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Learning outcomes and assessment criteria

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Assessment criteria

Assessment criteria are statements specifying the standards that must be met and the evidence that will be gathered to demonstrate the achievement of learning outcomes.

The purpose of assessment criteria is to establish clear and unambiguous standards of achievement for each learning outcome. They should describe what the learner is expected to do to show that the learning outcome has been achieved. They should not, however, be confused with the actual assessment tasks. Rather, the assessment criteria specify how the task will be evaluated.

There are three broad types of assessment criteria:

  1. Threshold standards tell the learner what must be done in order to demonstrate achievement of the learning outcomes of the unit i.e. what is the minimum requirement for passing this unit.
  2. Grading criteria provide a general description of the standard required for achievement of each pre-established grade, marking band or degree classification i.e. a first class honours award requires 70 per cent or more, an upper second requires 60-69 per cent, etc.
  3. General criteria provide general outcome descriptors that can be achieved more or less well. Students’ work will be judged to fall at a point within a performance range and marks are allocated accordingly. Typically, criteria of this sort are used to evaluate such things as use of referencing, accuracy of language, use of supporting evidence in drawing conclusions, quality of critical thinking, etc.

Writing assessment criteria

Many of the points to note when writing assessment criteria are the same as those for writing learning outcomes: clarity, unambiguity and brevity are all important and the language should be understandable by both teaching staff and students. The criteria must be measurable in a valid and reliable way and should concern themselves solely with those aspects of performance that are essential for achieving a pass or the specified grade.

The assessment criteria creation process:

  1. Writing assessment criteria starts with a consideration of the learning outcome being tested.
  2. Then this needs to be set along side the assessment task.
  3. Requirements for, or attributes of, successful performance of the task should be listed.
  4. If necessary, these requirements can be placed into context of expectations at this level of learning.
  5. The final criteria must focus on what is deemed essential amongst the requirements and these should be formed into clearly worded criteria.
  6. These criteria need to be checked to ensure that they are reliably measurable and clear in their intention.
  7. This process can be refined until a satisfactory set of assessment criteria has been created.

Assessment criteria should reflect the overall, published, aims of the programme. If, for example, the course claims to prepare students for entry into a particular profession, then the achievement of the entry requirements for that profession should be specified in the assessment criteria.

The criteria must be informed by the published learning outcomes of the module. They should not, however, merely repeat what has been stated as learning outcomes but must expand on these to make clear how and to what extent the student is expected to use particular skills or knowledge in order to meet these outcomes.

Assessment criteria should reflect the level of the module. Higher level modules will generally require more complex analytical skills and greater depth of knowledge than lower level ones. This must be reflected in the language used to write the criteria, with more descriptive verbs such as ‘define’ or ‘describe’, giving way to increasingly sophisticated analytical and critical ones such as ‘compare’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘critique’.

The criteria must reflect the distinctive epistemological characteristics of the particular subject or discipline being assessed.

Assessment criteria must be comparable to standards set in other institutions offering the same award. Whilst each course will have, and should retain, its distinctive individual features, the meaningfulness of any qualification depends on it representing the same value wherever it has been obtained.

Assessment criteria need to relate to the specific requirements of the assessment task i.e. they should describe the performance required for the task set. Oral presentation criteria will be quite distinct from the criteria set for an essay or portfolio.

Using assessment criteria

Assessment criteria are chiefly of value in so far as they enable students to focus their learning more effectively and make the assessment process more transparent and fair. For this reason, if no other, the expected outcomes and assessment criteria for any module should be discussed with students before they are expected to undertake any assessed work. Such discussions can be facilitated using the following structure:

  • decide on the essential criteria
  • make the criteria or checklist simple to use
  • allow for brief global impressions
  • give the criteria to the students before they do the assignment
  • if possible, involve them in the design of the criteria and checklist
  • encourage students to use the criteria.

The essentials of good criteria are that they:

  • match the assessment task and learning outcome
  • enable consistency of marking
  • can pinpoint areas of disagreement between assessors
  • help students to achieve the learning outcomes
  • be used to provide useful feedback to students.