Assessment Tasks

This section covers the range of assessment methods that can be referred to when setting assessment tasks.

Introduction to assessment tasks/methods
Summative assessment tasks in a module are designed to enable students to demonstrate the achievement of learning outcomes. The marks/grades achieved for assessment tasks are used to calculate the overall module mark.

In order to ensure that students and staff are not overburdened with assessment, the University sets a limit on the number of assessment tasks to be set per module and per level of study.  These are:

  • a maximum of 12 assessment tasks across 120 credits at UG level
  • a maximum of 18 assessment tasks across 180 credits at PG level
  • a maximum of two assessment tasks per 15 credit PG module and 20 credit UG module
  • a maximum of 3 assessment tasks for a module, regardless of module size

An assessment task is an individual piece of assessed work (e.g. an essay, an examination, a presentation), the mark for which is submitted to Assessment Boards and stored in corporate student information systems. Ancillary assessment regulations and policies such as extenuating circumstances, extensions, referrals and deferrals apply at assessment task level.

Assessment Methods

The following sections describe the standard methods for assessing student learning in UK higher education. The sections take a consistent approach, beginning with a brief generic definition of the method, followed by a pedagogic rationale which explains the benefits of using the method and guidance on using the method effectively in terms of administrative and pedagogic processes and tips.

Written exams
An examination is defined as a fixed, time constrained assessment held under the University’s examination regulations, normally within the standard period specified in the academic calendar and managed and administered by the University Examinations Service. This does not include phase tests which are carried out by course teams in faculties. Where phase tests are conducted in class these should be defined as coursework.

Why use written exams

In written exams students are presented with a set of unseen questions under formal conditions and normally assigned a set time in which to answer them. Written exams are can be ‘seen’ or ‘unseen’ and can also be ‘open-book’.  Written exams, when designed well, are usually fair and mitigate against plagiarism and collusion. They allow you to systematically assess students across a range of topics.

How to use exams effectively

Producing effective exams is about designing papers and questions so that they are:

  • Usable – the student knows exactly what is required;
  • Targeted – the questions are pitched at the right level;
  • Relevant – the questions assess what has been learnt.

The exam and the exam conditions should not alienate the learner from demonstrating what they have learnt, so attention should be given to ensuring students are comfortable with the examination method.

Writing good questions

Write concise exam questions with short sentences using plain English. You want to assess whether students understand the subject – not your use of English! Similarly, avoid trick questions which are likely to result in confusion or self-doubt. Use bullet points or ordered lists in the question if it helps to make the question clearer. For questions with multiple parts provide an indication of how much time or what mark is assigned to each part. This will communicate the relative importance of each component.

Designing and reviewing questions

When writing questions get feedback from colleagues, they can spot ambiguity and tell you if the question is pitched at the right level. If possible design and moderate questions as a team.

Ask colleagues, or other readers, to explain back to you what they think your question means and what a model answer would be.

To ensure questions are externally verified in time for each year write questions so that they can be modified each year by referring to new, up-to-date data sets, cases, news or discussions. Evaluate the questions you use and work out how to improve them for future use.

When you are happy with a question write a model answer to test the validity of the question. Ask if it is possible to answer the question well in the time available. The model answer will be useful to other markers too.

Introduce questions during the course as the basis for seminar discussions so that students become familiar with the style and the expectations for responding to question types.

Decide what it really is you are trying to assess and how. For example, are you asking students to solve a problem, to use a theory to make a decision, or to compare strategies, etc.?

Race (1999) suggests you can provide space in an exam for students to write a question, a marking scheme and an answer of their own choice. All are assessed and ensures that students have the opportunity to write about an aspect of their course that particularly enthuses them.

Open-book exams

In open-book exams students are allowed to take reference materials into the examination and may be expected to take in specific hard copy resources. Module Leaders should make it clear to students whether this means something particular like a text book or a hand-out, or whether it means the students are free to bring in anything they decide will be useful. It should also be made clear whether they are permitted to have any additional text written on the resources. The volume and size of resources should be considered in terms of the size of the examination desks, so that students can easily fit the resources on (or underneath) their desks whilst writing. Please note: no electronic devices are permitted in an examination, including mobile phones or tablets, and students are not permitted access to the internet during an exam, including those sat in a PC lab.

Open-book exams usually test a student’s ability to use resource material effectively to solve a problem or construct an artefact. They are designed to test a student’s ability to work with knowledge and are not about testing a student’s memory for knowledge. They test understanding, application and creativity.

Students who are familiar with the information prior to the exam are likely to be less anxious and able to confidently use the exam time to productively demonstrate their ability.

It is important to explain the difference to students between traditional exams and open-book exams to make sure they are clear about the expectations for each.

Marking scheme

Consider making the marking scheme explicit for the exam as a whole. This will set out marking criteria and the weighting of available marks.

