Writing effective assessment briefs

While the majority of this resource deals with writing effective exam questions (or objective testing) it is important to draw attention to writing assessment briefs, i.e. ensuring communicative effectiveness of the brief. What is understood here as an 'assessment brief' is the written text and instructions provided to communicate the requirements and expectations of non-exam assessment tasks.

Below are some underlying principles of communicative effectiveness reported by Gilbert and Maguire (2014, p.14):

  1. Working on the communicative effectiveness of the brief will help in narrowing the gap between staff expectations and student performance.
  2. Assignment briefs should be designed such that they maximise inclusivity with regard to individual differences in language, cultural and educational background, in information processing preferences or in willingness to request clarification of requirements and expectations.
  3. A clear, explicit and accessible brief does not imply a reduction in constructive dialogue emerging from the assessment task itself.
  4. One should aim towards the written brief enabling full understanding of what is required and expected in task performance rather than depending on additional spoken or other means of clarifying instructions.
  5. Maximising the communicative effectiveness of instructions does not imply spoon-feeding students but means designing and scaffolding briefs appropriately and according to students' stage of academic and assessment literacy development.
  6. A clear, explicit and accessible brief need not necessarily imply a restriction of student innovation and creativity in task performance or hinder development of independence.
  7. Although one might attribute students not doing what was expected in assignments to their not reading the brief thoroughly, we should not base our practice on a deficit model of the student's understanding of instructions, but on the initial assumption that the fault lies in a communicative failure in the brief.
  8. Although making the implicit explicit in briefs may be an unreachable goal, this does not mean we should abandon the attempt.

Gilbert and Maguire (2014) produced a set of guidelines for writing good assignment briefs. Those guidelines are divided into assignment brief task (text type and explicitness), assignment brief design (layout, language and consistency) and assignment brief enhancement (delivery, dialogue and monitoring).