Case Study: Encouraging active learning by co-designing authentic assessments with students

Case Study: Encouraging active learning by co-designing authentic assessments with students

A senior lecturer in RMIT’s School of Science has re-imagined nutrition studies assessments, driving positive results across student satisfaction, grades and academic integrity.

This story is part of RMIT's campaign recognising recipients of the 2023 Australian Awards for University Teaching. Dr Jessica Danaher received an award for overall teaching excellence.

Dr Jessica Danaher joined RMIT in 2017 as an early career lecturer in Nutrition, Health and Disease and Food Toxicology, Allergens and Health.

Initially, her courses were designed around a non-personalised, traditional and didactic teaching approach and Course Experience Survey results indicated students weren’t engaging in this style of delivery.

In 2019, Dr Danaher re-designed elements of her courses to better influence and inspire students to learn, leveraging Course Experience Survey data to inform her approach.

As part of her reimagined scholarly teaching approach, Dr Danaher rethought how assessments would work to best engage students in learning that was meaningful and relevant to them – whilst understanding that this may differ between students.

Engaging students as partners in their learning

Leveraging research around the benefits in actively engaging students to their own learning and assessment, Dr Danaher sought to create assessments that provided co-design opportunities to enable autonomy in decision-making among her students.

“This approach both builds expertise that goes further than the provision of academic content and supports the development of skills that truly set students up for the future of work.”

Dr Danaher bases her approach on the ‘students-as-partners’ model, whereby students and staff collaborate to co-design and deliver projects that enhance the student experience. [1]  

This includes having students co-create their own authentic assessments based on their individual learning needs within a blended learning environment, allowing for creativity-enabled and personal interest-led projects.

Dr Jessica Danaher revived assessments in her nutrition studies courses leading to positive results.

Negotiated and personal interest-led individual assessments

To inspire students and support personalised learning, Dr Danaher provides options of negotiated and personal interest-led assessments to her cohorts.

She empowers students by allowing them to decide what they want to learn more about, whether it be selecting from a bank of pre-designed options or creating their own negotiated assessment, tailoring their selection to their ideal career pathway.

The personalised focus of this model facilitates authenticity in assessment, and consequently enhances academic integrity.

Dr Danaher acts as a ‘soundboard’ to ensure that while students are engaging in learning that is meaningful and relevant to them, their selections meet Course Learning Outcomes linked to the relevant assessment task. 

Resources like a ‘rubric buffet’ support students in the design of their negotiated assessments.

Throughout the first few weeks of Semester, during course workshops, she speaks with students individually about what choice they want to make to complete their individual assessments.

“I could research and learn what I want and what was relevant to my life. This gave flexibility and freedom to choose what we wanted to do for the assignment.” – Student, CES, 2019

Personalising team-based assessments

By strategically incorporating personalised elements into the student’s team-based assessment, Dr Danaher influenced students’ sense of course ownership even within a team dynamic.

“My role is like that of a football coach – the team’s coach does the inspiring, motivating and planning of the moves – not the playing!”

The ‘goalposts’ (rubrics) are fixed, but how my students worked together to kick their goals is up to them. 

Elements that allow students to personalise their learning experience in this assessment include:

  • selecting their teammates based on shared group work values and topic interests
  • having a say in the questions used at the end of semester peer assessment
  • designing educational resources using the communication platforms they’re interested in developing their skill set with (for example websites, e-magazines, or apps), and, 
  • creating original imagery and content to provide informative evidence-based information.

“The best aspect of this course was the assignments that allowed me to showcase my creativity and knowledge simultaneously. We knew what the standard of work needed was.” – Student, CES, 2020

Mock-up of mobile app An example of student-designed educational resource.

Creating meaningful connections to motivate students

Dr Danaher’s approach to assessments within blended learning course design extends to providing personalised feedback which motivates students to build on their learning experience and better their future work.  

At the beginning of the Semester, Dr Danaher asks each student how they want to receive their feedback (i.e., video, email, meeting, or Canvas), and whilst annually the majority indicate ‘Canvas’ as their preferred platform, she’s observed that students appreciate feeling included in this co-design decision.

Another simple but effective method to supporting a personalised approach to learning includes learning her students’ names, in addition to their learning needs. This motivated students to stay engaged through course assessments, particularly important for maintaining a sense of belonging during online learning.

“Jess completely breaks down the lecturer-student wall, she even makes an effort to learn our names… [she] truly cared about what she was teaching, and who she was teaching.” – Student, CES, 2021

Impactful results 

Reflecting on CES feedback provided not only an opportunity to optimise Dr Danaher’s scholarly approach, but also to create engaging learning environments where students thrive.

The effectiveness of her assessment practices in bringing about improvements in learning outcomes is evident. The approach has been endorsed through receipt of an award for overall teaching excellence at the 2023 Australian Awards for University Teaching and improved CES results. 

Since taking over the Nutrition, Health and Disease and Food Toxicology, Allergens and Health courses, Dr Danaher has generated and maintained an upward trajectory in CES results, highlighting a sustained achievement in education that continuously exceed University benchmarks.

By reflecting on her teaching approach following her first year of teaching and shifting her practice to more applied and authentic learning, Dr Danaher’s Good Teaching Score (GTS) increased from 71% to 99%, while her Overall Satisfaction Index (OSI) increased from 80% to 99%.

During online learning in 2020, Dr Danaher’s cohort’s fail rate was the lowest (1.1%, two out of 177 students), indicating that her assessment practices are just as effective in digital domains.

Bar graph displaying increase in Course Experience Survey results between 2018 and 2022 Course Experience Survey results show a sustained increase in student engagement.

About Dr Jessica Danaher

Dr Jess Danaher is a Senior Lecturer, Nutrition Scientist and Dietitian.

In addition to the outstanding contributions to Higher Education above, Jess has a proactive involvement in nationally acclaimed engagement programs, including Australia’s Superstars of STEM and the Oceanic Nutrition Leadership Platform. Here she works towards equal representation of women in the media and sustainable food security for Oceania, respectively.

She is also responsible for turning complex scientific concepts into easy-to-digest nutrition messages. Jess works with major Australian media outlets as an engaging, go-to expert on nutrition topics.

Connect with Dr Danaher on LinkedIn or on Instagram @DrJessDanaher.


[1] Healey M, Flint A, Harrington K. Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. Higher Education Academy, 2014 [cited Aug 2022, July2023]

14 July 2023


14 July 2023


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RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.