Challenges of using exams


  • Time-constrained and unseen – it can be hard to achieve validity, reliability and transparency. In disciplines where subject matter is more discursive it can be particularly difficult to achieve reliability (Race 2001, p.37);
  • Unpopular with some students – many students dislike and avoid subjects assessed by exam;
  • Feedback – it can be particularly difficult to provide useful feedback on exam scripts because exams typically mark the end of a learning phase;
  • Speed marking – exam scripts are usually marked in haste;
  • Superficial – marking of exams is often affected by superficial qualities such as handwriting and neatness;
  • Boring – marking exam scripts can be tiring and boring and quite pressurised. It can be challenging to bring enthusiasm to the assessment process and the feedback it can generate;
  • Objectivity – objectively marking scripts reliably is difficult;
  • Suits some – some students are particularly adept at doing exams and some are not.


  • Testing, not learning – exams promote intensive engagement but this is often unfocused when exams are unseen;
  • Passivity – exam methods are passive and do not involve learning by doing;
  • Surface – exams promote surface engagement.


  • Controlling information quality – if student access to information is limited (e.g. to one course text book) then the text books will need to be checked to avoid margin notes or other information being brought in;
  • Reliability – it may be critical that students bring in certain information and sources;
  • Guidance – staff have to produce high quality information on what is or what is not allowed;
  • Space – the exam conditions and the space required by each student will be different to standard unseen exams. This will constrain the choice and introduce potential time tabling conflicts.

Further information

The Examination Conduct Policy is published on shuspace, click on the Rules and Regulations link at the bottom of the page, then Examinations and Coursework or the Policy section below.

The modification process can be found in Theme 1, left hand menu – Verification/Modification.


Race, P. (2001). The lecturer’s toolkit: a practical guide to learning, teaching and assessment, 2nd edition. London: Kogan Page.

The essay in higher education can be defined as a piece of sustained and structured academic writing. It can be used in most disciplines but is most frequently used in the humanities and social sciences. The nature of the essay is shaped by the established conventions of rational academic discourse and also by the concepts, approaches, type of analysis and general style of writing within the discipline; this means that what counts as an acceptable essay in one discipline may not be valid in others (Haines 2004: 82; Hounsell and Murray, 1992:7).

In general, however, essay-writing at University entails:

  • ‘an overriding concern to interpret and make meaning through presentation of arguments;
  • careful attention to the marshalling of relevant and valid data, evidence or illustration to substantiate or refute arguments and interpretations;
  • ‘a structure or organisational framework which has not been chosen arbitrarily, but is instead designed to present arguments and evidence in a coherent form’ (Hounsell and Murray, ibid).

Why use it?

Essays are good at developing and assessing:

  • The ability to organise, integrate and express ideas (Waugh and Gronlund, 2013: 131);
  • Higher-level cognitive skills (e.g. analysis, evaluation, application and synthesis), critical thinking and problem-solving (Dunn et al, 2004: 91; Fry et al., 2003: 47);
  • The ability to understand and use the conventions and styles of the discipline including those relating to the development and presentation of a line of argument supported by ‘evidence’ of some kind (e.g. citation) (Dunn et al., ibid).

Essays are less good at assessing:

  • The recall of knowledge (Waugh and Gronlund, 2013: 132);
  • The full breadth of module content.

It has also been suggested that the marking of essays is potentially subjective and that ‘writing ability and bluffing’ may artificially inflate the score (ibid).

How to use essays effectively

  • Ensure that assessment by essay is appropriate for students to demonstrate the learning outcomes for the module;
  • Ensure that the question is clear, unambiguous and directly related to the learning outcomes for the module;
  • Ensure that the question is appropriate for the level of study. For example, it has been argued that ‘closed questions’ (where it is very clear what is required in the answer) may be more suitable for first-year students than open-ended ones and that student- set questions are more appropriate later on in the course (Hounsell and Murray, 1992: 36);
  • If a choice of questions is offered, check that these are equally demanding;
  • Where possible, design questions that cover more than a narrow section of module content or complement the essay task with another assessment task (e.g. examination) to ensure wider coverage;
  • Minimise the opportunities for plagiarism by designing questions which cannot be addressed by ‘off the peg’ answers. For example, require students to use everyday examples to illustrate ideas, models, theories etc. or to apply these to new situations;
  • Integrate guidance on the task within the teaching and give students opportunities for formative feedback on aspects of the preparation of the essay (for example, on essay plans, reading lists, possible essay structures) (see below).

Guidance for students

Some first-year students, drawing on their previous experience, appear to find it difficult to understand what is required of essay writing at University or to adapt to the academic conventions of the discipline they are studying. They view essays, not as vehicles for the presentation of coherent, ordered and substantiated arguments, but simply, and more manageably, as the arrangement of facts, ideas or reading materials (Hounsell and Murray, 1992: 7-8). Hounsell and Murray argue that repeated essay writing may not, by itself, bring about any improvement and that managed interventions are necessary to support students to develop their essay-writing skills.

