Designing the first assessment piece (for first year students)

Have your first year students submitted their first assessment piece yet?

This question might appear a bit unreasonable given in many Australian universities it’s only week 3 (and a bit further down the track if you teach in TAFE). After all, most teachers are swamped with a number of tasks connected to teaching new courses and getting to know a new cohort of students.

However, if you’re teaching first year and you haven’t had students complete a small piece of assessment by week 4, you may want to reconsider your course design in the future. I say this because in the last 10 years a great deal of research has been done in this area and all the evidence points to the need for a ‘low stakes’ piece of assessment by week 4 of semester one for first year students (Kift, 2009). This practice enables students to transition into how tertiary education works, and in particular, how assessment works in their discipline. It can also strengthen student engagement at university through receiving early feedback on the assessment, by having students working together on assessment in and outside of the classroom or even through peer assessment.

In terms of key questions for first year curriculum design, Kift (2009) recommends we ask:

Which first year units (courses/subjects) have an appropriate assessment item scheduled in the first 4 weeks of semester? Have the assessment literacies embedded in these been explained to students?

By ‘assessment literacies’ Kift means are we assuming a level of knowledge or understanding about a piece of assessment that students do not have? If so, how might we explain or model what it is we expect about the assessment? Do we have examples to show them? Can we ensure they understand key concepts, for example, ‘critique’, ‘analyse’, ‘synthesise’ or ‘argue’? You can read more about how to unpack assessment literacies here.

In our last post Thembi suggested a number of strategies to involve students in their learning and assessment. Using these to ease first year students into assessment at university is a great way to unpack some of the mystery surrounding the first assessment task.

And if you’d like to think more about the whole-of-course design, you can look at an example here of how to design a 12 week course to ensure sufficient support is integrated for first year students.

Those teaching at RMIT may also be interested to know that the university recommends 6 Guiding Principles for successful student transition. The principles include teaching and curriculum matters as well as activities and services outside the classroom – all important in terms of ensuring new students feel welcome and supported.

If this area interests you and you’d like to read more about how to design curriculum and support first year students, a new journal out called The International Journal of First Year in Higher Education might be just what you’re looking for.

Do you have examples of ‘low stakes’ assessment pieces that you use with first year students? If so, feel free to leave a comment and share with other readers.


Kift, S. (2009). A transition strategy for first year curriculum design and renewal. Keynote presentation to Ako Aotearoa Academy of Tertiary Teaching Excellence. Retrieved from:
Kylie Budge