School of Psychology & Clinical Languages Sciences
In this 14 minute video, early rubrics adopter Dr. Allan Laville shares how he and colleagues in Psychology have sought to improve student assessment literacy, and have successfully engaged students with their assessment rubrics by embedding analysis of them into their in-class teaching and by using screencasts, discussion boards and student partnership. Lots of useful ideas and advice – well worth a watch.
Working in collaboration with two Final Year students, we designed two ‘flexible’, ‘minimalist’ rubric templates usable and adaptable across different languages and levels, to provide a basis for the creation of level specific, and potentially task specific, marking schemes where sub-dimensions can be added to the main dimensions. The two marking templates are being piloted this year in the DLC. The project will feature in this year’s TEF submission.
Design, in partnership with two students, rubric templates for the evaluation and feedback of writing tasks and oral presentations in foreign languages which:
were adaptable across languages and levels of proficiency
provided a more inclusive and engaging form of feedback
responded to the analysis of student focus group discussions carried out for a previous TLDF-funded project
As a follow-up to a teacher-learner collaborative appraisal of rubrics used in MLES, now DLC, we designed two marking templates in partnership with two Final Year students, who had participated in the focus groups from a previous project and were employed through Campus Jobs. ‘Acknowledgement of effort’, ‘encouragement’, ‘use of non-evaluative language’, ‘need for and, at the same time, distrust of, objective marking’ were recurrent themes that had emerged from the analysis of the focus group discussions and clearly appeared to cause anxiety for students.
We organised a preliminary session to discuss these findings with the two student partners. We suggested some articles about ‘complexity theory’ as applied to second language learning, (Kramsch, 2012; Larsen-Freeman, 2012; 2015a; 2015b; 2017) with the aim of making our theoretical perspective explicit and transparent to them. A second meeting was devoted to planning collaboratively the structure of two marking schemes for writing and presentations. The two students worked independently to produce examples of standard descriptors which avoided the use of evaluative language and emphasised achievement rather than shortcomings. At a third meeting they presented and discussed their proposals with us. At the last meetings, we continued working to finalise the templates and the two visual learning charts they had suggested. Finally, the two students wrote a blog post to recount their experience of this collaborative work.
The two students appreciated our theoretical approach, felt that it was in tune with their own point of view and that it could support the enhancement of the assessment and marking process. They also found resources on their own, which they shared with us – including rubrics from other universities. They made valuable suggestions, gave us feedback on our ideas and helped us to find alternative terms when we were struggling to avoid the use of non-evaluative language for our descriptors. They also suggested making use of some visual elements in the marking and feedback schemes in order to increase immediateness and effectiveness.
The two marking templates are being piloted this year in the DLC. They were presented to colleagues over four sessions during which the ideas behind their design were explained and discussed. Further internal meetings are planned. These conversations, already begun with the previous TLDF-funded project on assessment and feedback, are contributing to the development of a shared discourse on assessment, which is informed by research and scholarship. The two templates have been designed in partnership with students to ensure accessibility and engagement with the assessment and feedback process. This is regarded as an outstanding practice in the ‘Assessment and feedback benchmarking tool’ produced by the National Union of Students and is likely to feature positively in this year’s TEF submission.
Rubrics have become mainstream, especially within certain university subjects like Foreign Languages. They have been introduced to ensure accountability and transparency in marking practices, but they have also created new problems of their own by promoting a false sense of objectivity in marking and grading. The openness and unpredictability of complex performance in foreign languages and of the dynamic language learning process itself are not adequately reflected in the detailed descriptors of the marking and feedback schemes commonly used for the objective numerical evaluation of performance-based assessment in foreign languages. As emerged from the analysis of focus group discussions conducted in the department in 2017, the lack of understanding and engagement with the feedback provided by this type of rubrics can generate frustration in students. Working in partnership with them, rather than simply listening to their voices or seeing them as evaluators of their own experience, helped us to design minimalist and flexible marking templates, which make use of sensible and sensitive language, introduce visual elements to increase immediateness and effectiveness, leave a considerable amount of space for assessors to comment on different aspects of an individual performance and provide ‘feeding forward’ feedback. This type of ‘partnership’ can be challenging because it requires remaining open to unexpected outcomes. Whether it can bring about real change depends on how its outcomes are going to interact with the educational ecosystems in which it is embedded.
