Preparing to Teach Remotely (Part 2): Designing Assessment Tasks

Professor Nick James

Last week I began describing my efforts to prepare for remote teaching next semester: I will be coordinating the new subject Enterprise Law, a compulsory subject in Bond University’s new Transformation degrees including the Bachelor of Legal Transformation. My first step was to engage with a broad overview of remote teaching. (Since that post, my colleague Tory Baumfield has drawn my attention to this excellent article, written specifically for law teachers struggling with the transition to remote teaching, and which I strongly encourage you to read if you are not sure where to begin.) I then thought carefully about my learning outcomes, and whether they remain suitable in a remote teaching context.

This week my focus will be upon ensuring the assessment I will be administering in my subject is appropriate, rigorous and aligned with my learning outcomes. This final point is important: as explained last week, the notion of constructive alignment tells us that the assessment tasks we give our students should evaluate the extent to which the students have achieved the learning outcomes we set for the subject. If I have stated a learning outcome but I don’t assess it, or if I have an assessment task that measures something other than a learning outcome, I really should reconsider either the learning outcomes or the assessment task.

Remote teaching will prevent me from using some forms of assessment I have used in the past, but it is also encouraging me to adopt other forms of assessment, some of which may on reflection be more suitable and better aligned with my learning outcomes. They may also be more authentic. One of the more traditional types of assessment used in the discipline of law – the invigilated, handwritten, closed-book examination – prioritises the integrity of the assessment process and challenges the students to demonstrate their understanding of the subject in quite difficult conditions, but it lacks authenticity in that it is difficult to imagine circumstances in which the students will be required to complete a similar task – hand-writing a legal advice in only a couple of hours without access to resource materials – in ‘real life’. A ‘take home’ exam delivered online, where the students have a longer period to complete the task and can access their notes, the textbook and any online resources, certainly raises concerns about integrity and rigour (which can be addressed), but it is more authentic in that it more closely replicates the kind of task they might be asked to undertake in their professional lives.

In choosing appropriate assessment tasks, I want to ensure I use a combination of formative and summative assessment tasks. A formative assessment task is one with the principal objective of enhancing student understanding; marks for the task may or may not contribute to the final grade for the subject. It might be a quiz, the marks for which don’t ‘count’, or it might even be as simple as asking oral questions of my students in class. A summative assessment task, on the other hand, has the principal objective of evaluating student understanding or competence; marks for the task will contribute to the final grade for the subject. It is the summative assessment tasks that are my focus at this stage.

I have expressed the learning outcomes for my subject as:

  1. Explain and critique the law regulating enterprises in Australia, including tort law, contract law, consumer protection and competition regulation, IP law and business law
  2. Communicate their knowledge of the legal system and enterprise law effectively and appropriately, in writing and verbally
  3. Identify, analyse and solve authentic legal problems, taking into consideration their ethical dimensions

I would normally build assessment tasks around these learning outcomes as follows:

  • An interim assessment task that requires the students to keep up to date with the material as it is presented, challenges them to think critically about the material, and tests their understanding of both basic and advanced concepts, e.g. a mid-semester test.
  • Class participation tasks that require the students to participate regularly in class discussions and demonstrate their understanding of the material orally, e.g. tutorial participation marks.
  • A final assessment task that requires the students to synthesise what they have learned in the subject and apply their understanding to solving complex legal and ethical problems, e.g. a final exam.

I don’t need to throw these out and start again. I can retain my broad categories of assessment task, but the way I administer them will change in the online environment.

  • Interim assessment: A mid-semester test can of course be administered online. But I am no longer obligated to administer all of the questions at once. I could instead set up a series of online tests that assess student understanding as it is taught. I might have three mini-tests during the semester. The extreme example is a series of online tests, administered each week of the semester, where I assess concepts from that week. The questions could be well-designed MCQs (which can be marked automatically), complex problems, or anything in between. In my subject I am going to set weekly online tests worth a total of 30% of the final mark, each test comprising a combination of MCQs and short answer questions. It will take some work up front to create a bank of good quality questions, but that effort will pay off during the semester with a reduced marking load.
  • Class participation: If I am teaching my classes online, I should still be able to assess student participation in class. There are however some additional challenges to be taken into account. Does the platform allow me to ‘see’ all of my students? What if a student has a technical difficulty and cannot attend or participate? What if the class is too large for me to easily evaluate student performance online? I may need to provide an alternative ‘channel’ for students to demonstrate that they have met the relevant learning outcome, e.g. an a synchronous discussion board where students can post a written contribution or a short video. In my subject, I will allocate 10% of the final mark to participation. The classes will be small enough for me to assess student participation using a good marking rubric, but I will also give my students the option of posting a short video answer to that week’s tutorial exercise on the subject discussion board.
  • Final assessment: As previously stated, I can replace my normal end-of semester invigilated, handwritten examination with a take-home examination where the students have 24 hours to complete the task and submit their work via the subject website. This will require me to think very carefully about the questions I set. I don’t want to give them a task where they can easily Google the answers. The classic legal problem used in law schools is well suited to this task. Provided it is a relatively novel problem, the students will not be able to find the answer online. I am however conscious of not making the final assessment task unnecessarily stressful, particularly during what is already a very stressful time. I’m also mindful of my own marking load at what will be a very hectic end of semester period. I would normally weight the final task at 60% (relatively high compared to other disciplines but still much less than Law’s traditional 100% final exam). I now think 40% would be more appropriate, and I can ‘move’ the other 20% to earlier in the semester by setting a legal problem similar to what the students would ordinarily do on the exam, but require them to complete it and submit their answer much earlier. This will also allow me to identify problems with their problem solving ability sooner, and provide them with useful feedback about how they can improve.

Once I have settled my assessment regime, I need to make sure I am clear with my students about my expectations regarding their performance. I need to ensure that at the very minimum I provide my students with:

  • a brief description of each assessment task;
  • the marks and weighting allocated to each assessment task;
  • the due date for each assessment task; and
  • the subject learning outcomes aligned with each assessment task.

It is also helpful if I provide my students with additional assessment information, including:

  • a detailed description (including word limits) of each assessment task;
  • submission instructions (including deadlines, how to submit online, and penalties for late submission) or examination conditions (e.g. duration, closed book/open book) for each assessment task;
  • the marking criteria for each assessment task;
  • the dates students can expect each assessment task to be marked and feedback provided;
  • the form that feedback will take (e.g. written feedback, oral feedback, etc);
  • the penalties for exceeding word limits;
  • the process of applying for extensions;
  • late submission penalties; and
  • any policy regarding student appeals of assessment results.

Some of this information will be included in the subject outline, but it will be helpful if all of it is clearly set out on my subject website.

Next week: Choosing appropriate learning activities. Meanwhile don’t forget to check the CPLE’s list of remote teaching resources.

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