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Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Reviewing your modular curriculum towards developing a coherent programme assessment strategy.

Jessica Evans, The Open University

Introduction

What general principles do programmes need to consider when aiming strategically to enhance assessment at a higher level than the module? Modularity can lead to a silo approach where a course does not align assessment within and across study levels, and where there is no assessment opportunity that tests the overarching graduate attributes stated in the programme outcomes. And often, in reality, degree programmes are put together using already existing modules that may have been designed for other degrees – retro-fitting of this kind adds to the complexity when one’s objective is to create a distinctive qualification with clear graduate outcomes that are delivered by its core contributing modules.

Staff and students should be able readily to describe and understand the relationships between the individual learning units of a whole programme of study. Lack of linkages invariably means a fragmented student experience entailing over-assessment, chaotic distribution of formative and summative assessments across the course, and either repetitive assessment types that do not allow all outcomes to be properly assessed or conversely not enough developmental practising of the same type of assessments due to new assessment types being introduced never to be encountered again.

However, modularity need not in itself prevent the creation of a coherent assessment experience for students on any given programme of study. The objective of reviewing the purpose and type of assessment across a programme is to develop assessment strategies for a cohesive, progressive, explicit and integrative assessment diet for students over the whole course of their studies.
  • Cohesive – the assessment strategy needs to knit together across all the modules in the programme with clarity of assessment purpose at each level and from one to the next, along with clear expectations of the threshold that students should be achieving.
  • Progressive – assessment will be designed sequentially, from one module to the next where modules are taken in compulsory order, so that skills are incrementally developed, that is introduced in a basic and introductory form and then developed and synthesised with other skills as students go up the study levels.
  • Explicit – across the core framework of modules within a programme of study (i) what is being assessed; (ii) how it is being assessed by various tasks; and (iii) the criteria being used to test performance on those tasks related to study level, should all be described clearly by staff and communicated to students. If it’s not clear to staff it cannot be explicit for students during their learning journey.
  • Integrative –it needs to be obvious that there is a means of testing students’ demonstration of the graduate outcomes which are synthetic – i.e. at a higher level than any of the individual module outcomes (see below).
In achieving the above, we lay out the conditions for students to successfully demonstrate the specific learning objectives for their chosen programme. This can be achieved without making structural changes to the modular system (such as removing assessment from modules and placing it at the end of levels or stages – see curriculum mapping). ‘Curriculum mapping’ is one method you can use to audit existing curriculum and to then take steps to create a coherent assessment strategy to deliver programme outcomes.

Advice

  • Pay attention to the structure of your programme, ensuring that there is a balance between compulsory/core modules and optional modules that allows you to devise a strong enough qualification-level assessment framework.
  • Bear in mind that you may not exert control over the assessment practices of optional modules if they are in another Department or Faculty that hosts the main programme for that module. There is therefore a trade-off between coherence in a programme and the number of electives, since the more you let programmes share modules, the harder it is to ensure cohesion.
  • Remember that the structure may be coherent on paper but it’s critical that lecturing staff understand it and deliver it on the ground so that qualification outcomes are embedded in modules. So you need to involve all stakeholder staff in the course design discussion – treating this from the outset as a key piece of collective professional staff development so that the sum of parts make the intended whole.

Useful reading

Price, M., Rust, C., O’Donovan, B., Handley, K. (2012) ‘Planning Assessment’, Chapter 3 in Assessment Literacy, The Foundation for Improving Student Learning, ASKe, The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes, July.

O’Neill, G. (2010) ‘Programme Design: Coherence, Sequence and Integration in a Programme’, January, University College Dublin – accessible also at http://www.ucd.ie/teaching/resources/programmedesigndevelopment/coherentprogrammedesign/ where there is a collection of resources.

Fink, L.D (2003) Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Diamond, R.M. (1998) Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula: A Practical Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

‘A Marked Improvement’ (2012) – HEA Report, accessed at https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/node/3950