Assessment Design: Perspectives and Examples Informed by Universal Design for Learning

Section 2.1: Key Factors for Assessment Design

Assessment design can be daunting. Sometimes we hear from students that they doubt the relevance and usefulness of their work, or they simply have a hard time completing all the assignments required for the course. In these cases, learners may experience barriers that they don’t even recognize as barriers, internalizing them or blaming the course, the instructor, or themselves. Learners can find that they are not relying upon their strengths or are not given the chance to show their best work. At other times, we, as instructors, underestimate the power of meaningful feedback or overlook the time and effort we need to craft that feedback. These problems can create a vicious circle where you and your students are both feel stuck and frustrated.

If you have experienced any of these challenges, it may mean that you have opportunities to reexamine your assessment design through a UDL lens. You can approach these challenges by investigating and empathizing with the student experience, soliciting feedback from students, creating safe conversational spaces to identify the problems, and adopting appropriate strategies to engage your students and support expert learning. Don’t forget that supporting yourself is also important as you empathize and investigate assessment challenges. When in doubt, find a supportive colleague or group who likewise are interested in trying new things so you can move your assessment decision-making forward!

Before you start (re)designing your assignments and assessments, here are the five key factors for your consideration:

  • Learning outcomes and objectives
  • High-stake and low-stake assessments
  • Workload for you and your students
  • Feedback and rubrics
  • Delivery mode

 Learning Outcomes and Objectives

The best place to start creating an overall assessment strategy is to carefully examine your learning outcomes and objectives. From a UDL perspective, students need to know why they are being assessed and what might be the skills or abilities they are working on through the assessments so they can prioritize their goals and adjust learning strategies accordingly. As an instructor, explaining how your assessments are tied to learning outcomes and objectives can be critical to engage your students and support goal setting.

While sometimes learning outcomes and learning objectives are used interchangeably, it is important to understand that they are different.

  • A learning outcome describes the overall purpose or goal from participation in an educational activity. Learning outcome is a reflection of the desired state.
  • Learning objectives are used to organize specific topics or individual learning activities to achieve the overall learning outcome.

Here are some examples from UCLA Health Course Planning Tip (2016):

Learning Outcomes Learning Objectives
Demonstrate knowledge of evidence-based treatment for hypertensive patients by passing post-test with score of ≥ 80%. List 5 side effects of anti-hypertensive agents.


Correctly identify required actions to manage patients in hypertensive crisis by analyzing a case study. Discuss risks associated with untreated hypertension.
Utilize an evidence-based protocol. State normal range for blood pressure.

In practice, you may use course-level learning outcomes to guide the design of the overall assessment plan and use learning objectives to create the specific assessments for each module or topic. Ultimately, your assessment plan should be aligned with the learning outcomes and objectives, and reflect the specific knowledge, skills, or abilities identified in the course outcomes. Even before you offer choices or consider engagement, examine whether you have a sound rationale whereby course activities, content, and assessments are in line.

Keep in mind that simply listing the type of assessments in your syllabus is not sufficient to engage students. It is crucial to communicate with students the relevance of these assessments and how they might benefit from doing them. To take it a step further, consider offering choice of assessments, with that choice being grounded in the meaningfulness of assessments. What would enrich the learning experience? What would help students feel they have consolidated knowledge or feel a solid sense of their skill set?

Low-Stake and High-Stake Assessments

Low-stake assessments are also referred as formative assessments, which usually have low or no point value in a learner’s grade. These assessments may include journal posts, discussions, and knowledge checks. Research shows that formative assessments motivate students to learn and make them aware of the areas they need to work on, thus contributing to the process and outcome of learning (Weurlander et al, 2012).

High-stake assessments are also referred as summative assessments, which means that they are often used to decide the final score or grade on a learner’s academic record. They are used to evaluate student learning by comparing with certain standards or benchmark. These assessments could include a mid-term or final exam, modular quizzes, standardized tests, a final project, or a final paper.