It is useful to think about the essay, certainly for first-year students, not simply as a product, but rather as an integral part of the learning process during which tutors work with students, and students work together, throughout the stages of essay planning. These stages may be as follows:

  1. Learning what is required in an undergraduate essay – Group activities can help students to understand what they are being asked to do and how their work will be marked. These activities might include: discussion and interpretation of the module learning outcomes; the marking of sample essays against the module assessment criteria; exercises on citation and plagiarism;
  2. Analysis of the essay question(s) – What are the debates? Does the question imply a specific type of structure? What kinds of conclusion might be arrived at?
  3. Creating a preliminary plan – Students, certainly at first-year level, are usually asked to write essays on material that has been directly covered in the teaching. They should therefore already have enough of a grasp of the material and the debates to be able to construct an outline plan to shape further reading;
  4. Reading and research to extend and refine the plan;
  5. Writing the first draft – There should be no collaboration between students at this stage;
  6. Reviewing and editing the draft – Thinking about content, structure, development of the argument, use of citation etc.

Treating essay writing as a process that takes place during classroom activities rather than just as a product of assessment, introduces an important formative dimension and supports new students in adjusting to the academic conventions – often implicit rather than explicit – that underpin the discipline they are studying. In addition, this approach, which starts with a preliminary plan, rather than with a more general ‘reading around’ the area, tackles the most common difficulty students have with essay-writing: selecting the material on which to base the answer (Hounsell and Murray, 1992: 28). The preliminary plan gives direction to student reading and prevents excessive and unfocused reading and note-taking.


There are a number of types of essay questions:

  • Describe/Explain – This tests the lower cognitive skills (knowledge, comprehension). Example:

‘Explain the use of ANOVA in experimental design’ (Haines, 2004: 80);

  • Compare and contrast – This tests the ability to analyse and possibly evaluate different views, models, policies etc., in addition to the lower cognitive skills. Example: ‘Compare and contrast the views of Marx and Weber on the nature of industrial capitalist society’;
  • Discuss – This tests the skills of analysis and evaluation as well as the lower cognitive skills. This kind of essay can be worded in different ways and the discussion may be implicit rather than explicit in the question. Example: ‘Was “The Excursion” by Wordsworth really necessary?’ (Haines, 2004: 82). Sometimes a discussion question heralds a contentious debate. For example: “Is intelligence linked to social class background?”
  • Problem-based essay – This involves the application of knowledge to new contexts in addition to the lower level cognitive skills. Example: ‘What advice would you offer to a small textile company that has the following turnover and characteristics?’ (ibid).


Dunn, L., Morgan, C., O’Reilly, M. and Parry, S. (2004). The Student Assessment Handbook, New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S. (2003) A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice, New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Haines, C. (2004). Assessing Students’ Written Work: Marking Essays and Reports, New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Hounsell, D. and Murray, R. (1992). Essay Writing for Active Learning, Sheffield: CVCP Universities’ Staff Development and Training Unit

Waugh, C. K. and Gronlund, N. E. (2013). Assessment of Student Achievement, 10th ed., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:Pearson.

Practical work
Practical work involves undertaking tasks, usually with a real world application, which require a student to plan an activity and then execute it by applying knowledge and skills. During the activity the student, working alone or in groups, will record their progress or findings which will often be summarised in a written report, presentation, video or poster.

Why use it?

For some disciplines practical work is much more important than theory. Students need to develop skills to a professional standard – and employers need confirmation of a graduate’s competence to practice. This is most obvious in disciplines such as Nursing, Computing, Education and Sport, but it is also a dimension of subjects such as Engineering and Design in which theory and its application are more in balance.

Many students are particularly attracted to disciplines that have a practical dimension because they like ‘learning by doing’ and the immediate sense of achievement and feedback this can bring.

How to use it effectively

Practical assignments usually result in students producing an artefact, such as an object, a presentation, an event, a set of notes. The student’s focus on this end point can bring:

  • clarity and purpose to the exercise;
  • motivation, being an opportunity for them to act like a professional for the first time measuring themselves using authentic standards or notions of quality;
  • pride and self-efficacy.

Process or product?

Apparent failure in the execution of practical work can be just as valuable and rewarding a learning experience. To make the point using an extreme example, a Sport student who applies all they know about their athletic discipline from preparation through to competition will demonstrate successful learning whether they ‘cross the line’ first or last. This illustrates the importance of designing and communicating assessment criteria and the weighting of marks with great care: you do not want to disturb the student’s ‘flow’ or motivation, but you do want to check that preparation, skills and procedures are performed to the required standard.

While some practical work involves standardised techniques, some practical activities value creativity and originality. In such cases assessment criteria will usually pay attention to planning, rationale and the ability of the student to problem-solve. Attention is likely to be given to risk management, communication, digital literacy and team working skills and attributes.

Guidance for students

The briefing for practical work is particularly important, and students need to be very clear about the criteria being used to assess them. Therefore, it is important to repeat briefing discussions during practical work when it happens over a long period of time because the significance of some points may only become clear as the student arrives at different stages of the work.

Consideration should be given to:

  • providing regular debriefing/briefing sessions;
  • providing optional workshops to develop practice skills, which could be led by external contributors or the students themselves;
  • developing an online FAQ resource based on the questions student pose as they experience new challenges;
  • the production of hand-outs that describe skills. Students could produce these with you, for example using photographs from their own exercises;
  • where the practical work takes place and whether this may inadvertently affect the work or the validity of the assessment;
  • dependencies, including the support or co-operation of other people (e.g. Student peers, patients, school pupils, technicians, employers, volunteers) and whether these people introduce risks that need to be managed to ensure the reliability of the task;
  • cost of materials.

