Assessment Design: size of tasks

Size of Assessment Tasks and Student Workload


The purpose of this page is to provide some help with determining the size of assessment tasks as part of the design of assessment procedures for a unit.

Within each course, there will be a balance and blend of assessment tasks to test the range of learning outcomes at each level of the course.”

Determining the size of an assignment task is an academic decision which should be taken by the programme and unit team to reflect their expectations of the student.

Appropriate and Effective Assessment Design

Assessment should be integrated into all curriculum planning and be directly aligned with intended learning outcomes. Assessment tasks should be designed to reflect your intended learning outcomes rather than selected from a list. (See Linking outcomes and assessment in our Curriculum Resource for some further notes on this).

Although the sizes of assignments set in higher education are often expressed in terms of the number of words, you are not restricted to the written word. Learning outcomes can be demonstrated in many other ways: most people will be familiar with practical exams, oral presentations, art and design exhibitions, music or drama performances, and work experience as well as video reports, audio, portfolios and production of artefacts. Think about where your students are and where they might be going in their careers. What skills and abilities is it useful for them to demonstrate?

The tasks themselves should be indicated in the unit specification template which will go into the definitive programme document with sufficient detail for the reviewer to understand what is required and how the tasks enable demonstration of achievement of the intended unit learning outcomes.

Moderation of the Assignment Size

Once you have chosen your tasks, then it should be helpful to see if you can find comparisons from other institutions or from within MMU. For example, if you decide that the most appropriate assessment task is an essay, then you will want to look at the custom and practice for essays in your subject area both within MMU and elsewhere. Assignments of the same name should normally be comparable in demand/expectation, otherwise this is very confusing for students. If the unit in question is part of the Combined Honours programme then it is important to have a look at unit templates from subjects which are popular combinations with your own, and check for consistency.

If you wish to set a novel or unusual task, then you may have to estimate the size it needs to be because there may be no direct points of comparison elsewhere. To do this, you may find it useful to think in terms of the length of time you expect students to spend on it. How much time in the unit is allocated to private study? A rule of thumb developed in the Division of Biological Sciences at MMU is to say that working directly on the assignment should take up about 25% of the time available for the unit (eg 50 hours for a 20 credit unit). However, whatever approach is taken, it will just be a rule of thumb: all the work done on student workload shows that there is a huge variation between individual students as to the time it takes to actually complete assignments and as to students’ perception of how much time it takes ( Crook and Park (2004), Kember (2004), Kember and Leung (2006), Sastry and Bekhradnia (2007) ).

It’s therefore important to give students an indication of how long you think it might take them to complete the assigned work but also to make it clear that there will be big individual variations. Thinking through the stages which might be needed for the assignment will also help you to break down the processes you think will need to be completed and to explain them to colleagues and to students. You can also try asking a Senior Learning and Teaching Fellow in your Faculty if they have come across similar examples and talk through the design issues with one of them. Also talk to colleagues in your subject area to see what their views on the length are.

Balance of Assessment Tasks

Once the unit assessment tasks have been decided, then the programme team should compare all assessment tasks across each stage to ensure that there is a balance of different types of task and that the ways in which student workload are estimated are similar. In the case of Combined Honours programmes each subject will make these decisions separately but teams should compare practice with a selection of other subjects.

The reasons for the selection and length of the assignment should be made clear to students in the unit handbook. This does not just apply to ‘unusual’ or new types of tasks: explaining why you have chosen an essay for the students to show their achievement of the unit learning outcomes is just as important as explaining why any less familiar tasks are appropriate.

When a new type of task is being implemented the annual monitoring of the unit should include a specific evaluation of student experience of the new task and, if possible, an estimate of the workload it involved for the first couple of years so that any adjustments can be made as needed.

Is there an institutional system for deciding the size of assignments?

No, we do not wish to propose or impose a ‘tariff’ system to be applied universally. Finding a ‘norm’ would be difficult because of existing variations in practice, and, more significantly, the provision of tariffs can be a barrier to appropriate and effective assessment design. Lists of ‘acceptable’ assignment lengths tend to constrain staff into a limited range of choices rather than encouraging assessment design which is aligned with intended learning outcomes.

A review of practice across the university and elsewhere as carried out by Alan Fielding, SLTF in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, showed that although the variation is not large, there is enough discrepancy between departmental practices to make it difficult to impose a norm. An informal email survey of members of the Association of University Administrators showed that there can be variations of more than 50% in assignment lengths for the same credit ratings.

Clearly it is useful to look at what is happening in other departments and institutions and this provides a basis for comparison. It is most useful to look at departments which set similar assessments to those you have in mind, however, rather than to look at generic lists of possible tasks out of context. There are good reasons why the same number of credit points might be assigned to a report in law which is constrained to a single page as to a history essay of 2000 words or to a 5 minute video production. It is important that the rationale for the choice of task and its size is made clear to peers and to students.


Crook, A.C. and Park, J.R. (2004). "Measuring assessment: a methodology for investigating undergraduate assessment." Bioscience Education e-journal 4(6).

Fielding (2008) Student Assessment Workloads: a review. Learning and Teaching in Action 7(3)

Kember, David (2004). "Interpreting student workload and the factors which shape students' perceptions of their workload." Studies in Higher Education 29(2): 165 - 184.

Kember, David and Leung, Doris Y. P. (2006). "Characterising a teaching and learning environment conducive to making demands on students while not making their workload excessive." Studies in Higher Education 31(2): 185 - 198.

Sastry, Tom and Bekhradnia, Bahram (2007). The Academic Experience of Students in English Universities, HEPI. (last referenced 30/07/08 )


Thanks to the Assessment Community of Practice, particularly Alan Fielding , Edwina Higgins and Philip Lloyd, for contributions to this note.