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Course Design

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Course design encompasses a wide range of design principles.

Course delivery guidance and information can be located on Academic Essentials: course and module delivery overview page.

Here, we introduce course design alongside aspects of the assessment and feedback strategy. They make it clear how the assessment strategy works holistically. This helps Programme and Course Leaders to design and co-ordinate an assessment and feedback strategy.


Design Principles

A good assessment strategy reflects the intended learning outcomes of the course and effectively employs a range of suitable and manageable assessment and feedback approaches. Good assessment design decisions are made within a regulatory framework by using sound design principles. The regulations can be seen as defining and prescribing the standards and parameters for practice, whilst the design principles facilitate the creative use of assessment and feedback practices to address the course context with the aim of producing engaging, innovative and purposeful learning experiences.  Assessment must be tailored to the discipline and meets the needs of the students and the staff responsible for delivering the curriculum. Other contextual factors to consider include:

  • the available learning environments and online technologies.
  • the current state of disciplinary knowledge, discourse and practice.
  • the connections that can be made to real world application and
  • the University’s regulations and policies and the external quality assurance expectations and indicators for higher education. 

Select one of the following themes: 

assessment and awards  |  quality: programme specifications | course-focussed assessment  |  accessible and inclusive assessment   |  resources   


Assessment and Awards

Academic Essentials > Academic Integrity – new guidance, information and resources for academic staff.   

Quality: programme specifications

The QAA defines a programme specification as a ‘concise description of the intended outcomes of learning from a higher education programme, and the means by which these outcomes are achieved and demonstrated’.  Read:

Sheffield Hallam University is responsible to its students for the quality and standards of its academic provision. External expectations are that the University’s academic standards must meet or exceed UK threshold academic standards and offer high quality learning opportunities to students. The Quality Framework (website) incorporates all the main features of quality and standards management at the University, with reference to the relevant frameworks, policies and processes. Academic awards that are developed, approved and managed in accordance with the Quality Framework are intended to meet and exceed UK threshold academic standards and offer high quality learning opportunities to students.  The Quality Framework has been approved by the University’s Academic Board to provide a reference point for all aspects of the management of quality and standards in the University.

The Curriculum Catalogue is used to manage the creation, maintenance and storage of all course and module records. Since October 2019, all modifications (module, course and large scale) are managed through the relevant “modify a module/course” function in the Curriculum Catalogue. Visit AQS Modifications (SP site) – for course modifications guidance.

Course-focused assessment

Course-focused assessment describes a holistic approach to the design and delivery of a course assessment and feedback strategy. Take a look at the course-focused assessment: what, why, and how (PowerPoint) presentation that can be used with course teams. It ensures that the student’s assessment experience is optimised by having an overall conception of how they are assessed across their course. Such an approach finds, develops and promotes connections across and through levels to deliver course-focused learning outcomes.

Accessible and inclusive assessment

Assessment is an important academic process which evaluates a student’s performance and directly informs their progression and academic attainment record. It is essential that all our students experience a fair and inclusive assessment process.   The term inclusive practice is used to describe an approach to teaching that recognises the diversity of students. It aims to enable all students to access course content, fully participate in learning activities and demonstrate their knowledge and strengths at assessment.

The Academic Development & Diversity Team have developed an Inclusive Design Guide to support staff who are involved in  the curriculum design process. It brings together a range of definitive information about inclusive course design at Sheffield Hallam University.

Whatever your experience, this guide is intended to support you and your course team in a practical way, it aims to help you make the most of the opportunity the design and validation process provides to plan and develop your course. It contains up-to-date information which is applicable and useful to anyone who has a role in creating and refreshing courses and incorporates references to College-based information and resources where relevant.

  • Myths and Truths: overview (word) 
  • Changing assessments (word) – to assist you in making practice based decisions in the design of accessible assessments. It works on the premise that you know the mode of assessment you would like to use on your module, or are in fact using it already on an established module.
  • Barriers to access: the student experience (word) – provides examples of student’s experience with the assessment process.  

Visit Academic Development & Inclusion (ADI) > Inclusive Pedagogy and Practice for a host of guidance and resources that support you in the design of an inclusive and accessible module/course. 


Hallam resources and guidance

External resources and guidance


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Assessment with ‘online in mind’

An online model is where the student learning and assessment experience is enhanced through the appropriate use of technologies. There’s a wide range of technology enhanced guidance and resources to support assessment and feedback with ‘online in mind’.

Formative V Summative Assessment

Assessments can be categorised as diagnostic, formative or summative. Put simply:

  • diagnostic assessment: identifies students’ needs and establishes expectations.
  • formative assessment: describes challenging activities designed to engage the learner in ways that promote learning, self-evaluation and reflection on learning, that lead to useful feedback being given and applied by the learner.
  • summative assessment: is a task designed to evaluate what a student knows so that a grade can be produced that is commensurate with the student’s standard of achievement as measured against the module or course learning outcomes and assessment criteria.

Academic Services: Principles and Process for setting summative Assessment Submission Dates in 2022-2023 (for Coursework) (word) staff guidance outlines a set of Principles and a Process to ensure that every student is provided with a complete assessment schedule* at the start of each yearly teaching period, to improve student experience (to help the students plan for their summative assessments and because a large number of student related processes depend on timely and accurate summative assessment submission dates being in place, e.g. RESD).

