Assessing the Assessment Criteria

Following on from my musings on word counts (, I’ve been writing a lot of assessment criteria and guidelines for new assignments in a revised module lately. And I’ve found myself writing:

“These are suggestions only. I don’t want to be too specific because I want you to have the flexibility to tailor your report to what your project requires.”

And then I’ve found myself struggling greatly to set out assessment criteria beyond general adherence to our institutional rubric. This effectively defines the characteristics of 1st class work. And I don’t want to give more detail than this.

Firstly, I mean what I say in the quote: the nature of the assignment really does require flexibility in the format. I want my students to think about the best way to present their project. I do not want to be prescriptive. I want them to decide on the best format for their information. Solid assessment guidelines are good where a very clearly defined format is standard, such as a lab report. But here, I want to give some freedom to try something different. It’s a written report so all the stuff about proof reading, referencing, attributing images all applies, but I don’t want to dictate sections and format too heavily. I think this is reasonably authentic – there are lots of occasions where we must use our judgement to work out what would be best.

Secondly, I’m starting to wonder about how valid extremely detailed assessment criteria are. To what extent does it stifle students initiative in undertaking a task? Assessment criteria may quickly become a crutch for students (and for staff – similar formats for work makes marking quicker) and deny them the opportunity to evaluate how best to present work. I’ve taken to defining what is necessary to obtain 1st class marks, to just pass, and the characteristics of work that will fail. I find it too artificial to describe 40%, 50%, 60%, 70% etc. I used to find that I was just find-replacing words like ‘good’ for ‘very good’ between boundaries so I stopped doing it.

Thirdly, there is a whole debate out there about assessment literacy. I think I’m leaning more in favour of providing exemplar work than extremely detailed assessment criteria. Words like outstanding/excellent/very good/good are open to interpretation. I was once told by a student that if I called their work good, they expected it to get a mark of 70% or more. Good as defined by our university criteria means 50 – 58%. When I provide exemplar work, I generally pick/write stuff that is 2i standard, or a few examples across a range of marks. Providing exemplar work with some kind of exercise to encourage more reflection on the work and the (limited) assessment criteria seems like a better use of time than producing an extensive, jargon heavy set of criteria and requiring students to read it and act on it.

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