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Principles and tips for designing adaptable assessment in economics

This short note has been prepared for Theme 4 of the Economics Network Virtual Symposium in September 2020. Theme 4 includes reflections on how people adapted their assessment with the move to online teaching and assessment in the second half of 2019/20. It also looks forward with ideas on how to design adaptable and innovative assessments for the future.

In this note we focus on the moving forward part, by setting out high-level principles to guide the process of adapting your assessment.

The note has been created by Prof Parama Chaudhury and Prof Cloda Jenkins at the Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics (CTaLE) at UCL. We are, like everyone else, learning and adapting at a rapid pace. We do not claim to know everything on this subject and therefore thought it would be a good opportunity to bring ideas together and share insights. We therefore made this an open source document where everyone with the link could edit.

Tips for choosing the type of assessment that is best for your course

In this section we set out some tips on how to decide what type of assessment is best for your course. These tips apply whether you are assessing online or on campus and generally should help guide you to the most appropriate assessment mix, subject to your institution’s regulations.

  1.  Have more than one piece of assessment to diversify risks for students and for you (eg, Covid-19 lockdown risk): multiple choice questions, open questions, creative activities.

  2. Plan to be online. It is easier to shift to face to face is possible than the other way around. Yes, I´m using Microsoft Teams

  3. Start with your learning outcomes, what do you want students to show that they have learnt at the end of the course. I need to focus on main concepts and theories.

  4. Review the different type of assessment types that you are allowed to use in your institution. The list is probably way longer than you think, indeed many institutions don’t set restrictions but culture or practice around you may suggest otherwise. According to my institution´s rules, I need to use some written exam.

  5. Map what you can do to the learning outcomes. What assessment types are the best way of testing the learning outcomes. It depends on whether I want my students to learn the concepts or how they apply the concepts to solve real problems, understand what happens in the real world and make decisions.

  6. Review what others have done to help you shortlist the most suitable assessment types for your learning outcomes. Talk to people who have experience with doing different assessment types, which may not be the people you work with most regularly for research or other purposes. Other colleagues use different assessment methods, such us, team tasks, oral presentation and so on. They are interesting, but the number of students constraint the type of methods we can use.

  7. Make use of the wide range of resources available on the web to get ideas. The Further Resources section below is a good place to start.

  8. Work with assessment types that you feel comfortable with.

  9. It may help to start by trying things out with low stakes attached to them, for example low percentage marks or formative assessments, so you can see how they work.

  10. How much time do you and students have in the term/semester? Choose the assessment types and mix that use that time well but don’t overburden the students or you.

  11. If you are teaching online, either asynchronously, synchronously or a mix, think about which assessment options are going to incentivise students to stay engaged during the teaching term/semester. This is about both assessment types and timing of assessment.

  12. What size is the cohort that you teach? Think about what is feasible for the size of the group For example, if you teach 50 then essays, presentations and projects are all feasible. But if you teach 500 you may have to think about assessments that can be marked in more automated ways and/or where students can submit in groups. Getting the balance between what is best for meeting learning outcomes and what is feasible for size of cohort can be tough. Of course, having the resources to match the cohort an open up options.

  13. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid); setting up something simple well can be very effective.

Tips for designing a piece of assessment that is open book and online

Once you have chosen your assessment type, or types assuming you have a mix, designing the questions and instructions so that they work for both online and on campus is the best way to be adaptable. We provide tips on the nitty gritty design of a piece of assessment here. They are kept general, rather than relating to particular assessment type. You can get ideas on specific assessment types in the “How to” section of the Theme 4 materials here [add link to area in website where have the ‘How to’ materials].

  1. Don’t assign too many marks to questions, or parts of questions, that can be simply looked up in course materials or wider resources. Make it fairly straightforward to pass the course but also make it really hard, but not impossible, to get marks in the high 80s or higher.

  2. Small tweaks to questions that you used in closed book settings can make a big difference. For example, requiring more explanation to a calculation and assigning more of the marks to the clarity of the explanation.

  3. Asking students to use their own examples alongside using a model or tool ensures they have to think and can differentiate themselves.

  4. Going back to learning outcomes, think about how the questions allow you to assess different levels of meeting the outcomes.

  5. Use the opportunity to do something interesting, allowing you and students to explore applications and adaptations of the core course material. Take advantage of the fact that they have materials in front of them.

  6. Consider group work if you want to reduce your marking load, develop student skills and make collaboration a virtue rather than a concern to be dealt with.

  7. If you are concerned about students getting someone else to do their work, or buying essays from ‘mills’, design questions that are non-standard and where someone needs to have embedded themselves in your specific course to do well. This means also making your course a bit different too. Assessment based on a Real Life response to a work-related task might help here?

  8. Set word or page limits to manage your marking load but also to manage student understanding of what is expected.

  9. Use time constraints if you think that is the best way for students to show what they have learnt but think about where people are working from and the risks of technology working in a window.

  10. Provide clear instructions to students at the start of term/semester about what the assessment will look like, how it will be marked and how they will receive feedback. Repeat these instructions regularly and give students opportunities to work with example (sample) versions of each assessment type so that they know what to do when the work that counts has to be submitted.

  11. When making and providing feedback, understand your institution’s rules and regulations on criteria, feedback turnaround timing and on issues like late submission and word length penalties.

  12. Get to know your Virtual Learning Environment/Learning Management System well. There is probably more functionality that you can take advantage of there than you know about. Conversely I’ve found formative assessments can completely overwhelm the VLE (Canvas) so try on a test module first?

  13. Ask a colleague to try out a draft piece of assessment before doing too much work; and ask colleagues if you can ‘borrow’ their brilliant ideas.

  14. This is a tip for when we go back to having on-campus, invigilated exams in our toolbox but use the good things of online open book exams. In that environment Allow your students to bring in a one A4 sheet, hand-written and not photo-copied cheat sheet to the exam (check with your exams office whether they can accommodate this!). Summarising material is a good revision technique for students and it forces you to avoid questions which can be answered straight from lecture slides or any other material students are likely to have on their cheat sheet.

  15. If your class consists of a lot of group work, have regular peer evaluation to assess engagement. Can be formative, not summative. (Can have multiple formative peer assessments during term and a summative one at the end.)

  16. Again, if you use a lot of group work, make sure to spend time helping groups learn to work together. Have them set ground rules early, for example, in an organized activity during week 2 of the course. (Waiting until week 2 gives them a chance to see the importance of having good ground rules.)

Economics Network resources


Chaudhury P and Jenkins C (2020), Moving to Adaptable Learning Design in Economics (Chapter 7 on Assessment and Feedback)

Healey, M. and Jenkins, A. 2009. Developing undergraduate research and inquiry. York: Higher Education Academy. ISBN 978-1-905788-99-6.

Villarroel, V., Bloxham, S., Bruna, D., Bruna, C. and Herrera-Seda, C. 2018. Authentic assessment: creating a blueprint for course design. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education: 43, 840-854. DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2017.1412396


Sambell K and Brown Sally (2020), Covid-19 Assessment Collection



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