Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

How not to burden first year students and lecturers with multiple assessment tasks and yet still measure desired learning outcomes?

Michele Scoufis
Centre for Academic Development and Flexible Learning
University of Western Sydney, Nepean
The context in which tertiary institutions operate today creates significant pressures on the assessment practices adopted in first year subjects.

We face an era of massive staff redundancies across the tertiary sector with increasing workloads being placed on to remaining academics, in particular those teaching first year students. The student cohort has become increasingly diverse. There is great variability amongst first years in terms of their understanding of the ways of thinking/writing expected at university. As a consequence, the need for first year students to receive meaningful and useful feedback on their learning, has increased.

The dilemma is further compounded by the widely accepted practice of covering large areas of content in first year 'overview' subjects. Associated with this breadth of coverage is the assumed need to assess more knowledge.

There are several assumptions underlying this dilemma including: that all learning must be marked; that first year subjects must introduce students to wide fields of knowledge rather than ways of thinking in the field and that traditional forms of assessment remain appropriate in the current context. Current models of best practice in assessment, such as those presented by Nightingale et al (1996) may not always be appropriate responses to diverse first year student classes and large class sizes.

Ultimately, the resolution to the dilemma will entail devising assessment practices for first year subjects that can lead to quality learning outcomes without academic burnout!

"We used to set and mark a lab report each week on each of the laboratory-based courses. If we did that now we'd be buried. You are talking about 30 hours a week marking on each module. There wouldn't be time to sleep." Lecturer

"Staff are being required to reduce assessment ... retain the same standards (as applied to learning outcomes) and ideally, improve learning through the integration of assessment with learning processes." Lecturer

"I got a lousy mark for the first one but I couldn't see why. There were just ticks and crosses and exclamation marks on it and a mark at the end. We've been given the next assignment and I can see I'm going to get a lousy mark again." Student

"I didn't really know what I was supposed to be doing half the time, but I couldn't ever find the lecturer to ask. They never seem to be in their offices, or when they are they're busy." Student

At the University of Western Sydney, Nepean, the issues now being faced by academics are probably not dissimilar from the issues facing academics elsewhere. We face increasing workloads (as a consequence, in part, of staff redundancies) and ever increasing class sizes, particularly in first year [massification" to use Freeman (1998) term]. Co-incidentally, we are held accountable for achieving quality learning and teaching outcomes (eg in subject and course evaluations) despite reduced opportunities for contact and feedback with our students (Race, 1997).

An important function of assessment is to give students feedback to further develop their learning (formative feedback) as well as to focus learning on the important aspects of the course. As overloaded academics, it seems impossible that we can provide each of our students with useful and meaningful feedback (Race, 1997).

The dilemma facing many academics is how to use assessment in first year subjects to facilitate and clarify learning without over burdening ourselves as academics? Assessment (and particularly over-assessment) is not only a burden for academics, but it is also an issue for our students, as reflected by poor ratings in the "appropriate assessment" item in the National Course Experience Questionnaire.

Some responses to this dilemma

In attempting to deal with this dilemma, an email request from UWS Nepean's Centre for Academic Development and Flexible Learning, was sent to academics across the University asking them to share their strategies for maximising learning whilst limiting formal assessment. The responses were shared in a poster session forum, and are currently being included in an electronic discussion site: 'Let's Talk Teaching'.

Many of the lecturers who responded, commented that the changes to their assessment practices had initially increased their workload. They found they needed time to reflect on : the learning outcomes sought, how to teach their students peer review skills, how they might best clarify their expectations to their students and the content that could meaningfully be covered in a first year subject (with "unstuffing" the curriculum being an important issue (Fox & Radloff, 1997). Nevertheless, most of the lecturers believed that, in the longer term, their approaches to a reduced assessment marking load and increased quality of student learning outcomes.

The strategies to assessment that were shared by the academics (many of which were being used in first year subjects) varied depending on the nature of the learning outcomes being sought in the particular field of study. These strategies included[1]:


A number of principles of effective assessment emerge from the examples given:
  1. Clearly define and communicate desired subject aims and learning outcomes and then design appropriate assessment tools to measure and give feedback on their achievement (McInnis et al, 1995).

  2. Avoid over assessment as overloaded students engage in only surface learning (Ramsden, 1992).

  3. Where possible, scaffolding the learning task so that the process of acquiring the requisite skills can be self/peer reviewed, and so that students can receive feedback early in the semester on their development of the requisite skills and knowledge.

  4. Clarify expectations of assessments, using annotated models and/or criteria assessment sheets, so that the quality of student answers (and thus ease of marking) is increased.

  5. Use technology, where appropriate, to give students feedback on the more "objective" learning outcomes, thus enabling academics to mark assignments requiring more higher-order skills.

  6. When designing an assignment, consider how it will be marked!
The approaches to assessment that academics volunteered, incorporate many of these principles. The key to effective assessment practices, in the context of large first year classes, is concerned with how we can incorporate these principles into our assessment practices without over burdening ourselves as academics. The sharing of our responses to this dilemma can only improve the quality of the learning outcomes we achieve.


  1. A more detailed account can be found in Assessing more (learning) but assessing less (often), available from UWS Nepean, CADFL, PO Box 10, Kingswood NSW 2747


Boud, D. (1986). Implementing Student Self-Assessment. Green Guide No. 5. Sydney: HERDSA

C.L.L.W.G. (1998). Modules for preparing students' written assignments. University of Western Sydney, Nepean : Critical Language and Literacy Working Group : Archee, R., James, B., Knight, K., McInnes, D. & Schiller, P. (1998).

de la Harpe, B., Radloff, A. & Parker, L. (1997). Time spent working and studying in the first year: What do students tell us? In Pospisil, R. & Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p.73-77. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February, 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/harpe73.html

Fox, B. & Radloff, A. (1997). How can we 'unstuff' the curriculum? In Pospisil, R. & Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p.118-123. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February, 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/fox118.html

Freeman, M. (1998). An Issues Paper on Law & Business. Second Annual National Teaching Forum, November 1997. Canberra.

Gibbs, G. (1992). Assessing More Students. Oxford Centre for Staff Development. UK: Oxford Brookes University.

Gibbs, G. & Jenkins, A. (1994). Teaching Large Classes in Higher Education. London : Kogan Page.

McInnis, C., James, R. & McNaught, C. (1995). First Year on Campus. A commissioned project of the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Nightingale, P., Watson, I., Toohey, S., Ryan, G., Hughes, C. & Magin, D. (1996). Assessing Learning in Universities. NSW: University of NSW Press.

Race, P. (1997). Changing Assessment to Improve Student Learning. England: University of Hull, School of Chemistry.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Samuelowicz, K. (1987). Learning problems for overseas students. Higher Education Research and Development, 6(2), 121-133.

Scoufis, M. (1998). Assessing More Learning but Assessing Less Often. University of Western Sydney, Nepean: Centre for Academic Development & Flexible Learning.

Sparrow, H. (1997). Peer assessment as a tool for learning. In Pospisil, R. & Wilcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p.307-311. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February, 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf97/spar307.html

Please cite as: Scoufis, M. (1999). How not to burden first year students and lecturers with multiple assessment tasks and yet still measure desired learning outcomes? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 373-377. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/scoufis.html

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