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Who are marking criteria for?

Marking criteria and standards aim to make the assessment process more transparent for everyone. For those setting assessments, they should help to identify appropriate modes, topics and scope (alongside the module learning and skill outcomes). For markers, they aim to increase clarity and consistency across the module and programme (Jönsson & Panadero, 2017). For students, criteria and standards should ideally support the process of learning through assessment (see Assessment for learning, one of the University’s Principles of Teaching, Learning and Assessment ). That is, they provide comprehensible goals that students can refer to and work toward throughout the assessment process (Ajjawi, 2023).

In particular, good practice includes creating standards that relate to actual practice within the discipline (Sadler, 2009); for example, standards can make explicit that expectations for an undergraduate essay are similar to (if simplified versions of) academic standards that apply to published journal articles. Well-crafted criteria and standards can also indicate to students how assessments are aligned to ‘real-world’ practice both within and beyond the discipline (Sambell, McDowell & Montgomery, 2013).

Marker engagement with criteria and standards

Marking calibration is an effective way to ensure that the criteria and standards are fit for purpose, and that the markers are confident in using them to assess students work. See Marking criteria calibration for further details.

Student engagement with criteria and standards

On the programme level, it is recommended that students are introduced to the criteria and standards that are shared across modules at the beginning of their study. Giving students ample time to engage with them in formative ways before their first summative submission has been shown to improve their engagement with the criteria and standards (Sadler, 2007). Iterative assessment processes throughout the programme can also help students to understand what is expected of them (Carless & Boud, 2018; Yan & Carless, 2022).

Developing students’ understanding of the use of criteria and standards and how to work with them can support students in constructively applying learning to their studies. The impact of feedback can be one of the strongest influences, positive or negative on students learning and achievement (Hattie, 2009).  Reddy and Andrade (2009) highlight that students value marking criteria because they help to clarify the targets for their work, allow them to regulate their progress and make grades or marks transparent or fair. Used effectively, criteria and standards should support the process of students learning through assessment. Criteria and standards can be used to support students understanding of what feedback is, how they will get it and how to apply it to their learning.

How criteria and standards support student learning

Researchers stress the value of marking criteria as instructional guides and their benefits in supporting students in their understanding of assessment and feedback and developing their learning. Stevens and Levi (2013) argue that students need both directed instruction and practice to discuss, interpret and effectively apply criteria and standards. Carefully structured pedagogies relating to criteria and standards can support decreases in the inequalities present in assessment practices (Jones et al., 2017) by helping students to self-identify assessment requirements, giving students the tools to identify their own strengths and weaknesses as well as critiquing and improving their own work (Jones et al., 2017).

Ways to developing student understanding and use of rubrics

Careful planning can assist students in identifying what is required during assessment preparations and provide opportunities for students to review their own work and take feedback on board (Jones et al., 2017). Without proper instruction, discrepancies may exist between students’ and markers’ interpretations. If students don’t understand why or how to use criteria and standards, they cannot successfully measure the quality of work they are submitting, which may result in a lack of motivation and frustration. Fundamentally, creating an environment that values open communication and active student involvement in the learning process is key to fostering the understanding of and engagement with criteria and standards.

The following are five recommendations to support students in engaging with criteria and standards:

Be clear

Students will not necessarily have experience or an understanding of criteria and standards, how to use them or what they mean for assessment. It’s important to design and plan in time to work with students to develop their understanding of the purpose, language and terminology used and how it applies to them.

  • Explain the purpose: what are the criteria and standards, how do they impact the student, and why are they being used?
  • Be clear with language and terminology: often language such as ‘critically analyse’ or ‘synthesise’ is difficult to understand without context. Make sure to be clear about what is expected, as well consistent in the language used between assessment criteria and rubrics, for example.
  • Break down what is expected: how do you expect students to engage with it and when; how will it support their learning?

You may find it helpful to use exemplars to demonstrate these points.

Involve students

A good way to build understanding of what criteria and standards are in your context is to include them in the criteria design process. Collaborative approaches can enhance students’ sense of ownership and understanding of assessment standards.

