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This advice is based on the Guidance and Support for Marking Criteria Review (internal to Durham University) that was approved by Education Committee in 2024.

Start with learning outcomes

The starting point for designing and testing marking criteria should be the learning outcomes for your programme. This is to ensure that the design is constructively aligned–that is, the outcomes determine what you want the students to be able to do by the end of the programme, and the marking criteria indicate how well they have achieved this. When detailed marking criteria are available, the students know precisely how they need to demonstrate their learning in an assessment.

Align with the University generic criteria

Marking criteria should align with the appropriate University regulations:

Develop criteria for each type of assessment

As different assessments cover different programme learning outcomes, different marking criteria should be developed for different assessment types. For example, if one of the programme learning outcomes is ‘The student will be able to identify appropriate statistical processes and apply these to analysing data sets’, the criteria for an undergraduate dissertation may include:

·      Choose an appropriate statistical process

·      Effectively analyse the data set using the chosen statistical package

·     Critically discuss the findings

These criteria would then be described at each level, i.e. a percentage range (e.g. 60-65%) or a classification (e.g. II(i)). Across a programme, all learning outcomes would be covered by the different assessments. See the Repository of Durham University marking criteria exemplars for examples from a number of departments.

Ensure that the criteria are clear and meaningful to students

Marking criteria should be accessible to students as well as markers. Consider the following when developing or reviewing criteria for each assessment:

  • Keep criteria as concise as possible.
  • Frame criteria positively for passing marks (i.e. describe what is required rather than what is to be avoided).
  • Use concrete phrasing that refers to observable assessment characteristics.
  • Separate criteria so that each criterion deals with only one characteristic.
  • Specify demonstrable qualities.
  • Aim to be precise and specific, but not overly complex.
  • Use terminology from the learning outcomes.
  • Use adjectives or adverbs to define achievement at different levels (e.g. much, some, key, appropriate).
  • If you intend to assess prose style, layout and structure of students’ written work, specify these criteria.
  • Be realistic about how many criteria students can competently meet in an assessment task, and how many criteria assessors can juggle when marking.

Keep in mind the importance of distinguishing between terminology at different levels of performance to support students’ understanding. When it comes to providing student feedback, the criteria should clearly indicate to students what they will need to do in future assessments to improve.


Calibration exercises, which involve an iterative process where staff work with draft criteria and standards alongside samples of student work, can ensure that the criteria and standards are appropriate, and are being used appropriately in marking. More on calibration can be found here: Marking criteria calibration.

Any communication with key stakeholders is valuable, including:

  • Sharing descriptors with colleagues to make sure there is a shared understanding of what they mean.
  • Sharing with students to gain feedback on how transparent and useful the criteria and descriptors are.
  • Comparing to sector standards and sharing with the external examiner.

References and resources

Repository of Durham University marking criteria exemplars

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

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