Course level assessment – nice idea, but what does it really mean?

It is increasingly clear that thinking about curriculum in the unit of ‘the course’ rather than the unit of ‘the module is conducive to cohesive course design. It avoids repetition, ensures the assessment journey makes sense to the student and can make feedback meaningful as one task is designed to link to the next. I have not found much  in the literature on course level assessment; while it is advocated in principle amongst educational development communities, it is perhaps less clear what course level assessment actually looks like.

I can see three possibilities, though there may be more. These conceptions are described as if delivered through the modular frameworks which remain the dominant framework for programmes. Any comments on other approaches would be very welcome.

Type 1: Compound assessment

Imagine two modules being taught on entirely discrete themes. Within them might be learning about terminology, key theories, processes, and calculations. Within the modular framework they may be taught entirely independently. In such a model there is nowhere in the curriculum where these skills can be overtly combined. A third module could be introduced which draws upon learning from module one and module two. Of course in reality it may be five modules drawn upon in a sixth compound module.

By example, a module focused upon business strategy may be taught entirely separately from a module on economics. Under such a scenario students may never get to consider how changes in the economy influence strategy, the associated tactics and the need for responsive planning. It is these compound skills, abilities and levels of professional judgment that the course (not the modules) seek to develop. One way of addressing this limitation is to provide a third module which draws together real business scenarios and concentrates on encouraging students to combine their knowledge. A ‘compound’ module could be based around case studies and real world scenarios, it may be limited in its ‘indicative content’ and leave a degree of openness to draw more flexibly on what is happening in the current external environment. Open modules can be uncomfortable and liberating in equal measure for the tutor, as there is a less familiar script. It might concentrate on the development of professional behaviours rather than additional content.The module might have timetabled slots, or could take the form of a one off exercise, field trip or inquiry. Teaching would be more facilitative rather than content/delivery led.

One of the challenges with such a module is that many tutors may be reluctant to give over credits to what seems to be a content free or light module. Going back to basics though, graduates are necessarily more than empty vessels filled with ‘stuff’. If we look at the course level and identify what we want to produce in our outcomes, and what the aims of our programmes actually are, then the flexible compound module fits well as an opportunity for fusing knowledge and developing competent, confident, early professionals. When knowledge is free and ubiquitous online, acting as a global external hard disk, we need to look at the graduates we build and challenge any view that higher education is primarily about the transfer of what the lecturer knows to the student. Surely the compound skills of researching the unfamiliar, combining knowledge from different areas, and making decisions with incomplete data in a moving environment are much more important. The compound module is an opportunity to facilitate learning which alights with the course level outcomes sought.

This type of course level learning and assessment undoubtedly requires an appreciation of the skills, attitudes, values and behaviours that we wish to foster in students and it needs confidence in the tutor to facilitate rather than transmit.

Type 2: Shared  assessment

The next way that I can conceive a form of course level assessment is more mechanistic. Take two modules (module one and module two, taught separately); to bring about efficiencies, the assessment of each module is undertaken within the same assignment, activity or exam. It may be an exam with two parts one for each module; it may be a presentation which is viewed by two assessors, each reviewing a separate aspect of content or it could be an assignment which has areas of attention clearly marked for each module. The education benefits of this are, in my view, much less obvious than for type 1, nevertheless students may see some links between the parts of modules in taking such an approach. The shared assessment must be designed to make clear which aspect relates to which module or else a student could be penalised or rewarded twice for the same points. Under such an approach it is conceivable to pass one element and fail the other. I remain to be convinced of the real benefits of this approach which feels like surface level ‘joined up-ness’.

Type 3: Combined assessment 

The term combined assessment is used here to describe an approach which assesses two modules through a single meaningful strategy. If there are two fifteen credit modules, one on mathematics for engineers and one on product design, an assessment which uses knowledge from each taught unit can be drawn upon to pass a single assessment – for example via a design and build exercise. The assessment subsumes both modules, the two elements are integrated (in contrast to the shared assessment approach) and there are potential marking efficiencies. Without clear attribution of marks to one or the other module it may be tricky when a student fails; what do they restudy? But presumably a tutor would be able to advise where the limitations of the performance are and which unit would be usefully revisited. In some cases it may be both. In reality this approach may be little different than having a large module with two themes contained within it.

