Negotiated assessment in online teaching – the same learning outcomes measured in different ways

By miranda.prynne, 21 October, 2020
Authentic assessment is one of the biggest challenges associated with online teaching and learning. Here Katherine Baverstock explains why negotiated assessment engages remote students and lowers the risk of cheating
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Why use negotiated assessment  

Have you ever considered putting your students in charge of their own assessment process? On first impression, this may sound like a recipe for disaster, but for some cohorts, adopting a negotiated assessment strategy will result in more engaged students and higher quality output, which builds confidence and creativity.  

I have found negotiated assessment incredibly effective in a traditional teaching environment, and now that we have moved online, it seems even more pertinent. 

There are two key reasons. 

First, keeping students engaged remotely is more difficult, so using an assessment form that boosts engagement, with a more interactive approach and lots of opportunity for peer-to-peer discussion and learning as well as instructor feedback, is a plus. 

Second, authentic assessment with minimal risk of plagiarism is a challenge online, but more creative individualist assessment tasks make cheating a lot more difficult. 

Many students are like tourists on package holidays. We sell them the package and tell them exactly what they need to do, and they get a certificate and eventually the keys to a professional door.   

This assessment approach creates a series of burdensome hurdles that must be overcome rather than opportunities to create and learn. Negotiated assessment promotes creative thinking – an important skill to be nurtured – in science students, in particular. Creative thinkers are problem solvers, an important life skill.  

Happily, negotiated assessment translates very easily to a digital setting. 

How it works 

Negotiated assessment is a technique by which you allow your students to negotiate how they will meet the learning outcomes of the course. I was inspired to first try this technique with a class of undergraduate pharmacy students in 2013.  

Some were very engaged in workshops, clearly understanding the course material, but that understanding was not translating through into their traditional written assessments. After attending a lecture by Professor David Boud, I was inspired to develop a negotiated assessment strategy for the following year.  

The key to a successful negotiated assessment strategy is to take your students with you on the journey. In the course guide, which I had to complete before the start of semester, I allocated 50 per cent to an assessment portfolio, with the remaining 50 per cent allocated to a traditional invigilated end-of-semester exam and their professional skills OSCE (objective structured clinical examination).  

The first step is to engage your students in an open discussion about the planned negotiated assessment strategy. I explained to my students the rationale for taking this approach and that 50 per cent of their total assessment was negotiable, to be presented as a portfolio. We started the discussion in table groups – Zoom breakout rooms in an online setting – where the students came up with a range of assessment ideas.   

As a class, we collated the ideas – this can be done online using any collaborative tools that enable the class to work on shared documents. Surprisingly, to me, the students had not selected easier options like take-home tests. I taught the students about Bloom’s taxonomy of educational learning and we mapped the artefacts to a level in the taxonomy. We then allocated a percentage of marks to each artefact, based on the mapping exercise.  

The students wanted to include a test (15 per cent) in the portfolio. Students could mix and match the remaining 35 per cent to complete their 50 per cent assessment portfolio. To make the assessment process completely inclusive, and to include the students who were reluctant to speak up in class discussion, we had an additional option of an individual assessment option negotiated directly with the course coordinator. 

As a class we also created the marking rubric. The biggest challenge with a range of assessment artefacts is creating a rubric that can be used across different types of assessments. For us, the uniting rubric criterion was that the assessment artefact was fit for purpose. Again, the students did not pick easy options – their rubric was more rigorous than one I would have created.  

The assessment contract 

After the initial discussion, I compiled the options into a document and created an assessment contract for the students to indicate which assessments they would complete. As part of this contract, students had to show how they would meet the course learning outcomes by completing these assessments. This step helps the students make a clear link between their learning and the assessment – rather than viewing the assessment as a hurdle that needs to be cleared.  

The output created by the students was the most pleasing part of this process. I was no longer marking “first drafts” written the day before submission. They had put hours of work into their assessment portfolio, showing a degree of creativity and initiative I had not seen before.  

Much of their output had a useful purpose – information resources about health conditions for consumers, therapeutics games for other pharmacy students that included the most complex of case studies.  

Students created their artefacts through different media, which included websites, videos, blogs, booklets, games and, for some, the traditional essay.   

The students were proud of what they had created – something I had never seen before. This experience built confidence in students who had just “scraped by” in the past, with significantly increased grades across the cohort.  

Negotiating assessment with your students can help make assessment more meaningful for your students. It may not work for all student cohorts, but it will work for many, particularly when teaching digitally. This is a way for them to feel more connected with their education and more in control of their own destiny at a time when many young people feel disenfranchised and powerless. 

This form of assessment offers the opportunity for them to complete genuinely useful projects such as creating health resources for their community, giving them a sense of worth in contributing something back. 

It is important that you present the concept to your students with confidence and enthusiasm, so they will be inspired to become more than student tourists.  


Katherine Baverstock is a senior lecturer in pharmacy practice at the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences at RMIT University

Authentic assessment is one of the biggest challenges associated with online teaching and learning. Here Katherine Baverstock explains why negotiated assessment engages remote students and lowers the risk of cheating