The Formative Assessment March 2019 (word) guidance defines formative assessment, it’s role in teaching and learning and considers how it is different in form and purpose to summative assessment and how formative and summative assessment work in relation to each other. 

Teaching Delivery (SETL): Formative assessment (website) guidance and Teaching Delivery (SETL): summative assessment support (website) guidance – can be used for supporting students completing both individual and group work. 

Refer to Assessment Essentials: Setting (module level): assessment scheduling (webpage) – group work. 

The Digital Learning Team Support (website) model provides each department with their own DLT contact. They provide a wide range of guidance on using technologies to support your course design and planning:


Re-envisioning online course revisions – covering an effective course revision plan including formative and summative assessment and feedback methods.

ChatGTP software

Are you concerned about ChatGPT software and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the implications for assessment?  Please visit Academic Essentials > Academic Integrity webpage for all your essential guidance and information.

Read our Assessment 4 Students guidance for an update on what we expect our students to consider.

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Learning Outcomes

What are learning outcomes?

Learning outcomes describe what a student should know, understand or be able to do as a consequence of successfully completing their whole course, a particular level of their course, or an individual module.  Well-defined learning outcomes articulate observable and measurable behaviours from which key assessment criteria can be derived. They also provide students with an appreciation of what learning is expected of them and helps to provide them with a focus for how they will develop as they progress through the course.

As students progress through the levels and between awards they are expected to become less dependent and more able to deal with unstructured and uncertain situations and these will be reflected in the learning outcomes. Consequently, establishing the learning outcomes of a course and those of its constituent awards, levels and modules is a fundamental part of the curriculum design process.

Why are learning outcomes important?

Learning outcomes help you to:

  • be more precise when planning, supporting and assessing learning
  • make effective linkages between your learning and teaching activities and assessment tasks and the feedback you give to your students.
  • articulate the level of learning you expected from your students.
  • write your assessment criteria.
  • make explicit any underpinning values, attitudes and skills that are not reflected in descriptions of content.

Writing learning outcomes

Level descriptors provide the starting point for the development of the learning outcomes for a Course Descriptor, Module Description or a specific learning activity.

Module learning outcomes should make clear the purpose of each module while being congruent with the course outcomes and aims and in appropriate relation to the study levels. You should aim to keep learning outcomes simple, not too wordy and concise and address:

  • Module learning outcomes which consider content specifically delivered through a module.
  • Cross-cutting course learning outcomes, including learning capabilities, dispositions and attributes associated with the course. Module learning outcomes should;
    • Ideally one sentence.
    • Sticking to 4 or 5 per module isn’t a bad idea.
    • More detail can always be put on the pass / grade descriptors / module handbook.
    • Keep them simple and in Plain English where possible.
    • Do they / will they actually mean anything to students?
    • Can they be understood by someone else?

The level descriptors can help you to develop learning outcomes that articulate the knowledge, understanding, and skills you expect your students to be able to demonstrate at a particular level and as they progress through their programme of study. 


University Grade Descriptors (UGD)

Grade-based assessments (GBA) and categorical marking templates (grids)

Please read the UGD resources in conjunction with Assessment Essentials: Marking and Feedback > Marking assessments.

  • Grade (or standard) descriptors: are statements that clearly describe the differences in the quality of students’ work. They articulate the typical characteristics that a student’s assessed work will need to demonstrate to achieve a particular grade or meet the requirements of a particular grade band.
  • Pass descriptors: articulates the typical characteristics that a student’s assessed work will need to demonstrate to achieve a pass at a threshold level.

Grade descriptors ensure the marking process is consistent and should normally be made available to students as part of an assessment brief. Well-written descriptors enhance the assessment criteria and help to make the assessment task clear to students and indicate what they will have to demonstrate to achieve a particular grade.

October 2022: What’s changed?

  • You should only use the original University Grade Descriptors (UGD) to assess Level 6 and continuing students.
  • Numerical disciplines are not exempt from 2022/23 onwards.  Please read the guidance on how to apply the UGD to your assessments for Level 4 (phased approach).
  • The classification descriptions have been removed from the revised UGD based on staff feedback (e.g. good, very good, competent, etc).
  • It is likely that the revised UGD (utilising the capped scale) will be used until 2024/25, before a big bang move to Grade Based Assessment when all existing marks will be converted in SITS.

The emphasis from 2022/23 onwards is to use to grades (0-16) and categories (high, mid, low) on student-facing feedback reports, rather than percentage marks.  This is to help acclimatise students to the new approach (see the example in the FAQ document).  Please adopt a phased approach to this so that existing students continue to see what they are used to.

The Academic Board has approved a revised University Grade Descriptors. Please follow the links below to see the revised version, a FAQ document and a screencast which will support you in using it. Further support is available from your Associate Dean Teaching and Learning or Head of Teaching and Learning Enhancement.

UGDs are published on the University’s Rules and Regulations: assessment and awards (website):

  • For Foundation Year, L4, L5 and new L7, please refer to the revised versions. 
  • For L6 and any continuing students, please refer to the original version.  

FAQ including screencast published on the Academic Services (SP site) Staff guidance FAQs and screencast (SP site).

The adoption of this revised grade descriptor will bring immediate benefits but is also part of a journey towards grade based assessment so you are strongly encouraged to view the screencast (13 minutes) as this provides a clear explanation of how plans for the implementation of GBA supports our assessment values. 

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Last updated: 13th May 2024 NB