Outputs used to assess practical work

The following are some of the outputs from practical work that can be used:

  • Report – either an objective or reflective account;
  • Presentation, poster or student seminar – presenting the rationale, account and outcomes of the practical work;
  • Exhibition of work;
  • Digital Story – a multimedia presentation including a narrative account of the experience;
  • Crits and observation.


Assessing computer program or software design submissions – Anne Nortcliffe

Computing students are required to talk their tutor through their programme or software design submission, either using a PC or a print out. The tutor asks the student to explain the rationale for their solution and encourages the student to demonstrate the depth of their thinking which has informed their development during the project. This lab-based approach provides the opportunity to check student understanding and allows the tutor to confirm that it is their own work.

An assessment rubric, based on the assessment criteria, is used to structure the conversation. The structured conversational method allows for immediate feedback to be given to each student on their work. Notes or other indicators can be provided on the rubric sheet that clearly shows how well the student has performed against each criterion. At the same time the differentiated criteria on the rubric provide the basis of the tutor- student conversation.

This approach means feedback to the student can be given immediately, highlighting both the good points and areas for improvement, with space to discuss how these improvements can be achieved. Equally if the conversation is audio recorded, the student and the tutor have a rich record of the feedback conversation.

Though the approach time consuming, the approach has a lot in common with software validation walkthroughs in industry and therefore mirrors best commercial computing practice, and so enhances the student’s employability.


See Theme 4 Portfolios for more details on how to submit Portfolios online


A portfolio is a single piece of work comprising a collection of related exercises, submitted at the same time and assessed as a whole, with no individual exercise being given a separate mark. The overall collection of work comprising these exercises (the portfolio) is given a mark or grade and this is the mark or grade submitted for the assessment task mark.

A portfolio can be used to record actions, thinking and reflection. The use of portfolios promote reflective thinking and personal and professional development planning (PPDP).

Portfolios are typically collections of evidence in a range of forms and different media which often include a reflective commentary provided by the student demonstrating how they have met the learning outcomes.

Overall, the portfolio should be seen as an active document that stems from and develops via a reflective process (Thomson et al., 2008).

Why use portfolios

Portfolios can be used to demonstrate engagement with a topic or course objective. Portfolios require students to accept a high degree of responsibility and encourage the student’s deep engagement with the intended learning outcomes.

Portfolios accommodate evidence in a range of forms and different media which makes them suitable for supporting learning and assessment in complex situations, such as authentic assessment based on real world tasks. Portfolios encourage reflective thinking, often requiring students to collate evidence, review, select, order and annotate it and to write a reflective commentary. A portfolio’s structure and content must be clear enough to present the evidence in a systematic and accessible way.

Creating and managing portfolios can be time consuming for students, but can also instil great pride for some. Portfolios often highlight student achievement and so promote student self-efficacy. They can also be used with future employers or for attaining professional recognition.

They accommodate diverse situations and different levels of personal engagement in topics. However, this can make marking difficult, inconsistent and time consuming for teachers.

e-Portfolios are being increasingly used. These can be constructed, for example, in PebblePad or in blogs and wikis. As well as being a record of learning that has taken place, a portfolio can also provide a reflective record of professional development enabling the individual to document progress.

Guidance for staff on using portfolios of assessment

  • In creating and using portfolios, students work in one or more of the following ways: selecting and organising contents; contextualising or reflecting on the contents; and presenting or sharing them with others.
  • Portfolios are treated as a single assessment task in which all the parts are related, with a single set of assessment criteria applying to the entire portfolio.
  • The assignment brief, as designed by the module team, must clearly explain to all students undertaking a portfolio that in the event of referral in the portfolio, the entire portfolio of work must be re-presented.
  • Where a module is assessed ONLY by means of a portfolio, a portfolio mark (hence module mark) of less than 40% would result in a referral in the portfolio whereby all parts must be re-presented.
  • Where a module is assessed by means of a portfolio alongside other assessment tasks (such as an examination), then for the standard university assessment model, a portfolio mark of less than 40% would be permitted if the overall module mark (P + Exam) was 40% or more. If the overall module mark (P + exam) were below 40%, and the failure were due to a fail mark for the portfolio, then all parts of the portfolio must be re-presented.
  • Where a module is assessed by means of a portfolio alongside other assessment tasks (such as an examination), then for non-standard assessment models where the individual assessment tasks must be passed, a portfolio mark of less than 40% results in referral in the portfolio. All parts of the portfolio must be re-presented.
  • In the event of deferral in the portfolio, the entire portfolio of work must be submitted.

Guidance for students

Thomson et al. (2008) advise telling students to:

  • keep in mind what it is for and when presenting the evidence;
  • be clear about what they want the evidence to show;
  • ensure the evidence relevant;
  • ensure they are demonstrating competence in their field;
  • review their work to make sure nothing is missing;
  • identify any gaps in their knowledge and how they will fill them.