The next stage of the project will involve colleagues in the DLC who will be using the two templates to contribute to the creation of a ‘bank’ of descriptors by sharing the ones they will develop to tailor the templates for specific stages of language development, language objectives, language tasks, or dimensions of student performance. We also intend to encourage colleagues teaching culture modules to consider using the basic structure of the templates to start designing marking schemes for the assessment of student performance in their modules.
An account written by the two students partners involved in the project can be found here:
The first stages of this ongoing project to enhance the process of assessing writing and speaking skills in the Department of Languages and Cultures (DLC, previously MLES) are described in the following blog entries:
Bloxham, S. 2013. Building ‘standard’ frameworks. The role of guidance and feedback in supporting the achievement of learners. In S. Merry et al. (eds.) 2013. Reconceptualising feedback in Higher Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
Bloxham, S. and Boyd, P. 2007. Developing effective assessment in Higher Education. A practical guide. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill International.
Bloxham, S., Boyd, P. and Orr, S. 2011. Mark my words: the role of assessment criteria in UK higher education grading practices. Studies in Higher Education 36 (6): 655-670.
Bloxham, S., den-Outer, B., Hudson J. and Price M. 2016. Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria. Assessment in Higher Education 41 (3): 466-481.
Brooks, V. 2012. Marking as judgement. Research Papers in Education. 27 (1): 63-80.
Gottlieb, D. and Moroye, C. M. 2016. The perceptive imperative: Connoisseurship and the temptation of rubrics. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 13 (2): 104-120.
HEA 2012. A Marked Improvement. Transforming assessment in HE. York: The Higher Education Academy.
Healey, M., Flint, A. and Harrington K. 2014. Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. York: The Higher Education Academy.
Kramsch, C. 2012. Why is everyone so excited about complexity theory in applied linguistics? Mélanges 33: 9-24.
Larsen-Freeman, D. 2012. The emancipation of the language learner. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching. 2(3): 297-309.
Larsen-Freeman, D. 2015a. Saying what we mean: Making a case for ‘language acquisition’ to become ‘language development’. Language Teaching 48 (4): 491-505.
Larsen-Freeman, L. 2015b. Complexity Theory. In VanPatten, B. and Williams, J. (eds.) 2015. Theories in Second Language Acquisition. An Introduction. New York: Routledge: 227-244.
Larsen-Freeman, D. 2017. Just learning. Language Teaching 50 (3): 425-437.
Merry, S., Price, M., Carless, D. and Taras, M. (eds.) 2013. Reconceptualising feedback in Higher Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
O’Donovan, B., Price, M. and Rust, C. 2004. Know what I mean? Enhancing student understanding of assessment standards and criteria. Teaching in Higher Education 9 (3): 325-335.
Price, M. 2005. Assessment standards: the role of communities of practice and the scholarship of assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 30 (3): 215-230.
Sadler, D. R. 2009. Indeterminacy in the use of preset criteria for assessment and grading. Assessment and evaluation in Higher Education 34 (2): 159-179.
Sadler, D. R. 2013. The futility of attempting to codify academic achievement standards.Higher Education 67 (3): 273-288.
Torrance, H. 2007. Assessment as learning? How the use of explicit learning objectives, assessment criteria and feedback in post-secondary education and training can come to dominate learning. Assessment in Education 14 (3): 281-294.
VanPatten & J. Williams (Eds.) 2015. Theories in Second Language Acquisition, 2nd edition. Routledge: 227-244.
Yorke, M. 2011. Summative assessment dealing. Dealing with the ‘Measurement Fallacy’. Studies in Higher Education 36 (3): 251-273.
Sian Wells (BA French and Italian) and Sophia Acton (BA Italian and Spanish)
During the Spring and Summer term of 2019, we participated in a project within the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies (MLES, now Department of Languages and Cultures) with the aim of redesigning the marking schemes used for oral and written pieces of work. This was a follow-up to a 2016 project by Rita Balestrini, which aimed to improve the process of assessing foreign language skills within the department. As we had both taken part in the focus groups in our second year, we were asked to take part in the follow-up project and work alongside Rita Balestrini and her colleague Elisabeth Koenigshofer to improve the rubrics currently used in the department.
