Assessment Design: The Anderson-Melville System


Different students have different learning styles. Designing assessments that are accurate for different students can be a challenge – particularly bigger tests and exams.

For the last several years, I have adopted an assessment technique known as the Anderson-Melville system, developed at Western Illinois University over 30 years ago.

If you haven’t heard of it, don’t be surprised. This is one of the best-kept secrets in assessments, developed by political science professors in rural Illinois. The concept is to approach the assessment from 4 different angles with different types of questions. When grading, the assessment is “self-curved”, where more emphasis is placed on the parts the student was able to best address.

Assessment Design

In the classic case, an exam would be given over 90 minutes, and consist of four parts:

  • Essay (1+ page response to a prompt)
  • Short Answer (1-2 sentence answer to a prompt)
  • Fill In The Blank (1 word answers)
  • Multiple Choice (4 choices)

Students can approach the four parts however they see fit, and the instructor would design the questions so that each of the 4 parts tries to be balanced across the entire subject matter as much as possible (basically 4 mini-assessments rolled into one big exam).

Assessment Grading

This is what is really unique, and truly powerful, about this system: the self-curve. When grading the assessment, each part is weighted differently – teachers give greater weight on the seconds where students most excel.

  • The best section is worth 4x points
  • The second section is worth 3x points
  • The third section is worth 2x points
  • The worst section is worth 1x points

This means students who really knock the essay portion out of the park, but struggle with memorization for the fill-in-the blanks are still able to get high scores based on their overall mastery of the topic of the assessment. Students who struggle writing (especially under a deadline) can focus more on the section of the exam where they feel most confident – with the self-curved system giving teachers and students alike an accurate picture of overall topic mastery.

Instructors are free to add or remove sections (as time allows) and play with the point balancing. I have also seen teachers drop the worst section entirely, or have the best worth 3x, the middle two worth 2x, and the worst worth 1x. It all depends on how you want to run your class!


The biggest challenge in adopting the Anderson-Melville system is carefully designing the assessment itself. This technique can only be used if you carefully balance each section so that each part could theoretically stand on its own as a short assessment on the entire subject area.

The other challenge is making sure students fully understand how they are being assessed. Writing the grading system on the board prior to beginning, and taking a few minutes to walk through examples can really reduce the challenge. Be sure to also print the grading system at the top of the assessment itself – otherwise you can expect emails from parents who can’t understand how you come up with your final grades.

Despite the challenges, this system is still one of my favorites!