active process on the part of the student – they need to act on the feedback and CHANGE.

7 Principles of good feedback

Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick (2006:205) suggest that good feedback practice:

Criteria to be considered when assessments are designed

What are the criteria for sound assessment?

Feedback is: “a process whereby learners obtain information about their work in order to appreciate the similarities and differences between the appropriate standards for any given work, and the qualities of the work itself, in order to generate improved work” Boud & Molloy, 2013:205

validity 01


The assessment tasks are assessing the stated learning outcomes. The results obtained from the assessment should reflect the outcomes you set for your students.



Assessment tasks should be generating comparable marks across time, across markers and across methods. In addition, reliability requires that assessment of the same learning by different modes should render similar outcomes.



Information on assessment is made known to the students. This includes information on the reasons for the assessment, when it will take place, the methods that will be used, the criteria according to which it will be measured, the manner in which the final mark will be calculated and any environment specific appeal mechanisms.



Assessment systems are equitable in that all students are treated fairly, without prejudice and with the necessary assistance to overcome inability or handicaps. Assessment assignments are of such a nature that they can be suitably understood and interpreted by students from different backgrounds.



The costs and practical implications of the assessment process are reasonable within the context and the purpose of the assessment.


Timely feedback

Lecturers provide timely feedback on formative and summative assessment tasks. The feedback enables the students to identify the sections that have been completed satisfactorily and to clearly know which sections require further study. By supporting students to monitor their own learning and to reflect on learning experiences, rather than to focus one-sidedly on marks, is to support and promote student learning. Timely feedback on formative and summative assessment tasks is critical for student learning and is made available in order to identify the sections that have been completed satisfactorily and the ways in which learning can be improved.


Academic Integrity

As far as is possible, the necessary procedures are in existence to avoid, detect and deal with dishonesty. This implies that all those involved are fully informed of the Senate regulations in this regard.

Assessment methods

Assessment methods: What are the affordances & key points?

Various methods can be used to assess your students. There are no perfect assessment methods and what works for one may not work for another. Each method has its own strengths and weaknesses and you will often have to find what is most appropriate in your specific context. You could, and probably should, use to combination of methods to address the learning outcomes in your module.

Many examples are available at this link as well as here.

Some are explained in more detail below:

1. Portfolio

What is it?

The portfolio is not the easiest type of assessment to implement, but it can be a very effective tool. Along with student reflection, it provides valuable information about how each student learns and what is important to him or her in the learning process.

Rather than a pile of student work that accumulates over a semester or year, a portfolio contains a purposefully selected subset of student work. “Purposefully” selecting student work means deciding what type of story you want the portfolio to tell. For example, do you want it to highlight or celebrate the progress a student has made? Then, the portfolio might contain samples of earlier and later work. Do you want the portfolio to capture the process of learning and growth?

Then, the student and/or lecturer might select items that illustrate the development of one or more skills with reflection upon the process that led to that development. Or, do you want the portfolio to showcase the final products or best work of a student? In that case, the portfolio would likely contain samples that best exemplify the student’s current ability to apply relevant knowledge and skills. All decisions about a portfolio assignment begin with the type of story or purpose for the portfolio.

Portfolios may be entirely written texts or may be multimodal, but typically include evidence of student reflection, the rationale for portfolio construction, and criteria for assessment. Portfolios are often included with other types of authentic assessments because they move away from telling a student’s story through test scores and, instead, focus on a meaningful collection of student performance and meaningful reflection and evaluation of that work.

Useful tips: When starting the portfolio process, remember to keep it simple. Start with a single unit. Determine your goals and purpose for the portfolio. Create a checklist. Explain the process to students and encourage them to take an active role in the development of their portfolios. What you might discover is a very valuable and meaningful evaluation tool that effectively assesses student learning.

What are the affordances?

Portfolios typically are created for one of three purposes: to show growth, to showcase current abilities, and to evaluate cumulative achievement.

1. Growth Portfolios
2. Showcase Portfolios
3. Evaluation Portfolios

Design tips

A series of questions that need to be addressed when considering the design of a portfolio assignment:

  • Purpose: What is the purpose(s) of the portfolio?
  • Audience: For what audience(s) will the portfolio be created?
  • Content: What samples of student work will be included?
  • Process: What processes (e.g., selection of work to be included, reflection on work, conferencing) will be engaged in during the development of the portfolio?
  • Management: How will time and materials be managed in the development of the portfolio?
  • Communication: How and when will the portfolio be shared with pertinent audiences?
  • Assessment: If the portfolio is to be used for assessment, when and how should it be assessed?

Multiple choice questions (MCQ)

What is it?

A multiple choice question, also referred to as an item, consists of two parts. These include the problem statement (referred to as the stem); and several response options (referred to as alternatives). The alternatives usually contain one correct or best answer (referred to as the keyed response), with the rest being incorrect answers (referred to as distractors).

What are the affordances?

Some of the most compelling reasons for using MCQs include their perceived objectivity (removing assessor bias, making them more reliable), reduced marking time, the fact that they can scope large portions of work and can offer immediate feedback. This also makes them ideal for online formative assessment, where students can take the test in their own time. Most online platforms (including SUNLearn) has built-in statistical analysis tools that offer useful information for improving the questions and controlling the standard of the test.

Contrary to what is often assumed, MCQs can assess at multiple levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. However, designing good MCQs that accurately assess higher order thinking skills, are time-consuming as they require skills and expertise to design well. It has also been argued that MCQs might:

  • encourage students to adopt superficial approaches to learning
  • be answered correctly by guesswork,
  • disadvantage students with lesser reading skills, regardless of how well they understand the content that is assessed.

Design tips

General guidelines for writing MCQs

Each question should focus on an important concept or testing point.

What do you want the test-taker to know or demonstrate?

Each question should assess application of knowledge, not recall of an isolated fact.

The number of response options can vary among questions. There is little difference in difficulty, discrimination, and test score reliability among questions containing two, three, and four distractors.

Always review questions to identify and remove technical flaws that add irrelevant difficulty or benefit savvy test-takers.

As you review it, ask yourself the following questions.

  • If the response options were removed, could a knowledgeable test-taker still answer the question correctly?
  • Is there anything in the phrasing or text that could confuse the knowledgeable test-taker?
  • Are there any clues that could help a test-wise student to guess the correct response option?

Finally, you should ask a colleague to review the question you have written, in particular for content, clarity, and appropriateness for your particular test-taker population.

Follow this link to a self-paced tutorial on how to design MCQ’s (45minutes):
More reading

Brame, C., (2013) Writing good multiple choice test questions. Retrieved September 2018 from sub-pages/writing-good-multiple-choice-test-questions/.

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