This project was influenced by Complexity Theory in the context of Second Language Development. Before the project started, we as students were not aware of research into Second Language Learning and research into the effectiveness of marking schemes. At the beginning of the project we were provided with reading material to gain a better understanding of the science and theory behind the project. We did find the reading quite difficult initially but it became clearer how second language development is a complex process which involves a number of interacting factors. Diane Larson-Freeman, a leading researcher into Complexity Theory defines the process as ‘a complex nonlinear system’ (1997), by which language learners do not simply master one item and then move on to another. Instead, they acquire the second language at different rates: some grammatical structures will be consolidated early on whilst others will take longer to master, and “mistakes” will still occur at all levels (Larson-Freeman, 1997). Thus, feedback becomes an integral part of the learning process. Effective feedback will eventually help learners to reach a high level of proficiency. There are many aspects involved in the process of Second Language Learning, for example the source language and the target language with their respective components (eg. phonology, morphology, lexicon, syntax, semantics and pragmatics); the amount and type of input, interaction, and of feedback (Larson-Freeman, 1997). This complexity raises the question of how to effectively evaluate Second Language Learning. Some research has found that rubrics are not very useful for measuring and evaluating objectively complex processes like Second Language Development. They do not acknowledge setbacks which are part of the learning process and cannot account for the effort put in by the student. This is a problem which also emerged from the analysis of focus group discussions.
Working with our lecturers was a very positive experience because we were able to contribute ideas to the project. We came up with examples of new descriptors and we hope our collaborative effort has produced new rubrics which will support better the process of language learning in the DLC. Being students, it meant that we could provide a unique insight because we have used the marking schemes throughout our four years of studying in the department. We could use our own experience to improve the experience of future students. We also realised how difficult it is to effectively evaluate the learning of a language from the perspective of a lecturer, as there are so many components that go into one single piece of work and also because language tasks can vary enormously, from writing a recipe to writing an essay. The difficulties of creating a marking scheme, which adequately evaluate the level of a student in all pieces of work, became apparent to us. One of the hardest parts of the project was coming up with new descriptors for each grade boundary. Based on the analysis of focus group discussions and on research on the use of rubrics, descriptors should avoid evaluative language and be encouraging for students, both, for those getting lower grades and needing to improve, and those achieving higher grades and wanting to continue to improve. Firstly, Sophia and I were given time to come up with our own new descriptors which we then shared with Rita and Elisabeth. Our lecturers used our ideas to come up with a proposal of what a new marking scheme would look like and which criteria and descriptors could be used. This was a really good way of working because it allowed equal input from both, us students, and lecturers, and meant that we could fully contribute to the project and have our ideas incorporated into the final marking and feedback schemes.
Overall, it was a really positive experience as we valued the expertise of our lecturers regarding the theory surrounding the project and could share the difficulties in evaluating pieces of work. Our lecturers in turn valued our experience as second-language learners who had used the rubrics as students and could provide ideas of how to improve them. We felt that our ideas and input were really appreciated and we hope to have helped create more effective marking schemes which will improve how students are assessed in the department.
Links to related posts
The report about the the follow-up project can be found here:
The first stages of this ongoing project to enhance the process of assessing writing and speaking skills in the Department of Languages and Cultures (DLC, previously MLES) are described in the following blog entries:
Dr Bolanle Adebola is the Module Convenor and lecturer for the following modules on the LLM Programme (On campus and distance learning):
International Commercial Arbitration, Corporate Governance, and Corporate Finance. She is also a Lecturer for the LLB Research Placement Project.
Bolanle is also the Legal Practice Liaison Officer for the CCLFR.
• To make the assessment criteria more transparent and understandable. • To improve assessment output and essay writing skills generally.
For the teacher:
• To facilitate assessment grading by setting clearly defined criteria. • To facilitate the feedback process by creating a framework for dialogue which is understood both by the teacher and the student.
I faced a number of challenges in relation to the assessment process in my first year as a lecturer:
• My students had not performed as well as I would have liked them to in their assessments.
• It was my first time of having to justify the grades I had awarded and I found that I struggled to articulate clearly and consistently the reasons for some of the grades I had awarded.
• I had been newly introduced to the step-marking framework for distinction grades as well as the requirement to make full use of the grading scale which I found challenging in view of the quality of some of the essays I had graded.
I spoke to several colleagues but came to understand that there were as many approaches as there were people. I also discussed the assessment process with several of my students and came to understand that many were both unsure and unclear about the criteria by which their assessments were graded across their modules. I concluded that I needed to build a bridge between my approach to assessment grading and my students’ understanding of the assessment criteria. Ideally, the chosen method would facilitate consistency and the provision of feedback on my part, and improve the quality of essays on my students’ part.