Not all these questions are applicable to every situation, but will help students order the evidence collected and keep it appropriate. The portfolio should also demonstrate reflective practice with positive and negative outcomes of learning. This balance will help assessors see the development of thinking and allow them to gauge to what extent students have taken an active part in their learning rather than being a passive recipient.


Baume, D. (2001). Assessment Series No.6, A Briefing on Assessment of Portfolios. LTSN Generic Centre.

Thomson, R., Jefferson, H. and Brigden, D. (2008). Student Experiences of Portfolios. Higher Education Academy

Group work
What is it?

Group work in assessment is the use of activities involving two or more students to support or deliver an assessment task. Students may carry out group activities and then complete an individual assessment, they may work together to produce a group piece of work or a combination of these approaches. The policy at Sheffield Hallam is that all group assessments should include some individual element and that a ‘flat’ mark should therefore not be awarded to a group of students.

Why use it?

There are many reasons why group activities are necessary or desirable to use for the purposes of assessment. Group work can allow for students to learn about a topic, to learn about themselves and how to work in a group and to learn about how to complete group-based tasks (Thorley and Gregory 1994). Many ‘real world’ activities require group effort and a group-based assessment can mimic these complex and multi-skill types of activities (Gatfield 1999). A more authentic activity can support the development of employability skills, allow a better application of theory to practice and provide affirmation of learning (Reeves, Herrington and Oliver 2002). Certainly, any use of group work can develop team-working skills such as cooperation, negotiation, leadership, delegation and time-management. Depending on how groups are formed, group work can allow students to get to know each other. The variety of group-work learning that can be used to support assessment can meet a variety of learning styles and needs of students (Thorley and Gregory 1994).

Group work activities can sometimes reduce the marking time for staff, however the time taken to form, oversee and manage the groups can sometimes off-set this marking time-saving.

What you need to know

Sheffield Hallam University has a set of Group Work Principles which apply to all group activities whether they are assessed or not. They need to be considered in relation to the whole course design, including the required discipline-specific content and the appropriate learning, teaching and assessment strategy for the course. The principles should be considered for the most effective use of group work.

There are different types of group work assessments:

  • Group work that leads to an individual piece of work for each student. Each student receives an individual mark based on work they have produced. The group work may support the production of data for a report for example, but the students write their own reports.
  • Group work that leads to a group mark for all students in that group. This model is not permitted at Sheffield Hallam University unless it is a formative piece of work. Students must not be given flat marks for summative group work assessments.
  • Group work with an individual element so each member of the group receives an individualised mark. An example could be an oral presentation with individual reflective logs which outline their specific contribution and learning as the group worked to prepare the presentation. An alternative would be to give a group mark for the overall quality of the oral presentation but an individual mark to the oral contribution of each group member.

Formative group work

Group work can also be used to provide formative and collaborative working experiences for students without the need for a summative assessment attached. The opportunity for students to have formative experiences of group work before carrying out summative assessments related to group work is preferable.

How to use it effectively


Whatever the group task, it is vital that the purpose of working as a group and the expected outcomes of this are made clear to the students involved. The points below should be considered in this light:

  • The rationale and linked learning outcomes should be clearly articulated to the students before starting, particular care should be given to any assessed group task(s);
  • Working in groups involves a number of interpersonal skills which must be embedded in the curriculum and identified prior to, as well as facilitated during the assessed group work. These skills might include:
    • emotional intelligence;
    • conflict resolution;
    • negotiation;
    • giving and receiving feedback.
  • Students should have the opportunity to practise their interpersonal skills prior to undertaking a group assessment (e.g. by taking part in non-assessed group activities, engaging in peer feedback).


Group work should be designed with reference to the learning outcomes and should enable students to demonstrate these successfully. This may be through realising the benefits of working together or through the produced outputs of the group.

  • The design of group work should equip students with knowledge and understanding of how individual roles contribute to groups at a level appropriate for the specified group work;
  • The group task(s) must be both inclusive and accessible by design, taking into account student needs and learning contracts where appropriate;
  • The opportunity for self and/or peer assessment/feedback should be built into the curriculum delivery and/or assessment strategy as necessary;
  • Individual and/or group reflection on the group process should be included where appropriate;
  • Design should include an audit process for monitoring and support (e.g. monitoring of written records/ audio recordings of group meetings on a group wiki).

Support and monitoring

For group work to be a successful learning experience it needs to be supported and this, in turn, requires that there be a system in place to monitor the progress of groups. Monitoring ideally should be integrated into the way a group operates and be student-led. Ground rules should be pre-determined and clearly communicated. Support must be ongoing throughout the period of the group work with the opportunity for tutor feedback and intervention where necessary. Progress must be monitored at set intervals and remedial action taken by the tutor in case of difficulties based on information from the audit process (e.g. chasing/dealing with an absent group member in a timely fashion).


