Designing assessment tasks for public health teaching – Constructive alignment with learning outcomes and graduate qualities


Designing assessment tasks is probably the greatest challenge in curriculum development. Based on Professor David Boud’s criteria proposed in the 1990s, which are still valid today, well-designed assessment tasks should be set in a realistic context (authentic), relevant, worthwhile, holistic, productive, engaging, flexible (to tailor various student needs and interests), and not likely to be interpreted differently. Alignment of assessment design with learning outcomes and graduate qualities can enhance students’ learning, and ensure teaching quality and standards.

There are many dimensions to aligning assessment; alignment with the learning outcomes of the unit & the program, teaching methods, university policies, and the disciplinary curriculum. Constructive alignment, representing a marriage of constructivist learning theory and instructional design, highlights the importance of the learner’s activities in constructing meaning during study. Using Professor Biggs’ own words, “Learning is constructed by what activities the students carry out; learning is about what they do, not about what we teachers do. Likewise, assessment is about how well they achieve the intended outcomes, not about how well they report back to us what we have told them or what they have read.”

Constructively aligned assessments are beneficial because they provide a clear focus to students, as well as a framework for staff to plan and reflect on teaching and learning activities, and for stakeholders and employers to better understand standards in graduate qualities. Evidence has also shown that assessment alignment can promote a deep approach and lifelong learning, and is linked to a higher rate of student satisfaction and better learning outcomes in higher education.

Planning aligned assessment can be challenging. Some general tips have been proposed by Jessica Frawley to help you design your curriculum with constructive alignment. However, there is an acute need for contextualisation of constructive alignment to various teaching contexts. There have been successful models in other disciplines, e.g. Meyers and Nulty’s 2009 case study in environmental sciences, and the TALOE web tool developed to give advice on the alignment of online assessment with intended learning outcomes. In public health, however, principles and practices in aligning assessment and learning outcomes and graduate qualities have not been explicated sufficiently.

The first key step in aligning assessment in public health teaching is to have clearly articulated learning outcomes. Given the increasing need to meet the challenges from emerging public health issues, there have been reforms in public health curriculum design around the world in recent years, including efforts to reach an agreement on graduate qualities in public health training and education. For example, the US Association of Schools of Public Health Education Committee Master’s Degree in Public Health Core Competency Development Project has agreed on Discipline-specific Competencies for Biostatistics, Environmental Health Sciences, Epidemiology, Health Policy and Management, & Social and Behavioural Sciences, which are the core subjects for public health education. Based on these Master of Public Health core competencies, the US has also developed a Global Health Competency Model 1.1, including 36 competencies from seven core domains (1. Capacity strengthening, 2. Collaborating and partnering, 3. Ethical reasoning and professional practice, 4. Health equity and social justice, 5. Program management, 6. Socio-cultural and political awareness, and 7. Strategic analysis).

A European model has also been developed based on a survey with the members of the Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region, which assessed the exit competencies of public health graduates across Europe. The tasks that were ranked by graduates as their most commonly performed mainly included surveillance of diseases and assessment of the population’s health, identification of priority health problems and health hazards in the community, preparedness and planning for public health emergences, health protection operations, and health research.

A local perspective here at the University of Sydney is that great efforts are being made in conceptualizing the new Graduate Qualities in various teaching contexts across faculties and disciplines, with a dedicated Assessment Working Group to determine how these university Graduate Qualities will be appropriately assessed. Although the interpretations at this stage are quite general, the university-wide mapping practices that are a requirement for the new unit of study outline template does offer an opportunity for unit/program coordinators to reflect on assessment alignment with their learning outcomes and graduate qualities. However, some questions and confusion exist among colleagues about how these graduate qualities can be explicitly embedded in public health assessment.

There are currently great opportunities for Public Health staff to reflect and improve our practices in designing aligned assessment as we plan for two major programs, the Master of Public Health and the Master of International Public Health, and move from 12-month to 18-month degrees in 2019. One practical suggestion for the process could be the establishment of a local leadership team in public health assessment. This will help ensure our curriculum has well-developed learning outcomes, contextualised graduate qualities, as well as assessment alignment, while considering local circumstances such as workload, risks, and student diversity.

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