Landing : Athabascau University

assessment based course design (ABCD) model

I am here to propose the Assessement-based Course Design (ABCD) model.

Assessment drives students behavior. In reality, students learn for credits. In many cases, learning for credit is not necessarily meaning students are motivated by extrinsic factors. Students trust that the assessment provided in a course is testing them on the most important knowledge, skills or values that they are supposed to learn or master. Anything that is not to be assessed, to students, could mean optional or supplementary.

Consequently, in online education, it should not be surprising that after students log in a course, the first thing they would like to see is what the course is about, then the next important thing is what are the assignments and examination. I heard in some extreme scenarios, some students start the assessment without reading any course materials.

Based on the above analysis, I am thinking we could try to design courses starting from assessment, or we can call it assessment-based design. The course would look like this:

In the beginning of the course, we tell students what they are expecting to learn;

Then, the very next thing is what the assignments are;

For each assignment, we break them into smaller steps or ask them to answer a serial of questions in a increased difficulty level or broadness. In order to accomplish each step or answer a question, the readings and other learning activities are suggested.

This would reverse the traditional course design model, which present the content or information first and then ask the students to do the assessment. In this traditional model, many have difficulties to connect the learning activities (e.g.readings) with the learning expectations or assessment, nor are fully aware of the importance of certain readings, or even what the readings are for.

The Assessment-based Course Design (ABCD) model should worth careful consideration. It could be an effective design and learning model, especially for self-directed online education.



  • Mary Pringle December 9, 2015 - 4:23pm

    I like this idea, Hongxin. It is taking project-based learning to a whole new level—every course is a series of related assessments, and each assessment is a project that includes the necessary background information, opportunities to learn skills that will be tested, and other activities designed to meet course outcomes. I think it's important to provide the opportunity for exploration also, but that is up to the learner. I'd love to see some examples of how this could be or has been done in courses that would not usually be set up as projects.

  • Jon Dron December 10, 2015 - 12:15pm

    Thought-provoking, thanks Hongxin! From my perspective, it's exactly those instrumental attitudes to learning that are by far the biggest problem we have to solve. I'm not totally convinced that playing to them is the best way to stop them, though I do admire the cunning way your method strongly channels those who are deeply instrumental to learn something useful in the process.

    There are a few variations on this theme in the literature that might be worth exploring to help address some of Mary's concerns, and mine, and that are not dissimilar in process: performance-based learning, inquiry-based learning  and problem-based learning, for example, are driven by assessment up front, but are normally more open-ended in process, though I have seen more tightly scaffolded versions of PBL and IBL, especially in schools, that are quite similar to your suggestion. Another theme well worth exploring is constructive alignment, which is often used much as you propose (e.g. see Using_Biggs'_Model_of_Constructive_Alignment_in_Curriculum_Design/Introduction for a useful process model that I think is an abstraction of what you suggest). The general principle behind constructive alignment is that all assessment should materially and directly contribute to the intended learning outcomes and learning activities should be designed with that assessment in mind. Consequently, at least if it is done properly, the assessment must be an integral part of the learning design and is usually the starting point for scaffolding how teaching occurs: your model seems like a good operationalization of that principle.

    One important caveat: see for a very good summary of reasons to avoid objectives/outcomes/terminal competences up front. On the whole (there are always exceptions because it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it!) I find that learning outcomes are more useful to learning designers than to students. It is normally useful to students to know, at least in brief, what a course is about, and perhaps to prepare them a little for what they are about to learn, but that doesn't mean we have to throw the objectives or outcomes or terminal competences at them right away. In fact, sometimes it is a bad idea: some very useful pedagogies begin with mystery and challenge. And, even if we do tell them such things, it is more important to prepare them for the process, rather than the product.  Plus, I would really like to work harder on ways to acknowledge outcomes beyond those specified. I often have students - especially the best and most passionate - that do amazing things I cannot (even in my most open courses) recognize with marks. My next courses/revisions will have a few negotiable outcomes and/or more open ones that the students can weight for themselves that will attempt to accommodate that.

  • Hongxin Yan December 10, 2015 - 2:11pm

    Thanks Mary and Jon for your deep thoughts on this. I like your input very much and would like to explore more on this (thanks Jon for the resource URLs, will check out).

    I agree on Mary's suggestion of giving learners more exploration opportunities, which should be  accommodated in any model.

    Jon, I really like the idea of opening the door for students to negotiate on learning outcomes. I am doing some research on the personalized learning (I know you don't like the word -- personalized). I think personalizing for individual's talents and interests would be the most ideal focus, hence offering negotiating opportunities for learners on learning outcomes would be an efficient step. I look forward to seeing your new revision. I guess it is a graduate level course? If there are just a few students, that can be manageable, but I am also intersted to see how to do that in a relatively big enrollment courses.

    A more progressive thought is that in one course we could employ different course models. Based on different student's learning needs, we offer the flexibilities. But, that would be far ahead of our current learning system's practices ...