Assessment literacy

Lecture taking place in a University lecture theatreAssessment literacy can be defined as students’ ability to understand the purpose and processes of assessment, and accurately judge their own work (Smith, Worsfold, Davies, Fisher, and McPhail 2013). This guidance supports you to develop your students’ assessment literacy, and gives some practical ways to embed this in your curricula.

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How do we develop assessment literacy?

At the most basic level, it is important to provide clear and inclusive information for students about assessment. Think beyond the obvious such as exam regulations, and offer students some insight into the rationale behind assessment, and some advice for preparing for and making the most of assessment.

Examples of clear information on assessment

The School of Education has produced an online assessment handbook for students that clearly lays out procedures and expectations, as well as the rationale behind assessment methods.

The School of English also has an online assessment handbook, containing ‘everything you always wanted to know about assessment and feedback’.

Providing information such as this, on its own, will not improve students’ assessment literacy. Students need to actively engage with briefs, standards and criteria. Assessment literacy needs to be integrated into learning itself, so that students can ‘develop their own, internalised conceptions of standards and ... monitor and supervise their own learning’ (HEA 2012).

Students need to engage particularly with the marking criteria and rubrics used. For example:

  • Give students a copy of the marking criteria. Ask them to identify and separate out specific terms in the criteria, such as ‘critical analysis’, ‘use of sources’, ‘robust argument’, ‘professional presentation’. Ask the students to write their own definitions of the terms and collate them. Then reveal to the class your own definition of these terms. Discuss the reasons why some of their answers might have differed.

Formative self- and peer-assessment tasks are also key methods of developing assessment literacy in students, and they encourage critical reflection and meta-cognition among students (Boud et al. 1999). Tasks involving exemplars may also have a positive impact (Rust et al. 2003, Smith et al. 2013)

Example activity for preparing students for an assessment from Politics

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Practical ways to develop assessment literacy

Self-assessment ideas

Self-assessment is primarily a reflective activity for students. Students are given the time and space to reflect on their own work (and the processes they used in producing the work), developing skills of self-evaluation, and critical judgement of their own work.

  • Students could mark their own work using the provided criteria and rubrics as a self-reflection activity. It might be useful to provide some structure and guidance for an activity like this, e.g. in the form of some written instructions on how to deal with weightings, for example. Think about how you as an educator learned to mark, and some of the mistakes you might have made when you first started.
  • Students could ‘audit’ their own work (perhaps using the marking criteria and rubric but not being restricted by this), reflecting on what they think went well, what they struggled with, anything they didn’t understand, etc. This is an example of a self-reflection cover sheet for an assignment, from the University of Reading.
  • Students could mark their own work using the provided criteria and rubric and submit this to their tutor. The tutor marks the work themselves and adds their own feedback in response to the students’.

An in-depth look at self-assessment can be found in this resource from Trinity College Dublin (PDF with some accessibility issues).

Peer assessment ideas

In peer assessment or evaluation, the act of assessing and providing feedback to peers is just as valuable as the feedback students receive on their own work, as it allows for the development of ‘important high-order (generic) skills such as critical evaluation and communication… but also … self-assessment’ (Mulder et al. 2014, 684). Peer assessment may be even more valuable than self-assessment, because students have access to more examples against which to compare themselves (Hendry et al. 2012, 158).

  • Engage students in an activity which doesn’t involve one of their assignments to introduce them to the concept of marking criteria and rubrics, why they are important and how they are used. This example shows an exercise in which students are introduced to a simplified version of the marking criteria for reflective writing by writing a short reflective piece on ‘What I had for breakfast’ and then swapping their paragraphs with another student and using the criteria to peer mark their work.
  • Students assess each other’s draft assignments using marking criteria and rubrics. This can be facilitated and made anonymous using the ‘PeerMark’ facility in Turnitin or Blackboard self and peer assessment. Provide students with guidance on using the marking criteria in advance.
  • Peer assessment could be used not just for written assignments. This is an example from the University of Reading on peer assessment/feedback on oral presentations. An added advantage of this kind of approach is that students receive some feedback quickly.
  • Students could develop their own criteria for peer assessment activities. This could lead to interesting conversations about what a ‘good’ or ‘poor’ piece of work looks like in different contexts. Further advice on this can be found in ‘The Lecturer’s Toolkit’ (Race, 2001).

See our guidance on Designing effective peer assessments and evaluations

Ideas for using exemplars

Using exemplars is a way of making assessment standards very clear, as well as clarifying some of the concepts that students might struggle with such as ‘critical analysis’. For assessment types that are new to students, providing exemplars may also lessen anxieties around how to address the assignment briefs. Providing exemplars on their own will not necessarily benefit students; it is peer discussion and teacher guidance around exemplars and the marking criteria used that allows students to develop their assessment literacy (To and Carless 2016).

  • Use some class time to structure an exercise around exemplars. Provide a range of exemplars from across the grade boundaries, and ask students to use the marking criteria to assess the piece of work. Discussions could follow around which exemplars would have achieved higher marks and why. You could also choose to reveal the mark/grade boundary the piece of work actually received, to see how this compares with their evaluation.
  • This blog from Dr Steven Vaughan from UCL explains how he asked first year students to mark his own first university essay, to increase their assessment literacy as well as managing some of their anxieties.
  • Be careful not to present the exemplars (particularly the good ones) as ‘model answers’ (unless the question/assignment was such that there is a ‘correct’ answer’). To avoid this:
    • present exemplars that address the marking criteria in different ways, showing that there can be different approaches to achieving work of a high standard
    • explicitly state to students that the exemplars should not be used unfairly
    • provide printed out copies of exemplars during the class activity, but ensure that these are collected back afterwards so that students can’t take them away, or remove them from Blackboard after a certain amount of time

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Further information

Top tips
  1. Find out what information on assessment is already given to students in your department and consider what specific information you might need to give on top of that.
  2. When marking student work, think about any examples that could be used as exemplars in future
  3. To avoid unfair means, only make exemplars available for a short period of time.
Links and downloads
References and further reading
  • Boud, D., Cohen, R. & Sampson, J. 1999 Peer Learning and Assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 24(4), 413-426
  • Hendry, G. D., & Oliver, G. R. 2012. Seeing is Believing: The Benefits of Peer Observation. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice 9 (1)
  • Higher Education Academy 2012. A Marked Improvement: transforming assessment in higher education. York: Higher Education Academy
  • Mulder, R., Pearce, J. & Baik, C. 2014. Peer review in higher education: Student perceptions before and after participation. Active Learning in Higher Education 15 (2) 157-171
  • Race, P. 2001. The Lecturer’s Toolkit: a practical guide to learning, teaching and assessment (2nd ed.) London: Kogan Page.
  • Rust, C., Price, M. & O’Donovan, B. 2003 Improving Students' Learning by Developing their Understanding of Assessment Criteria and Processes. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 28 (2), 147-164
  • Smith, C., Worsfold, K., Davies, L., Fisher, R. & McPhail, R. 2013. Assessment Literacy and Student Learning: The Case for Explicitly Developing Students’ ‘Assessment Literacy’. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 38 (1): 44–60
  • To, J. & Carless, D. 2016. Making productive use of exemplars: Peer discussion and teacher guidance for positive transfer of strategies. Journal of Further and Higher Education 40 (6) 746-764