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Learning outcomes and assessment criteria

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Assessment methods

Critical to the success of any outcomes-based learning programme is the alignment between assessment methods, assessment tasks, learning opportunities and intended learning outcomes (learning objectives).

This alignment of assessment with other features of a course is the basis of course design. Effective assessment methods and tasks are related to the learning outcomes and the methods of learning. Close links between feedback, criteria and the assessment tasks enable students to achieve the learning outcomes of a course or a programme in a systematic fashion.

The outcomes used as the basis for assessment tasks can be either the programme- or the module-level outcomes. Assessing every outcome of every level in every module can lead to over-assessment of students. Assessing solely for programme outcomes, however, risks not assessing essential knowledge and skills in sufficient detail, although it does give a framework for estimating student progression and achievement. A successful strategy is to ensure that within each module, teaching and learning opportunities are provided which move the students closer to the programme outcomes and that some programme outcomes are assessed in some of the modules so that all are covered at least once over the duration of the course.

Methods of assessment in business and management studies

There is a wide variety of assessment methods available to choose from. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses and some are more suited to the evaluation of certain types of learning outcomes than they are to others. A combination of different assessment methods over a course or programme will allow for the testing of a wider variety of outcome types and help sustain students’ interest and engagement with the course.

The following list of assessment methods is by no means exhaustive and suggestions are listed in order of likely familiarity.

Essays

A standard method. There are several types of essays that test different styles of writing and types of thinking. They measure understanding, synthesis and evaluation, if the right questions are posed. They are relatively easy to set and grading based on impressionistic marking is fast. However, marking for feedback can be more time-consuming. Criteria are best kept simple.

Projects, Group Projects and Dissertations

Good all-round ability testing with potential for sampling wide range of practical, analytical and interpretative skills. Allows a wider application of knowledge, understanding and skills to real/simulated situations and provides a measure of project and time management. Group projects can provide a measure of teamwork skills and leadership. Marking for grading can be time-consuming. Marking for feedback can be reduced through peer and self-assessment and presentations. Learning gains can be high particularly if reflective learning is part of the criteria. Variations between markers is possible but use of criteria reduces variability.

Presentations

These test preparation, understanding, knowledge, capacity to structure, information and oral communication skills. Feedback can come from tutor, self or peers. Marking for grading based on simple criteria is fast and potentially reliable. Measures of ability to respond to questions and manage discussion could be included.

Cases and open problems

These have potential for measuring application of knowledge, analysis, problem-solving and evaluative skills. Short cases are relatively easy to design and mark. Design of more complex cases and their marking schemes can be challenging. Marking for grading and feedback are about the same as for essay marking.

Work based Assessment

A variety of methods is possible, including learning logs, portfolios, projects, structured reports from supervisors or mentors. Supervisors and mentors need training in the use of criteria. Work experiences can be variable so reliability can be low. Validity is dependent upon clear learning outcomes.

Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs)

A standard method. This can sample a wide range of knowledge quickly and has potential for measuring understanding, analysis, problem solving skills and evaluative skills. More demanding MCQs require more time to set. Better ones are based on case studies or research papers. It is easy to mark and analyse results so they are useful for self assessment and screening with potentially high reliability, validity and manageability. Feedback to students is fast. The danger of MCQs is that they often end up testing only trivial knowledge. To save time, look for banks of items on the Web or in US text books. A team of assessors, working to the same learning outcomes, can brainstorm and produce several questions in an afternoon.

Problems

A standard method. Problems have the potential for measuring application, analysis and problem solving strategies but complex problems and their marking schemes can be difficult to design. Marking for grading of easy problems is fast. Marking for feedback can be slow. Variation between markers is fairly low when based on model answers or marking schemes. Allow for creative, valid solutions by bright students.

Short answer questions

A standard method with the potential for measuring analysis, application of knowledge, problem-solving and evaluative skills. Easier to design than complex MCQs but still relatively slow. Marking to model answers is relatively fast compared with marking problems but not compared with MCQs. Marking for feedback can be relatively fast.

Learning logs/ diaries

A wide variety of formats exists ranging from an unstructured account of each day to a structured form based on tasks. Some training in reflection is recommended. They are time-consuming for students and require a high level of trust between assessors and students. Measuring reliability is difficult. They may have high validity if the structure matches learning outcomes.

Portfolios

These can come in a wide variety of types, from a collection of assignments to reflection upon critical incidents. The latter are probably the most useful for developmental purposes. There is rich potential for developing reflective learning if students are trained in these techniques but they require a high level of trust between assessors and students. Measuring reliability is difficult. They may be high on validity if the structure matches objectives of training.

Computer-based assessment

Much talked about. Usually software will be used to format multiple choice questions, mark and analyse results. A wider range of graphics and simulations can be used. Optical Mark readers can be used – but some students may still not mark the items clearly. They are time consuming to set but can be marked very fast. Reliability is high but validity (match with outcomes) needs careful attention. Like MCQs, it can be difficult to go beyond and evaluation of the trivial with these.

Single Essay Examination

Three hours on a prepared topic. These are relatively easy to set but attention to criteria is needed. They allow for a wider range of ability tested including the capacity to draw on a wide range of knowledge, to synthesize and identify recurrent themes. Students are able to show depth as well as breadth of knowledge and understanding. Marking for feedback is relatively slow. Marking for grading is relatively fast providing the criteria are simple.

Reflective Practice Assignments

Measure capacity to analyse and evaluate experience in the light of theories and research evidence. These are relatively easy to set. Feedback can potentially come from peers, self and tutors. Marking for feedback can be slow. Marking for grading is about the same for essays. Use of criteria reduces variability.

Poster sessions

Test the capacity to present findings and interpretations succinctly and attractively. There is a danger of focusing unduly on presentation methods over content but this can be avoided by the use of simple criteria. Feedback potential exists from tutor, self and peers. Marking for grading is fast. Use of criteria reduces variability.

Modified Essay Questions (MEQs)

A sequence of questions based on a case study. After students have answered one question, further information and a question are given. The procedure continues, usually for about one hour. These are relatively easy to set and they may be used in teaching or assessment for developmental or judgmental purposes. They can be computer- or paper-based and they can encourage reflection and analysis. MEQs have potentially high reliability, validity and manageability.

Orals

Test communication, understanding, capacity to think quickly under pressure and knowledge of procedures. There is great potential for immediate feedback. Marking for grading can be fast but some standardization of interview procedures is needed to ensure reliability and validity.

Simulated interviews

Useful for assessing oral communication skills and for developing ways of giving and receiving feedback on performance. Video-recorded sessions take more time to prepare but are more useful for feedback and assessment. Peer and self assessment can be used. Sensitive oral feedback on performance is advisable. Assessment by simple rating schedule or checklist is potentially reliable if assessors, including students, are trained.

Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCEs)

Initially used in medicine, this technique can be used in business, legal practice, management, psychology, science courses and social work. It is particularly useful for assessing quickly practical and communication skills. OSCEs are fairly hard to design and organise, but easy to score and provide feedback. Group OSCEs can be useful for teaching, feedback and developmental purposes. OSCEs can be used towards the end of a course to provide feedback or to test performance against outcomes. Reliability, validity and manageability are potentially fairly high. Probably less labour intensive than other forms of marking but several assessors are required at one time. Initially, they are time consuming to design.

Adapted from ‘Assessment: A Guide for Lecturers’ by George Brown (Learning & Teaching Support Network, 2001)