I tend towards the constructivist approach to learning which means that I structure my activities towards promoting student-led learning. For summative assessments, my students are required to demonstrate their understanding and ability to critically appraise legal concepts that I have chosen from our sessions in class. Hence, the main output for all summative assessments on my modules is an essay. Wolf and Stevens (2007) assert that learning is best achieved where all the participants in the process are clear about the criteria for the performance and the levels at which it will be assessed. My goal therefore became to ensure that my students understood the elements I looked for in their essays; these being the criteria against which I graded the essays. They also had to understand how I decided the standards that their essays reflected. While the student handbook sets out the various standards that we apply in the University, I wanted to provide clearer direction on how they could meet or how I determine that an essay meets any of those standards.
If the students were to understand the criteria I apply when grading their essays, then I would have to articulate them. Articulating the criteria for a well-written essay would benefit both myself and my students. For my students, in addition to a clearer understanding of the assessment criteria, it would enable them to self-evaluate which would improve the quality of their output. Improved quality would lead to improved grades and I could give effect to university policy. Articulating the criteria would benefit me because it would facilitate consistency. It would also enable me to give detailed and helpful feedback to students on the strengths and weaknesses of the essays being graded, as well as on their essay writing skills in general; with advice on how to improve different facets of their outputs going forward. Ultimately, my students would learn valuable skills which they could apply across board and after they graduate. For assessments which require some form of performance, essays being an example, a rubric is an excellent evaluation tool because it fulfils all the requirements I have expressed above. (Brookhart, 2013). Hence, I decided to present my grading criteria and standards in the form of a rubric.
The rubric is divided into 5 criteria which are set out in 5 rows:
For each criterion, there are 4 performance levels which are set out in columns: Poor, Good, Merit and Excellent. An essay will be mapped along each row and column. The final marks will depend on how the student has performed on each criterion, as well as my perception of the output as a whole.
Studies suggest that a rubric is most effective when produced in collaboration with the students. (Andrade, Du and Mycek, 2010). When I created my rubric, I did not involve my students, however. I thought that would not be necessary given that my rubric was to be applied generally and with changing cohorts of students. Notwithstanding, I wanted students to engage with it. So, the document containing the rubric has an introduction addressed to the students, which explains the context in which the rubric has beencreated. It also explains how the rubric is applied and the relationship between the criteria. It states for example, that ‘even where the essay has good arguments, poor structure may undermine its score’. It explains that the final grade combines but objective assessment and a subjective evaluation of the output as a whole which is based on the marker’s discretion.
To ensure that students are not confused about the standards set out in the rubric and the assessment standards set out in the students’ handbook, the performance levels set out in the rubric are mapped against the assessment standards set out in the student handbook. The document containing the rubric also contains links to the relevant handbook. Finally, the rubric gives the students an example of how it would be applied to an assessment. Thereafter, it sets out the manner in which feedback would be presented to the students. That helps me create a structure in which feedback would be provided and which both the students and I would understand clearly.
My students’ assessment outputs have been of much better quality and so have achieved better grades since I introduced the rubric. In one of my modules, the average grade, as recorded in the module convenor’s report to the external examiner (MC’s Report), 2015/16, was 64.3%. 20% of the class attained distinctions, all in the 70-79 range. That year, I struggled to give feedback and was asked to provide additional feedback comments to a few students. In 2016/17, after I introduced the rubric, there was a slight dip in the average mark to 63.7%. The dip was because of a fail mark amongst the cohort. If that fail mark is controlled for, then the average percentage had crept up from 2015/16. There was a clear increase in the percentage of distinctions, which had gone up to 25.8% from 20% in the previous year. The cross-over had been
from the students who had been in the merit range. Clearly, some students had been able to use the rubric to improve the standards of their essays. I found the provision of feedback much easier in 2016/17 because I had clear direction from the rubric. When giving feedback I explained both the strengths and weaknesses of the essay in relation to each criterion. My hope was that they would apply the advice more generally across other modules as the method of assessment is the same across board. In 2017/18, the average mark for the same module went up to 68.84%. 38% of the class attained distinctions; with 3% attaining more than 80%. Hence, in my third year, I have also been able to utilise step-marking in the distinction grade which has enabled me to meet the university’s policy.
