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Assessment and Feedback before Content

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) play a crucial role in shaping individuals into competent and prepared professionals and citizens. The content and instruction delivered by HEIs are hence crucial in helping students acquire knowledge and skills that prepare them for their future careers. However, the effectiveness of content and instruction depends on how it is designed and delivered. This module explores how we teach in Higher Education, with a focus on two specific aspects, as suggested by the Understanding by Design framework: the setup of appropriate feedback tools and strategies and their connection with assessment principles.

Teaching in the Context of Higher Education

Since Higher Education is characterised by a wide variety of disciplines and curricula, each requiring specific knowledge and skills, content and instruction are ideally designed to ensure that students acquire the knowledge and skills required by their field of study.

Instruction in Higher Education involves the use of different learning strategies and teaching techniques to enhance student learning, and the use of various frameworks has been documented in research (Laurillard, 2012). Within methods and “learning scenarios” that are perceived as more “classical” and traditional, like lectures, practical exercises, group exercises, class discussions and research projects, it is possible to experiment with various teaching and learning strategies.

Feedback Design in the Framework of Understanding by Design

The design of feedback devices and opportunities plays a key role in the effectiveness of instruction in Higher Education. As we have seen in Module 1, Understanding by Design (UbD) is a content design framework that helps teachers design lessons and courses effectively and intentionally. It is not the only possible frame of reference in this respect, yet it is a good starting point even for more experienced teachers to reflect on practices that might be affected by the sedimentation of teaching habits on which sometimes there is simply not enough time to reflect.

After having focused in Module 2 on the importance of the relationship with students in the definition of learning objectives, and before moving on to Content Design and to the setup of a Learning Environment in Module 4, we will focus here on the importance of assessment in UbD and DI, to be able to identify feedback strategies that comply with the assessment objectives.

Three assessment principles from UbD and DI

Tomlinson and McTighe identify three guiding principles for evaluation:

Assessment Principle 1: Consider 'photo albums' as opposed to 'snapshots'.

Just as a photo album makes sense if it generally contains a series of pictures taken over time in different contexts, an evaluation must also make use of multiple occasions and elements to be effective. When viewed as a whole, an album presents a more accurate and revealing 'portrait' of an individual than the individual photographs in it.

This is also true for assessment in higher education: a single exam at the end of a course is less likely to provide a complete picture of a student's learning than a collection of several tests that may testify to specific or partial aspects. 

Assessment Principle 2: Match Measures to Objectives

According to the European Council’s Recommendation of 22 May 2018 on key competencies for lifelong learning, competencies can be defined as a combination of

  • knowledge is composed of the facts and figures, concepts, ideas and theories which are already established and support the understanding of a certain area or subject;
  • skills are defined as the ability and capacity to carry out processes and use the existing knowledge to achieve results;
  • attitudes describe the disposition and mindsets to act or react to ideas, persons or situations.
    (European Council, 2018)

Assessing these three dimensions separately requires different tools and approaches. In the case of knowledge, it will be necessary to use 'objective' tests that measure precisely the acquisition of notions and concepts. In the case of skills, tests based on performance will be needed. In the case of aptitudes, observations, portfolios and self-assessment tools will be needed. Choosing the right assessment method hence depends on the kind of component of competence that we need to collect evidence of.

Assessment Principle 3: Form Follows Function

In Tomlinson and McTighe's (2006) analysis, student assessment can take three main forms, which correspond to different functions:

  • Summative assessment is carried out at the end of a course or learning period, to assess the level of learning achieved by students. It is used mostly to measure student knowledge and performance at the end of a course and to assign a grade or assessment.
  • Formative assessment is carried out during the learning process, to provide students with continuous feedback on their learning to improve it. It is used to measure students' performance so that they can receive immediate feedback on their strengths and weaknesses and improve their learning over time.
  • Diagnostic assessment is a type of assessment used at the beginning of the learning process to identify students' knowledge, skills and abilities in a particular subject or field of study. The purpose of diagnostic assessment is to identify students' learning gaps and to provide teachers with information on how to adapt their teaching to meet students' needs.

If the only form of assessment adopted is summative, there is a risk of failing to gather critically important information during the learning process.

Waiting until the end of teaching to find out how well  students have learned is simply too late.” (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006, p. 71)

In the upcoming sections of this course, we will focus on some feedback strategies and guidelines that can help achieve the fundamental objective behind UbD: gathering evidence of learning and understanding.


Laurillard, D. (2012). Teaching as a design science. Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology. Routledge.

Tomlinson, C. A., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction & understanding by design: connecting content and kids. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

European Council. Council Recommendation of 22 May 2018 on key competencies for lifelong learning (2018). European Union. Retrieved from

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