Assessed Group work must be carefully planned and the assessment strategy clearly presented to students. The strategy should ensure that:

  • the assessment of group work is conducted in such a way that it provides evidence of individual contribution and achievement in line with QAA precepts on assessment of students;
  • the assessment should take into account the process as well as the product of the group work;
  • no assessment task should consist solely of a flat group mark, i.e. a common mark awarded to all participants based on the product of a group activity. Any common mark should be combined with another assessment activity, such as an individual reflective piece, which allows an individual’s contribution to be recognised and leads to an individual task mark for each participant. The marks and weighting allocated to the group product and the individual contribution should be clearly specified in the assessment criteria;
  • the marking criteria, including tutor and self/peer assessment criteria where appropriate, is clearly articulated and provided to the group prior to the start of the group task(s). These criteria should indicate what parts of the assessment are marked as a group, and where individual effort is recognised as well as their respective weighting.


Standard institutional quality processes provide a useful mechanism for reviewing the effectiveness of assessed group work activities at both module and course level, on a yearly basis. This should ensure that:

  • assessed group work activities are considered as part of the normal module review process which includes consideration of student performance data, student and staff feedback;
  • consideration of assessed group work activities, as part of an overall assessment strategy for a given course, is included in annual course reviews.

Designing group work assessment tasks

When preparing group work assessment tasks, consider the following:

  • Does the assessment allow for group collaboration but with at least an individual element?
  • How can group collusion be avoided?
  • Are you assessing the product or the process, or both?
  • What are the learning outcomes? Is group work the best way to achieve those learning outcomes?
  • Is the group work inclusive? Consider the diversity of students in the group work design.
  • How the group work fits into the course and student skill development? Course design should take a broad view of assessment and the place of group work within a course experience. Summative group work should be preceded by formative group work, so students have the confidence and experience to succeed in their formative assessments.
  • How will groups be formed? Will students self-select or will you choose the groups? If you choose the groups you may wish to consider using behaviour measurement tools such as Belbin Team Roles to create groups with a variety of team-role types.
  • Will you use peer-assessment/ peer-feedback? How will this contribute to the mark?
  • How will you form the groups? Will students choose their own groups, or will you select the student in each group? Will groups be randomly allocated or will specific criteria be used to determine group make-up?
  • Have you considered Group Work for International Students?
  • Are instructions clear for students in how they set-up and manage their group? Will the students know what to do if there are problems that need resolving?

Guidance for students

The management of group dynamics can be the greatest challenge for students working in groups towards an assessment. The most successful groups ensure even contribution from all members of the group. This is achieved by clear goal setting and clear communication between members of the group. A successful group has an agreed leader who brings the rest of the group together and ensures steady progress towards the shared final goal.

When arranging the members of a group, it is useful to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the potential members of the groups. Belbin Team Roles are a commonly used method of describing the different types of behaviours that can contribute to a team or group. The most successful groups tend to have a balance of different personalities, giving a range of strengths which reduce the impact of any weaknesses. It may not be necessary to team-type all your students, but asking students to consider the make-up of their group members can raise awareness of how their behaviours, strengths and weaknesses will impact on the dynamics of the group.

Problems usually arise when one or more members of the group fail to ‘pull their weight’. This can be for genuine reasons (i.e. illness) and less genuine reasons. Whatever the reason for the lack of contribution for that group member, the group must address it quickly. The group should try to resolve the problem between themselves in the first instance, but if the situation is not resolved quickly the group should contact their tutor in good time to receive further support.


Example 1: Coursework Assessment 2 – project work & poster

Applied Physiology of Sport Performance


  • evaluate experimental techniques and methodologies used to investigate specific issues in sport performance;
  • select, justify and apply appropriate experimental techniques to assess specific aspects of sport performance ;
  • demonstrate effective oral and visual communication skills.


Group project work resulting in a poster and oral defence. Select and implement a battery of physiological tests to assess one aspect of fitness in a participant in your group. For the participant, present and evaluate the test results and make specific training recommendations to improve the aspect of fitness chosen. You must demonstrate that your training recommendations are based on sound physiological principles. Indicate the changes in fitness that you would expect to see and explain how you would monitor and evaluate the training programme.

Work in groups of 4 or 5 to collect the data. You will receive a group mark for the quality of the laboratory work, poster and oral defence and an individual mark for your summary. The group mark will be subject to a peer review process.


Each group should keep a record of the group meetings giving dates, times, attendance and outcomes. Each individual should complete a peer review form.


Example 2: Coursework Assignment 2: peer assessment


Example 3: Coursework assignment 2: record of group meetings



Gatfield, T. (1999). Examining student satisfaction with group projects and peer assessment. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 24 (4), 365-377.

Reeves, T., Herrington, J. and Oliver, R. (2002). Authentic activities and online learning. In: Quality Conversations: Proceedings of the 25th HERDSA Annual Conference. Perth, Western Australia, Australia, 7 – 10 July 2002. Paper from Murdoch University Library Research Repository, last accessed 14 June 2013. Online at:

Thorley, L., and Gregory, R. (eds.) (1994). Using group-based learning in higher education. London: Kogan Page.

A dissertation is a substantial piece of writing derived from research undertaken by a student, most commonly as a final-year project in undergraduate honours degrees or Master’s degrees.

Dissertations are the result of a student’s independent study carried out under the guidance of a supervisor in a dissertation module in which 100% of the assessment is coursework. Different subject areas may follow different conventions in relation to the production of dissertations.