When I introduced the rubric in 2016/17, I had a control module, by which I mean a module in which I neither provided the rubric nor spoke to the students about their assessments in detail. The quality of assessments from that module was much lower than the others where the students had been introduced to the rubric. In that year, the average grade for the control module was 60%; with 20% attaining a distinction and 20% failing. In 2017/18, while I did not provide the students with the rubric, I spoke to them about the assessments. The average grade for the control module was 61.2%; with 23% attaining a distinction. There was a reduction in the failure rate to 7.6%. The distinction grade also expanded, with 7.6% attaining a higher distinction grade. There was movement both from the failure grade and the pass grade to the next standard/performance level. Though I did not provide the students with the rubric, I still provided feedback to the students using the rubric as a guide. I have found that it has become ingrained in me and is a very useful tool for explaining the reasons for my grades to my students.
From my experience, I can assert, justifiably, that the rubric has played a very important role in improving the students’ essay outputs. It has also enabled me to improve my feedback skills immensely.
I have observed that as the studies in the field argue, it is insufficient merely to have a rubric. For the rubric to achieve the desired objectives, it is important that students actively engage with it. I must admit, that I did not take a genuinely constructivist approach to the rubric. I wanted to explain myself to the students. I did not really encourage a 2-way conversation as the studies encourage and I think this affected the effectiveness of the rubric.
In 2017/18, I decided to talk the students through the rubric, explaining how they can use it to improve performance. I led them through the rubric in the final or penultimate class. During the session, I explained how they might align their essays with the various performance levels/standards. I gave them insights into some of the essays I had assessed in the previous two years; highlighting which practices were poor and which were best. By the end of the autumn term, the first module in which I had both the rubric and an explanation of its application in class saw a huge improvement in student output as set out in the section above. The results have been the best I have ever had. As the standards have improved, so have the grades. As stated above, I have been able to achieve step-marking in the distinction grade while improving standards generally.
I have also noticed that even where a rubric is not used but the teacher talks to the students about the assessments and their expectations of them, students perform better than where there is no conversation at all. In 2017/18, while I did not provide the rubric to the control-module, I discussed the assessment with the students, explaining practices which they might find helpful. As demonstrated above, there was lower failure rate and improvement generally across board. I can conclude therefore that assessment criteria ought to be explained much better to students if their performance is to improve. However, I think that having a rubric and student engagement with it is the best option.
I have also noticed that many students tend to perform well; in the merit bracket. These students would like to improve but are unable to decipher how to do so. These students, in particular, find the rubric very helpful.
In addition, Wolf and Stevens (2007) observe that rubrics are particularly helpful for international students whose assessment systems may have been different, though no less valid, from that of the system in which they have presently chosen to study. Such students struggle to understand what is expected of them and so, may fail to attain the best standards/performance levels that they could for lack of understanding of the assessment practices. A large proportion of my students are international, and I think that they have benefitted from having the rubric; particularly when they are invited to engage with it actively.
Finally, the rubric has improved my feedback skills tremendously. I am able to express my observations and grades in terms well understood both by myself and my students. The provision of feedback is no longer a chore or a bore. It has actually become quite enjoyable for me.
On publishing the rubric to students:
I know that blackboard gives the opportunity to embed a rubric within each module. I have only so far uploaded copies of my rubric onto blackboard for the students on each of my modules. I have decided to explore the blackboard option to make the annual upload of the rubric more efficient. I will also see if the blackboard offers opportunities to improve on the rubric which will be a couple of years old by the end of this academic year.
On the Implementation of the rubric:
I have noted, however, that it takes about half an hour to explain the rubric to students for each module which eats into valuable teaching time. A more efficient method is required to provide good assessment insight to students. This Summer, I will liaise with my colleagues, as the examination officer, to discuss the provision of a best practice session for our students in relation to their assessments. At the session, students will also be introduced to the rubric. The rubric can then be paired with actual illustrations which the students can be encouraged to grade using its content. Such sessions will improve their ability to self-evaluate which is crucial both to their learning and the improvement of their outputs.
