Help your students to become assessment literate

Practical suggestions to address a staff-student disconnect relating to the purpose and practice of assessment and to enhance assessment literacy on your courses


11 Sep 2023
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We know that assessment matters. It provides recognition of students’ achievements, drives learning and enables students to develop valuable skills for the future. Yet, despite all the efforts by students and staff, we can’t seem to get it right.

The Higher Education Academy’s 2015 Framework for Transforming Assessment in Higher Education recognises the importance of integrating assessment literacy into course design:

“Active engagement with assessment standards and expectations for learning should be an integral and seamless part of course design and the learning process so as to allow students to develop their own, internalised conceptions of standards and to monitor their own learning over time.”

The framework emphasises the importance of helping students understand the many purposes of assessment and developing a shared understanding, embracing assessment for learning.

We ran a co-creation project with students from our law programmes, discussing our assessment practice and guidance to draw out misunderstandings and tacit knowledge. This revealed the disconnect between staff and student understanding of the purpose and practice of assessment, the challenges that our students face during their studies and how these contribute to dissatisfaction and lack of trust in the assessment process.

Here we give some practical suggestions to address this staff-student disconnect and enhance assessment literacy on your courses and programmes. There is already much good practice in relation to assessment design and feedback opportunities and processes, so here we focus on pre-assessment support and building a community of practice. 

Pre-assessment support

Set aside time on your unit or programme to identify students’ past experiences of assessment.

This is particularly useful for first-year courses, but can be valuable throughout a programme. Students arrive at university with preconceptions about the purpose and expectations of assessment based on previous educational experience. Work out what these are.

For example, do your students think essays are primarily aimed at demonstrating knowledge of taught material? Have they previously encountered a type of assessment that you are using? Are they unfamiliar with any of the assessment language used in higher education? What are their expectations in relation to academic integrity?

Gathering this information through activities in lectures or workshops can enable you to target these preconceptions and misunderstandings in your teaching and support.

Schedule time to develop a shared understanding of assessment practice as early as possible.

You should discuss the purposes of assessment and the role of feedback in enabling students to maximise their potential, and explain the assessment process, particularly when introducing new forms of assessment.

You should also discuss how work will be marked, acknowledging where qualitative judgement is required, and explain how the validity of the marking process is ensured.

It is also important to discuss the ethics of assessment, now including the role of generative AI, to encourage authentic engagement with tasks.

Support a broader understanding of the purpose of assessment through roadmaps for your unit.

Create a visual map to demonstrate how assessment links to the intended learning outcomes and teaching activities for your unit. This helps students see assessment as an integral part of their learning, not just as the end point. It clarifies which skills are being developed and tested, helping students see the broader purpose of assessment for this unit and their future development.

You should also show students how you will scaffold their development during the unit and what a completed assessment would look like. 

Discuss the marking criteria and grade descriptors early on to develop a shared understanding

Provide students with the marking criteria or grade descriptors early in the teaching process and explain how they are used by staff. It would be helpful to ask students to discuss what skills and learning outcomes the criteria require, what the terminology means and how students could demonstrate the requirements in their assessments.

Remember to encourage students to engage with the criteria or grade descriptors throughout their studies and while completing assessment tasks.

Run a marking exercise to support self-assessment and evaluative judgement. 

After working with students on understanding the marking criteria, ask students to mark a selection of work in small groups, supporting them to construct shared understandings of standards and develop the skills needed to review their own work in the future.

This could include marking work produced by generative AI tools to help students identify how and when this technology is best used to support their learning and development.

Building a community of practice

Encourage a culture of engagement with assessment and feedback through effective use of office hours.

The project revealed that students were often unsure how and when to use office hours. When students do come to talk to us, it is often because they haven’t understood a particular concept or topic, or to make sense of feedback that they have received following an assessment task.

Try to encourage students to engage with office hours throughout the year to develop their assessment literacy by suggesting discussion topics related to assessment, perhaps as a follow-up to an activity they have engaged in during class time.

Identify existing peer support opportunities and train those students to support assessment literacy.

You could train peer mentors working with students new to higher education or within student-led co-curricular activities. You might also consider inviting peer mentors to join in the assessment literacy exercises outlined above.

Offer dedicated sessions where students can study with a member of staff available to respond to questions and encourage informal discussions about assessment.

These offer reassurance to students who are new to higher education and support a community of practice.

To get assessment right, we must support students to develop assessment literacy. While we know that assessment design and feedback opportunities matter, it’s never too early to start conversations about assessment. By working with students to develop shared understandings we will enable them to maximise their potential. 

Eleanor Aspey and Gillian Ulph are both senior lecturers in law at the University of Manchester.

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