Assessment weightings to be capped at 60%

The review considered student comments that “assessment is overwhelming, poorly communicated and not clearly linked to learning outcomes.”

The University of Sydney will cap most assessment weightings at 60% and seek to avoid “over-assessment,” overhauling its assessment strategy in a move which drew criticism for increasing staff workloads.

At a meeting today, the Academic Board passed multiple recommendations from its Thematic Review 2021, titled “The Quality of Assessment at the University of Sydney.”

The review considered student comments that “assessment is overwhelming, poorly communicated and not clearly linked to learning outcomes.” 

While recent Unit of Study surveys have shown improvements, USyd consistently ranks last on assessment and feedback metrics within the Group of Eight universities, and performs poorly against other Australian universities. 

In the review, USyd attributes this negative response to a “lasting” or “magnified” impact of a poor experience of assessment or feedback.

The review recommended that assessment tasks apart from research projects have a maximum weighting of 60%, after finding that “students did not respond well to excessive memorising and assessments weighted 80%-100%” and preferred multiple tasks throughout the semester. About 9% of final exams in Semester 1, 2021 (84 of 928) had a weighting of 60% or more.

It cautioned that assessment weightings needed to be proportional to the effort required from students for the task, decrying the use of minor 2-3% assessments which had the same workload as 40-50% assessments in the same unit. 

Although the 60% cap passed without dissent, Honi understands that some academics in Sydney Law School, which often relies on heavily-weighted final exams, were strongly opposed.

Academics were concerned about a lack of consultation in the process, as well as the new requirement being unsuitable to individual faculties and schools.

Other recommendations included avoiding “over-assessment” across majors and courses, and encouraging “authentic assessments” that focus on applying knowledge to problems that are found in disciplinary and professional contexts.

This means a stronger pivot towards “projects, investigations and report writing” over traditional exams, citing the introduction of heavily-criticised interdisciplinary and Industry and Community Project Units (ICPUs) as an example.

The review claimed that “students did enjoy group work as a way to make friends and build a professional network,” potentially flagging more group projects in students’ futures. 

Feedback was an important issue for the review, which highlighted that students wanted “greater timeliness, clarity, consistency and transparency” around marking guidelines and rubrics, including clearer instructions and sample practice questions before exams.

However, a recommendation of collegial peer review, where academics review each others’ assessment tasks to increase  “authentic assessments,” was criticised as requiring major increases in resourcing.

Academic Board members were concerned that the burden would fall upon “the amazing increasing workloads of staff to improve the student experience,” especially for casual staff.

The review mentioned staff workload in just two paragraphs, saying that assessment design “needs to be understood as a component of workload.” Rachael Weiss, University Quality Manager who also presented the review to the Academic Board, added that “it would be ideal to give students individualised feedback in addition to [general feedback], but we just don’t have the resources.”

The Academic Board conducts a Thematic Review into a different issue each year. Previous Thematic Reviews have focused on Student Safety and Wellbeing (2018), Student Placements, Internships and Research Projects (2019), and English Language Pathways and Support (2020).

“I’m happy that assessment was being reviewed and that both quality and quantity is being reconsidered,” said SRC President Swapnik Sanagavarapu, who sat on the panel for the review.

The University will begin implementing the recommendations immediately, with a more detailed implementation plan to be presented to the Academic Board in March 2022.