A good assessment plan should balance low-stake and high-stake assessments. While high-stake assessment is necessary in many educational contexts, we encourage frequent and varied formative assessments in which choice of modality, topic, or pacing can help cultivate expert learners from a UDL perspective.

Workload for You and Your Students 

Through course evaluation, we sometimes hear from students that there is too much reading, too many assignments, or too many tests or exams in a course. As an instructor, sometimes we are also concerned that the workload can suddenly become overwhelming during mid-term or toward the end of the term. Worse, we sometimes hear that assessments make so sense or don’t seem to be connected with the course content in any meaningful way. When this happens, it can be important to acknowledge that these feelings around workload can have a lot to do with how we design our assessment plans.

The first step to address this issue is to start thinking how long it will take for a student to complete each activity in your course, and what are the maximum hours we expect them to spend on the course. Be sure to check in with students frequently on workload and meaningfulness of assessments. How long is the work typically taking? What pieces of the content are meaningful, challenging, or easy? Do students want more challenges and what kind of challenge are they seeking? A straightforward way to assessing workload is to create a table that lists the time needed for all activities such as reading articles, composing a discussion post, and prepping for exams. Work on this table together with students to map out workload, expectation, and to leave space for collaboration and designing multiple routes to assessment. We highly recommend introducing students to the Workload Estimator designed by Wake Forest University and creating a workload plan together.

While you are working with students on workload calculations and checking in on the meaningfulness of assessments, be sure to consider your own workload. Often, instructors balk at the idea of UDL because it seems like even more work when instructors often feel overloaded already.

Feedback and Rubrics

A key to successful assessment is giving students a clear understanding of what the expectations are for their work and providing meaningful feedback that facilitate the learning process. Other than verbal and written feedback, rubrics can serve as a baseline of what is expected in learning and can be an efficient tool to provide timely, detailed, and consistent feedback.

Rubrics can generally be divided into holistic rubrics and analytical rubrics.

  • Holistic rubrics usually list one general criterion and is used to assess students’ overall achievement.
  • Analytic rubrics include multiple criteria and allows you to assess students’ achievements based on the criteria predefined in the table.

You may refer to the two examples from Queens University.

Rubrics can be useful for all kinds of assignments such as written assignments, oral presentations, teamwork, peer review, and self-assessment. If you are new to rubrics, you may start by creating one or two rubrics per term, or ask your colleagues if they have rubrics that you can use or modify.

You may also consider creating rubrics WITH your students. If students are offered choices around assessment, it makes sense to offer choices around rubric style. What are the key points? What will constitute a good presentation, or effective group work? When students co-create the rubric, they are, in essence, setting up a meaningful goal for themselves. Student input into rubrics means that instead of guessing what the instructor wants, or hoping for an A, students will have developed the goal that they can work towards and can turn their attention to effective learning instead of guessing, fearing, or hoping that they are on the right track.

Delivery Mode

As we know, delivery mode is generally divided into three main categories: face-to-face, blended, and fully online. These delivery modes tend to create an impression of preferred assessment methods or boundaries when we think about assessment design. For example, students tend to be required to complete more online assessments and discussion forums in an online course than in a face-to-face course.

While it is important to consider how delivery mode informs assessment strategies, we also need to be mindful about how it limits our perspectives on assessment design. For example, some instructors may feel that, in an online course, they can only resort to online quizzes, discussion forums, and essays.

But the truth is that online courses can also adopt a variety of assessment methods such as authentic assessments. With some scaffolding, students could still engage in activities or assignments that are authentic and experiential. For instance, in an online leadership course, students can be asked to interview someone they admire and make connections with people in the real world. Alternatively, students can also be given opportunities to volunteer in local organizations or communities and reflect on their experiences through online discussions. Similarly, face-to-face courses can also benefit from using a variety of assessment methods that offer students more choices or allow them to be more creative.

We will discuss different assessment methods in the next section so you can determine what may be the best for your course.


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A Comprehensive Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Seanna Takacs; Junsong Zhang; Helen Lee; Lynn Truong; and David Smulders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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