5 Tips for Designing Learning Assessments


o you remember the sweaty-palm stress and resentment that accompanied every high school and university assessment?

Every teacher loved to wax on about the joy of learning, but you probably didn’t feel very joyful as you crammed as many facts as possible into your brain (if you even bothered to study!). The joy usually comes after, in the sheer relief of hitting ‘submit’ or walking out of the assessment hall. By the very next day, you’d be lucky to remember even a fraction of what you’d memorised.

That feeling of dread has lingered into adulthood and digital training courses required by different workplaces. These days it’s usually also mixed with boredom and irritation thanks to the poor design of many assessments. Far too many eLearning assessments have been neglected, their only purpose to meet KPI’s instead of actually capturing or extending learning.

As a result, assessments are an underutilised hero in the learning toolkit., With a little attention to design, assessments can be an engaging, even enjoyable part of a training course.  Here are our five tips for improving your assessment design.

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#1 Know your learning outcomes

Assessments should always be a test of your learning outcomes. So if you don’t have learning outcomes, how can you test if your team has  achieved them?

Learning outcomes are an incredibly important part of learning courses. For learners, they describe what they can expect to be able to do by the end of the course. For course creators, they bring a critical focus and direction for the course content.

As a result, each of your assessment questions should point back to your learning outcomes to show that the learner now knows the necessary information to be able to action each learning outcome.

#2 Don’t ask for microdetails

If we have a pet peeve, it’s this one, and it ties back to the first tip. When assessments are poorly planned, they often resort to asking after microdetails. By that, we are referring to tiny, inconsequential details such as facts, name or numbers dotted throughout the course.

Asking learners to recount obscure microdetails can seem like a good idea on the surface - after all, it forces the learner to pay full attention instead just skipping through slides, right? 

Wrong! Expecting learners to memorise tiny details will cause them to quickly reach cognitive overload, resulting in exhaustion and frustration. They will almost certainly fail your assessment at least once for not having remembered the microdetail, which can be incredibly demotivating for future learning experiences. Lastly, this diverts the learner’s attention away from the important concepts that actually meet your outcomes.

#3 Extend the learning experience

Often, the assumption is made that the assessment begins when the learning is over. A line is drawn between the two sections and if the learner fails the assessment, they’re sent back to the beginning to comb through for the answer to the question they missed.

It doesn’t have to be this way! Instead, assessment can be just as much part of the learning experience as the opening content. By carefully crafting the feedback that is provided to correct and incorrect responses, you can redirect misunderstandings or extend the learning even further. To learn how, read our blog on three tips for improving feedback.

Avoid too much cognitive load when designing training assessments.

#4 Consider spacing

Spacing has picked up in the industry over the past five years as a powerful way to improve learning retention. A key component of the AGES model, spacing posits that memories are mostly effectively built over time through revisiting and recalling the information one or more days later.

Information that has been learned once can quickly fade from memory, but neuroscience studies have shown that successive recall sessions following the initial learning session can greatly boost long-term retention of the information.

To tap into a spacing strategy, consider setting up a few short follow-up assessments that are delivered in the weeks following the learner’s initial experience.

#5 Be aware of cognitive load

We’ve already mentioned cognitive load earlier in tip #2, but it’s worth expanding on because it’s such an important concept. Cognitive load refers to the amount of information that we’re able to hold in our working memory at any one time. When we’re burdened with too much information at once, we experience cognitive overload and our ability to process and retain information plummets.

This has two primary implications for assessment design. Firstly, the learning component of the course needs to successfully manage the learner’s cognitive load so that learners are not already overburdened, and the key pieces of information are ripe for recall in the learner’s mind.

Secondly, each page and question of the assessment needs to be designed to avoid cognitive overload. All questions should be audited for complexity. If there are many components to a question, consider stripping it back, or breaking the question into segments that build on each other. If the question is broken up, ensure the relevant information is placed on every page so that learners aren’t forced to flick back and forth between pages to recall the necessary information. Lastly, each page should have a single focus, i.e. questions addressing different topics are placed on different pages.

Planning pays

Assessing learners is an important but often overlooked aspect of learning courses. However, even just a small amount of attention and planning can go a long way towards boosting both the learning experience and learning retention.

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Apr 22, 2021

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