The Need to Develop Practice in Assignment Brief Design
The core objective of an assignment brief is to maximize the likelihood that students do what is required and expected in assessment. The aim of these guidelines is to support this by developing the effectiveness of a brief’s communication of task requirements and expectations in order to enhance the student academic experience and ultimately, their performance in assessment.
The term ‘assignment brief’ refers herein solely to the written instructions provided to communicate the requirements and expectations of non-exam assessment tasks. A brief is also sometimes referred to as the assignment instructions, criteria, prompts, specifications or rubric. ‘Assignment brief’ is not used in these guidelines to refer to aspects of the task design itself or to the assessment criteria.
There has been an increasing focus of attention on assessment-related practices in tertiary education, particularly with regard to feedback. Although some of this attention has been focused on the design stage of the assessment task itself, there has been less focus on the task setting stage of assessment in general, and in particular, on the effectiveness of delivery of the task instructions i.e. the assignment brief.
The need to focus on the communicative effectiveness of the assignment brief has become more pressing as assignment briefs have become increasingly complex. This is largely because the range of learning outcomes assessment tasks now need to target has increased, due primarily to the need to meet the demands of employability and to cater for individual differences. This has required a widening and increasingly varied range of assessment types. With the massification of higher education and the diversification of the student body this has meant an increasing proportion of students are now less familiar with the conventions and requirements of this increasing range of assessment types. The increased complexity of the brief therefore, coupled with the call to ensure inclusivity and reduce potential disparities in student attainment, makes effective communication of assignment requirements and expectations both more challenging and more urgent.
This need has perhaps also come more to the fore due to the call for both staff and students alike to share responsibility for developing assessment literacy in a cultivated community of academic practice. An effectively shared communication and understanding of the assessment task is one area that contributes to this process.
The process of improving communicative effectiveness will not only reduce student uncertainty but also allow students to allocate more time to enhancing their academic performance and thus improve the student experience. With fewer queries on what is required and expected it will also lead to a more efficient and effective use of institutional support resources.
The guidelines are designed on the assumption that the brief:
· relates to a constructively aligned task
· adheres to the relevant institutional guidelines for the assessment task
They also assume there are features of assignment briefs that contribute to their communicative effectiveness and the effective features should be maximised whilst the use of less effective features should be minimised.
The remaining reasons supporting the use of these guidelines derive from the specific nature of such high stakes instructions in an academic context and from the drive to enhance the student experience. These are :
To meet the communication challenge more effectively
1. The writing of instructions is fundamentally different from other types of written communication so merits being an area of continuing professional development for staff.
2. Assignments, since assessment now has to target the demands of an expanding range and complexity of learning outcomes, require increasingly complex instructions.
3. Expertise in the subject and familiarity with the assignment task, means the writer of the brief may not be best placed to evaluate the communicative effectiveness of their own instructions and the guidelines can help with this.
4. There are features of assignment briefs which research indicates contribute to their communicative effectiveness and knowledge of these should inform our assessment practice.
Enhancing the student experience and performance
1. The more effective the communication of assessment requirements and expectations the better students are able to show their knowledge, understanding and skills.
2. The level of challenge for students in assessment should derive primarily from carrying out the assessment task itself rather than from working out what has to be done from the brief.
3. Student cognitive resources should be allocated primarily towards learning, enhancing performance and showing how they have met relevant learning outcomes rather than towards working out what is required in an assessment task.
4. Optimising the communicative effectiveness of the brief leads to fewer queries on requirements and expectations and so to less staff and study support resources being used, thus allowing time for more constructive dialogue on the academic task itself.
5. More effective brief design frees up more student time and cognitive resources to be invested in the task itself rather than in the processing of its requirements, thus potentially enhancing both the student academic experience and their academic performance.
The guidelines are applicable to all student types and, although perhaps of greater immediacy when designing briefs for those in the early stages of their assessment experience, are applicable to those being designed for students at all stages of their studies.
The first instance of key terms appear in a blue font in the text and are explained, as used in these guidelines, in the Glossary of Terms .