Model examples and provide opportunities for discussion

Providing case studies and examples from previous assessments can illustrate how the criteria are applied in practice. Make opportunities in class to analyse and discuss the criteria and illustrate how they are applied. This might involve conversations about strengths and weaknesses of these examples. This can reduce misunderstandings and challenge perceived ambiguities. Discussing criteria in the classroom provides opportunities to address questions and provide guidance on how students can improve based on marking criteria.

Link to assessments

Criteria and standards should support the process of learning through assessment. This might include designing specific assessments that enable students to engage with criteria and standards, for example iterative assessments (e.g. multi-stage assignments, team projects or e-portfilios naturally involve opportunities for different forms of internal and external feedback). This can encourage engagement by providing comprehensive goals that students can refer to and work towards through the assessment process and maximising students’ opportunities to give and receive feedback (Carless & Boud, 2018).

Criteria and standards can become tools for communicating expectations in relation to assessment, for example by supporting different assessment for learning processes such as self-assessment, composing and receiving feedback and analysing exemplars and discussing with peers (Carless and Boud, 2018). The transparency provided by criteria and standards use has been shown to support students’ self-regulated learning and supporting planning, monitoring and evaluating performance with the aid of a rubric (Jönsson and Panadero, 2017).

Regularly reflect on and revisit rubrics and criteria

Remind students of the rubrics and marking criteria throughout the course making sure to reinforce the importance of understanding and meeting criteria. Among module and programme markers, establish regular review of the marking proforma as a whole, and the criteria, standards and descriptors in particular.

References and resources

Guidance and Support for Marking Criteria Review (internal to Durham University)

Armstrong, S., Chan, S., Malfroy J. & Thomson, R. (2015) Assessment Guide: Implementing criteria and standards-based assessment, University of Western Sydney. Australia: Sydney.

Ajjawi R. (ed.) (2023) Assessment for inclusion in higher education: promoting equity and social justice in assessment, Routledge.

Banta, T. W. & Palomba, C.A. (2014) Assessment Essentials: Planning, Implementing, and Improving Assessment in Higher Education, John Wiley & Sons. Chapter 5.

Carless, D. & Boud, D. (2018) ‘The development of student feedback literacy: enabling uptake of feedback’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43:8, 1315-1325.

Hattie, J. (2009) The Black Box of Tertiary Assessment: An Impending Revolution. In L. H.Meyer, S. Davidson, H. Anderson, R. Fletcher, P.M. Johnston, & M. Rees (Eds.), (2009) Tertiary Assessment & Higher Education Student Outcomes: Policy, Practice & Research (pp.259-275). New Zealand: Ako Aotearoa.

Hughes, C. (2007). Quickbite: Practical guidelines for writing assessment criteria & standards, TheUniversity of Queensland, Australia: Brisbane.

Jones, L., Allen., B., Dunn, P & Brooker, L. (2017) Demystifying the rubric: a five-step pedagogy to improve student understanding and utilisation of marking criteria, Higher Education Research & Development, 36:1, 129-142, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2016.1177000.

Jönsson, A. & Panadero, E. (2017) ‘The Use and Design of Rubrics to Support Assessment for Learning’ in Scaling up Assessment for Learning in Higher Education, edited by David Carless, et al., Springer Singapore.

McConlogue, T. (2020) Assessment and feedback in higher education: a guide for teachers. London: UCL Press. Chapter 6.

Prosser, M. (2014) ‘Perceptions of assessment standards and student learning’, in Advances and Innovations in University Assessment and Feedback: A Festschrift in Honour of Professor Dai Hounsell, edited by Carolin Kreber, et al., Edinburgh University Press.

Sadler, D.R. (2009) ‘Indeterminacy in the use of preset criteria for assessment and grading’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34:2, 159-179.

Sambell, K., McDowell, L. & Montgomery, C. (2013) Assessment for Learning in Higher Education. Routledge.

Stevens, D., & Levi, A. (2013) Introduction to rubrics: An assessment tool to save grading time, convey effective feedback and promote student learning. Virginia: Stylus.

Yan, Z. & Carless, D. (2022) ‘Self-assessment is about more than self: the enabling role of feedback literacy’, Assessment and evaluation in higher education, 47, pp. 1116–1128.