So they were my three ideas for programme level assessment but I am convinced that there are other ways of achieving this in a meaningful way. The suitability of each approach will depend on what the course team want to achieve, but clearly the benefits of the compound assessment approach are very different from a shared or combined strategy.

permalink jigsaw header image courtesy of Yoel Ben-Avraham under Creative Commons


  1. I found this post interesting. I’d like to suggest vocational curriculum design should not start with modules but work backwards from typical workplace tasks (likely in 5-10 years) to assessments, learning outcomes and then modules. Assessment, module, discipline, course, profession and industry are abstract concepts or ‘wrappers’, which can all be rather arbitrary or historical, rather than focused on future needs. Modules, as often implemented, are the most nebulous of these and really only an operational and administrative convenience.

    An assessment task, however, is more concrete and relates to what students will need to be able to do, when required (e.g. recruit an employee, write a plan, design, source and distribute a new product, conduct a quality audit, reengineer a process). If learning gain enables students to be able to do something that they couldn’t do be before, such tasks should be the building blocks for curriculum/course design, not modules. Real world strategic tasks or problems, that graduates should be able to perform/solve by the end of their degree, are generally multidisciplinary and need systemic thinking. The current focus on modules can give students a silo mentality and often favours linear thinking. Modules themselves are often constructs of silo thinking and protectionism by staff. Modules in vocational courses (industry or profession based) were misinterpreted when they were aligned to traditional academic disciplines, like economics or psychology. The French education system and interestingly MOOCs have stayed more with the original idea of a module covering a topic.

    It is often only after revising for finals, completing their dissertation and applying for jobs when undergraduates realise that their course modules relate to one another. At that point, they may recognise that they were designed to fit together by staff who understood the job market. Until then, they are often incapable of applying theory that they think ‘belongs’ to one a module in an assignment for another one. This is not the case, however, for mature work based masters students, who start with a more holistic conception.

    Type 1: ‘compound assessment’, I would know as an ‘integrative assessment’ and see as essential. I’d say this means of assessment has been around since long before modules became popular, such as in the case study exam used by many professional bodies. Examples in degrees are dissertations, business plans, events, field trips, consultancy and design projects and placements, as well as the US version –‘capstone projects’. They are ideal for making students see that their modules interrelate, in all years, but particularly in the final year. With modularisation they were given credits, but have not always fitted neatly into structures, timetables or staff comfort zones and risk tolerances.

    I think there is some literature under that name, for example, this QAA Gide from 2007 ‘Guide no 3 – Blending assignments and assessments for high-quality learning’—blending-assignments-and-assessments-for-high-quality-learning (one of a series on the Enhancement Themes Guides to Integrative Assessment).

    Type 2: ‘shared assessment’, I’d agree is an administrative convenience, such as a multiple choice exam containing questions on several modules, just for practical/efficiency reasons.

    Type 3: ‘combined assessment’, I think would only be needed where the module design was discipline-based and did not start from defining tasks a student needs to undertake in the intended workplace.

    1. Thanks for the link and the thoughts Julie, that’s really helpful, and I agree that the module is a unit often of administrative convenience. Particularly like the capstone unit, this is something we worked a lot with in some of the REEDNet curriculum designs.

      In posting this musing I was looking to articulate how we might gain the benefits of a more holistic, interlinked assessment programme, which has less silos, while still working with the module framework. In splitting out the three options here I wanted also to recognise that some attempts at course level assessment can be shallow, and add very little to a students learning; if you simply lump the parts together, the whole amounts to nothing better than separate modules. I think that’s what we need to avoid.

      Via Linkedin I also received this guide from Rebecca McCarter (thanks, Beck) which may be of interest.

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