Why use it?

Dissertations allow students to:

  • develop deep insight in a chosen area of study within their field;
  • demonstrate critical thinking, originality and independence of enquiry to produce a comprehensive piece of original research within an appropriate area;
  • develop and demonstrate their academic and professional skills by collecting and analysing data, generating evidence-based conclusions and making realistic and actionable recommendations;
  • arrive at the culmination of their study by fluently demonstrating their grasp of the subject.

How to use it effectively

Students need to engage with the coursework from the outset of the dissertation module. The student production of a Dissertation Proposal and Action Plan enables them to make the necessary initial commitment to their topic of study and provides the basis for formative feedback from peers and the module tutor. A proposal statement within the action plan should identify the focus and scope of the intended study and should include a proposal statement that describes how the student will conduct the research. The action plan is likely to need several iterations before it is ready to be signed off by the tutor through discussion with the student. The level of planning is usually time well spent. Where appropriate students will also need to complete and submit a Research Ethics Checklist alongside their Research Proposal.

Dissertation projects typically require regular meetings with their tutors to prevent unnecessary and unhelpful deviation and to ensure students are working effectively, meeting the deadlines set out in their plan and using appropriate methods.

Dissertations require substantial periods of independent study. Students should be working through their project stages to a similar pace and rhythm. It can be helpful to bring them together, therefore, so that they can compare progress, methods, standards and common issues. Regular meetings provide the tutor with opportunities to check progress, identify issues, provide generic feedback and motivate the students.

Assessing dissertations

As with other assessment types, assessment will be use clear assessment criteria derived from the learning outcomes and level descriptors in the approved module document and/or the dissertation handbook.

Guidance for students

Dissertations present a number of challenges for some students. These include:

  • Selecting a topic and defining the scope of their study;
  • Selecting and using appropriate research methodologies, especially where empirical results are required;
  • Defining a suitable structure for presenting their study;
  • Managing their time in a structured way for a large project;
  • Bringing the necessary rigour to an area of interest and producing a coherent piece of work of sufficient quality.

These challenges indicate areas that should be addressed by dissertation modules tutors through classes, tutorials and formative feedback.

Dissertation handbooks can be produced to address the above challenges and to set out:

  • a dissertation timeline showing project milestones and submission deadlines;
  • maximum word count or word count range;
  • examples of expected referencing;
  • academic integrity guidelines;
  • ethical clearance;
  • risk assessment;
  • descriptions of methods and standards (e.g. organisation, presentation, format, cover documents/abstracts, style guide);
  • non-negotiable conventions used to present their dissertation, e.g. binding requirements;
  • information about tutor supervision and expected or mandatory attendance;
  • information about submitting proposals, drafts and completed scripts;
  • notes for students: e.g. “The dissertation becomes a public document once submitted. If material within the dissertation is commercially sensitive you must alert the dissertation co-ordinator/course leader in order that the document is NOT lodged in the library.”


The following common criteria are used for marking dissertations:

  • Abstract – Does the abstract give a comprehensive overview of the project?
  • Introduction to the study – Does the introduction clearly set out aim of the research, the content and structure of the project?
  • Background – Has the student identified and used relevant historic and up-to-date literature and research to background their study? This focus may warrant more weighting than others as it addresses the learning and endeavour associated with the process of establishing the study.
  • Research focus – Is the rationale for the study clear? Is the research question or hypothesis clear and useful?
  • Methodology – Is the approach to the study suitable and have suitable methods been used appropriately? Is the methodology clear enough for the experiment or study to be repeated by others to validate the findings?
  • Findings – Are the empirical findings presented in an acceptable format and are they reliable?
  • Discussion – Does the study identify relevant key points for discussion in relation to the research question or hypothesis?
  • Conclusions – Are the conclusions clear and valid? Are areas for further research identified?
  • Citations, references and bibliography – Have the works cited in the text, or used during the study, been listed appropriately?
  • Miscellaneous
    • Has the student worked to the research plan signed off at the outset of the study?
    • Have illustrations and graphical devices been used appropriately?
    • Is the overall structure and style of the work clear and easy to follow? Does it to specified style guidance?
    • Has the student used an Appendices section appropriately?

The following provides an indication of the typical learning outcomes resulting from a dissertation module. Graduates should demonstrate:

  • A critical awareness of current issues in the topic area informed by leading edge research and practice in the field;
  • An understanding of appropriate techniques sufficient to allow detailed investigation into relevant issues from the topic area;
  • Ability to acquire and analyse data and information, to evaluate their relevance and validity, and to synthesise a range of information in the context of new situations;
  • Ability to conduct research into issues that requires familiarity with a range of data from the subject area, research sources and appropriate methodologies, and for such to inform the overall learning process;

The course team should also consider how the dissertation will develop graduates so that they are able to:

  • Consistently apply their knowledge and subject-specific and wider intellectual skills;
  • Deal with complex issues both systematically and creatively, make sound judgements in the absence of complete data, and communicate their conclusions clearly to a range of audiences;
  • Be proactive in recognising the need for change and have the ability to manage change;
  • Be adaptable, and show originality, insight, and critical and reflective abilities which can all be brought to bear upon problem situations;
  • Make decisions in complex and unpredictable situations;
  • Evaluate and integrate theory and practice in a wide range of situations;
  • Be self-directed and able to act autonomously in planning and implementing projects at professional levels;
  • Take responsibility for continuing to develop their own knowledge and skills.

