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"Clear in advance": a case study of first year undergraduate students’ engagement with assessment criteria

"Clear in advance": a case study of first year undergraduate students’ engagement with assessment criteria

Headington, Rita (2010) "Clear in advance": a case study of first year undergraduate students’ engagement with assessment criteria. In: EARLI/Northumbria Assessment Conference 2010, 1-3 Sep 2010, Slaley Hall Hotel, Northumberland, UK. (Unpublished)

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The National Student Survey asks whether assessment criteria are made "clear in advance." Most HEIs place assessment criteria for assignments in course guides given to first year undergraduate students on arrival. While this provides transparency, are publication and distribution alone sufficient to ensure clarity? The social constructivist approach taken by O’Donovan et al (2008) recognises the need for engagement and interaction in learning. This paper examines students’ understanding of criteria, set before they arrive at university, and how it might be enhanced through interaction and engagement.

Interest in criteria seldom occurs on arrival at university when students are overwhelmed with course materials. Criteria may appear more "fuzzy" than "sharp" (Sadler 1989), particularly if considered out of context. Students’ desire to understand criteria is pragmatic, coming prior to assignment completion, when seeking their precise meaning to improve submission quality and grades (University of Greenwich 2009).

Rust (2002) reminds us that simply "having explicit criteria" does not guarantee that students’ work will improve. Similarly, anecdotal evidence from new tutors suggests that criteria become clearer through engagement and debate during assignment marking and moderation processes. If new tutors gain understanding contextualised engagement and interaction, is it appropriate to expect novice students to complete an assignment without such experiences? Should students be passive receivers of criteria in course guides or become actively involved in meaning-making through their creation or development?

Engaging students through "descriptive statements and exemplars" (Sadler 1989) enables interpretation of criteria in a given context, but does this lead to instrumental approaches resulting in "criteria compliance" (Torrance 2007)? Hounsell et al (2008) suggest an active approach throughout the assessment process, with an ongoing dialogue of guidance and feedback which would necessarily include criteria. Nicol (2009) goes further by stating that joint development of criteria by students and tutors through formative assessment experiences ensure that appropriate language is used and shared. Such an approach would involve and engage students actively to support understanding and provide clarity, but is it achievable with first year students within the strictures of higher education course requirements?

This paper reports on a study of first year undergraduate student engagement with assessment criteria by examining the first and second year of operation of a newly designed blended-learning course, for cohorts of 120 students, within an initial teacher training programme. Before students entered the course three summative assessment points were identified, their assignments developed and criteria set and published according to university practice. Formative assessment points during course sought to engage students in the creation and application of criteria. This experience was then applied to summative assessment criteria. Students worked together to analyse assignments and criteria and became actively involved in developing success criteria.

Questionnaires and output data from the first cohort, suggested that students’ understanding of criteria and their consequent grades may have benefitted from this approach. The addition of semi-structured interviews with students from the second cohort will seek to determine whether this assumption is accurate.

Item Type: Conference or Conference Paper (Paper)
Additional Information: Paper presented at the EARLI/Northumbria Assessment Conference 2010 (the fifth biennial Northumbria/EARLI SIG Assessment Conference), entitled 'Assessment for Learners', held 1-3 September 2010, Slaley Hall Hotel, Northumberland, UK.
Uncontrolled Keywords: assessment, criteria, Higher Education
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education
Pre-2014 Departments: School of Education
School of Education > Department of Primary Education
Related URLs:
Last Modified: 08 Oct 2019 09:19

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