Design Principles

KU is one of the founding member institutions of the Bay View Alliance, which is "an international network of research universities working to address the challenges of bulding a culture that supports more effective teaching and enhanced student learning, especially at the departmental level" (BVA website).

This past summer, the BVA developed a set of design principles aimed at helping faculty assess student learning within the (for many) entirely new environment of online instruction. The list itself succinctly and clearly represents the sum total of suggestions, examples, and resources submitted by numerous faculty across the R1 universities in the BVA network. The original document and its supporting materials are worth a read, but we reproduce here the main points, follow by an example of their power in designing a major student project in an undergraduate chemistry course.       

The Seven Principles

Clear Objectives

The assessment of student work begins with clarity about the goals for the course or program. Teaching in an online context is a opportunity to step back and ask: what learning outcome or outcomes matter most for your students -- and which might you instead let go?

Conceptual Tasks

Especially in large classes, assessments often take the form of multiple choice exams emphasizing recall. Alternatively, are there questions you can ask, or tasks you can pose requiring more conceptual learning? Might you ask students to apply what they've learned in new situations, interpret data, extrapolate their knowledge in new ways, or assess their own progress? Are there ways to allow students to demonstrate mastery that are more "authentic" to the skills of the discipline?


Online teaching raises and makes visible a host of differences affecting students' ability to learn and succeed: access to technology, living arrangements, time zone, family and educational background, among others. Ensuring all students have equal access to fair assessments, and an equal opportunity to succeed, requres flexibility and adaptability. Designing assignments and assessments to be done asynchronously, for instance, allows students to demonstrate their learning in a setting and at a time of their choosing.


Research on effective assignments and assessments shows that students do better when the purpose of the task is clear and explicit. This means being explicit with students about how the knowledge and skills being asked for can help them -- in professional settings, advanced study, or daily life. It also means being clear about how the work will be evaluated, for instance through a rubric or examples of exemplary performance. Transparency of this nature supports success for all students, but especially those who have not always been well served by the educational system.


When assessments present unreasonable challenges, combined with high stakes, students will be tempted to look for ways to beat the odds. But might there be ways to turn this around? What if assessments required collaboration with peers or allowed full access to the textbook? How can assessment be designed to foster a climate of academic integrity?


Smaller, more frequent assessments, including formative ones without grades, generate better learning and more valid assessment data than high-stakes tests at the end of a course. Think about restructuring a final exam into smaller subsets of questions, creating a number of mini-exams through the term. Similarly, a large project or paper could be broken up into smaller assignments, starting with a thesis statement or rough abstract, then an outline, then a partial rough draft, and the final product.


Assessment's primary goal should be frequent, timely, and robust feedback aimed at improving future efforts or next drafts. Feedback, including from peers and self, make it more likely students will learn from the assessment process and demonstrate the course learning outcomes, particularly when assessment build on each other within an intentionally-designed structure that anticipates the feedback and the subsequent improvements.

An Extended Example from Chemistry

Drew Vartia (Chemistry) recently created a major course project that embodies each of these seven design principles. Click the slide below to view Drew discussing his course project and answering questions from KU faculty. Click here for a written transcript. The video is about 17 minutes long.



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