Projects are diverse in nature and typically practical, culminating in one or more outputs which provide the focus for assessment. Outputs are process-oriented and product based. Evidence of learning is often found in process-oriented outputs, while products (artefacts, events, exhibitions, recordings, performances, etc.) provide students with clarity and authenticity, and therefore motivation.

Assessment is likely to focus on written, reflective reports or posters in order to value process, while students may expect attention to be given to their products: e.g. a performance, a piece of artwork, or a new product design. It is important to clarify the focus of assessment through good briefings and the use of assessment criteria.

Why use projects

Projects, and Project-Based Learning, lead to authentic, active, constructive, intentional, and co-operative engagement (Jonassen, 2000).

Continuous diagnostic and formative assessments are a feature of Project-Based Learning. The authenticity of the task is often highly motivating, but this is tempered by the need for planning and self-management.

Projects are multi-faceted requiring the development and use of many skills including organisation, decision making, communication, presentation, and often team working skills. In higher education, projects typically require student research and development skills, using methods of inquiry that draw upon on a variety of sources (Frank and Barzilai, 2004). However, it is the application of knowledge that distinguishes Project-Based Learning from other modes.

Projects create:

  • rich contexts for feedback as they are structured around phases and milestones which create regular and specific opportunities for decision-making, reflective logging, and peer and tutor feedback;
  • opportunities for variety in assessment methods, reducing biases which can affect marks and feedback (Co-operative LC [nd]);
  • opportunities for collaboration (working together as groups) and co-operation (working together in parallel on common tasks) allowing the student learner freedom “to test their ideas against other students” and “to appreciate new perspectives” (Meyers and Jones, 1991);
  • deep learning situations in which meaning is socially negotiated, drawing upon multiple perspectives of reality (von Glasersfeld, 1988);
  • immersion stemming from heightened authenticity and a mix of formal and informal interactivity resulting in a continuous exchange of peer feedback;
  • projects can be designed around real world needs involving real clients, patients, customers and audiences who constitute the criteria for authentic assessment. Where it is not safe or possible to directly engage with real world contexts, indirect engagement using simulations (e.g. in business, science, law, computing, education, health, leisure, etc.) can be used.

There are multiple opportunities for successful learning within a project. Therefore the evaluation of successful learning in a project is not dependent upon the final execution and delivery of the key project artefact or ‘product’, but upon evidence of successful engagement and learning through involvement with the project’s many facets along the way.

How to use it effectively

Student projects can be designed as individual assignments. Dissertation projects, discussed separately, are an example of this. However, projects can be rich and immersive when they are designed to involve student groups (also see Group Work). In addition to the careful design of assessment criteria, students should be briefed to value the different facets of the project process including:

  • Peer co-operation or ‘team work’ – students working together to a common goal (the group output often recorded in a project report) and in support of individual development, attainment and exposition (captured in individual reflective outputs);
  • Creativity – the generation of ideas in response to a problem or opportunity;
  • Planning – the careful organisation of resources over time constrained by skills, knowledge, time, environments, materials and agreed objectives.

Because a project is made up of a series of phases, students need to systematically work to project milestones or control points. Each milestone needs to be carefully specified and monitored so that progress to the next phase is determined by the meeting of essential conditions. Monitoring (formative assessment) can be done by the learner, peers, teams or tutors. Feedback at these points is diagnostic and formative, and can include:

  • Self and peer – “what are our strengths and weaknesses? How have we done so far?”
  • Integrative or authentic – “Does it ‘fly’?”
  • Tutor – re-orientating the students and their work for the next phase.

Guidance for students

High quality briefing and regular monitoring and feedback are characteristics of Project-Based Learning. Consider using (with reference to a cake making project metaphor):

  • A Project Specification template to tightly define phases (metaphorically: deciding on the recipe; buying the ingredients; organising the cooking environment; mixing the ingredients; using the oven; presenting the cake; tidying up the mess);
  • Process diagrams – visualisations can simplify and clarify the stages involved and highlight dependencies;
  • Modelling activities for each phase (metaphorically: for example, how to crack an egg);
  • Decision logs for recording decisions and how they are made so they can be evaluated later (metaphorically: recording your method);
  • Self or Peer Assessment guidance and templates (metaphorically: tasting and providing feedback!).


Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota (no date) Cooperative Learning and Assessment

Frank, M. and Barzilai, A.l(2004) Integrating alternative assessment in a project-based learning course for pre-service science and technology teachers. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 29:1, 41 — 61

Jonassen, D. (2000). Computers as Mindtools for Schools. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Meyers, C., and Jones, T.B. (1993) Promoting active learning: strategies for the college classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers

von Glasersfeld, E. (1988) Cognition, construction of knowledge and teaching. (Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED294 754).