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Definition Rationale Essay

When learners ask “why are we doing this assessment?” they are in part requesting a rationale for the task, which is ideally developed prior to, and alongside, the assessment task. Purposes of assessment and intended learning outcomes are good places to start in developing a rationale, but so are unpacking that tacit, gut feeling that a particular task is important. It is worth considering previous performance and learner feedback on the same or similar tasks. A rationale might include reasons for the choice and design of task, what learners will get out of it, why they should undertake it in a particular way and the reasoning behind the assessment criteria. Rationales for tasks which are common and usual, such as essays and exams, may need particularly careful thought. Rationales may also include issues which do not pertain to learners, such as workload concerns or resource restrictions. In fact, identification of these may also assist in developing assessments which benefit learners as much as possible within the reality of workplace constraints. The rationale may also help redesign or define the tasks as required. Educators may need multiple versions of a rationale: for teachers, for learners, for colleagues, and for a review or professional accrediting body.

Assessment considerations:

  • Which purposes of assessment and outcomes does this task address?
  • Why does this task exist? Are there other tasks that would achieve these goals better or more easily?
  • Is this task a good use of everyone’s time?
  • Who benefits from this task?
  • What do learners think this task is for?
  • How will you communicate the rationale of this task to learners, colleagues and the broader community?
  • How does this task’s rationale connect to the overall rationale of the unit and program?

Also refer to:

Purposes > Support learning

Purposes > Generate grades

Purposes > Future judgements

Context > Departmental, disciplinary and personal conventions

Outcomes > Unit/module learning outcomes

Feedback processes > Influence of learner performance

Educator experiences

A chance for students to demonstrate what they know

The starting point in my assessment design is what do I want the students to know? What do I want them to demonstrate to me that they know, from the course, from what I’m teaching? And I start from there and then I look at the assessment task. – Education lecturer

Making tasks authentic

When thinking about the rationale for a task I design I always go back to the principle of authenticity. Because I’m in an applied field that means thinking about how the task I can ask students to do reflects what practitioners do ‘in the real world’. And this is the way I’ll explain to my students the importance of the task and the way I’m asking them to approach it. Keeping the workload manageable both for students and for me can be a real challenge. I often think of great projects, but then have to really think them through to make sure I’m not asking the students to do too much or not creating a marking nightmare for my tutors or me. Often it takes a few iterations to get it right. – Education lecturer


  • The University of New South Wales Assessment Toolkit has a page on Selecting Assessment Methods unsw.edu.au/printpdf/588


Identifying your intended contribution

Perhaps the most important function of an author's rationale is the explanation of how the project can contribute to knowledge (basic research that corrects or expands people's understanding of the world) and/or to practice (applied research that improves the conduct of some aspect of life). This function is typically performed by the author's identifying shortcomings in the existing body of knowledge or practice that could be remedied by the proposed research. As noted in Chapter 1, contributions can be of various kinds, including

Evidence about kinds of events, individuals, groups, or institutions not studied before

Outcomes derived from applying existing theories or methods of investigation to events, individuals, groups, or institutions not yet studied in such a fashion

The use of new data-gathering methods or instruments for studying phenomena

A novel theoretical view of familiar events

New interpretations of existing data

Conclusions drawn from combining the results of similar studies (meta-analysis)

The following examples illustrate two ways of wording research proposals so that they (a) specify the question to be answered, (b) locate the study in a domain of knowledge or practice, and (c) identify the study's intended contribution.

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