• K. Wolf and E. Stevens (2007) 7(1) Journal of Effective Teaching, 3. https://www.uncw.edu/jet/articles/vol7_1/Wolf.pdf • H Andrade, Y Du and K Mycek, ‘Rubric-Referenced Self- Assessment and Middle School Students’ Writing’ (2010) 17(2) Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy &Practice, 199 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09695941003 696172?needAccess=true • S Brookhart, How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading (Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, ASCD, VA, 2013). • Turnitin, ‘Rubrics and Grading Forms’ https://guides.turnitin.com/01_Manuals_and_Guides/Instru ctor_Guides/Turnitin_Classic_(Deprecated)/25_GradeMark /Rubrics_and_Grading_Forms • Blackboard, ‘Grade with Rubrics’ https://help.blackboard.com/Learn/Instructor/Grade/Rubrics /Grade_with_Rubrics • Blackboard, ‘Import and Export Rubrics’ https://help.blackboard.com/Learn/Instructor/Grade/Rubrics /Import_and_Export_Rubrics
Dr Geoff Taggart is a lecturer in the Institute of Education and Programme Director for the Early Years Practice programme at Reading. As part of his secondment to the EMA programme, Geoff decided to run a focus group with students from the IoE to gather perspectives on electronic feedback and grading methods.
To identify student views on:
• The perceived benefits of the three forms of most commonly- used feedback offered by Grademark (i.e. Quickmarks, rubrics and text comments)
• Preferences regarding the emphasis which each form of feedback should be given in a typical piece of work
• Views regarding the interrelationship of the different forms of feedback
The focus group was composed of 4 MA students (2 international and 2 home), plus one Chinese academic visitor with recent experience of being a student. Their views were therefore representative of students engaged in social science disciplines and may not be transferable to other fields. Also in attendance were myself, Dr Maria Kambouri (engagement in feedback project) and Jack Lambert-Taylor (EMA). It took place at London Road campus between 5 and 6.30pm on Thurs 18th January.
I provided participants with three copies of the same assignment, one marked exclusively with Quickmarks, one marked only with the final text comment and one marked solely according to the rubric. The purpose of this was to isolate and focus attention upon each of the three kinds of electronic feedback provided through the Feedback Studio.
The marking was not meant to be typical (nor as examples of best practice) but to highlight the positive and negative qualities of each kind of feedback. For example, there were a lot more quickmark comments appended to the assignment than would usually occur. The purpose of this was to emphasise both the positive benefits of maximised contextualised feedback and the negative impression of ‘overload’ which the comments could give. Additionally, the text comments amounted to over 2500 words and were extremely conversational and wide-ranging.
In a similar way, whilst this strategy deliberately emphasised the dialogical and personal nature of this feedback method, it was also not easy to straightforwardly pick out those points where the student needed to improve. By contrast, the rubric does this very clearly but is not a personal way of providing feedback.
• Students appreciated Quickmarks which contained hyperlinks (e.g. to Study Advice)
• One participant noted that they didn’t like the Quickmarks, on the basis that when printed the document does not have interactive links. The same participant suggested that excessive Quickmarks may be intrusive, and give the impression of ‘massacring’ a student’s work. They agreed that less excessive use would be preferable. The same participant noted that there was ‘no positive’ or ‘constructive’ feedback on the page- only problem points. This may be due to the nature of the sample work, which was deliberately of a poor standard; perhaps the same study should be conducted with a high quality piece of work.
• Another participant noted that narrative summaries can come across as more personal, particularly if negative, and that they preferred Quickmarks on the basis that they provided a more objective tone. Another participant suggested that Quickmarks may come across as more ‘humane’ on that basis, rather than a ‘rant at the end’.
• Another participant suggested that Quickmarks provide good evidence of the thoroughness of the marking process.
• One participant suggested that Quickmarks could indicate to which assessment criteria in the rubric it refers. The facility to do this was explained
• It was noted that Quickmarks should be written passively rather that directed at the author, as it can appear more accusatory. For example, ‘The point is not clear here’ as opposed to ‘you have not been clear here’.
Summary – Quickmarks should be limited in their use, include positive as well as negative comments, include relevant hyperlinks and be focussed on the assignment rather than the student and associated with rubric criteria where possible.
• Two participants suggested that narrative summary can provide more detailed feedback and valued the conversational tone. It was also suggested that Quickmarks may be perceived as momentary thoughts without reflection, whilst narrative summary may come later after further thought.
• One participant noted that when you write an essay you aren’t ‘just trying to tick boxes in a rubric, you are trying to say something’. This was a really interesting point which emphasised the student expectation of a personal, dialogical relationship with their tutor (something which rich text comments support).
• Several participants noted that marking with more narrative summary would be more time-consuming, and expressed empathy for academics doing so.
• It was also noted that narrative summary would be better-fitted to a conversation in person, and that subtleties within the feedback would be better expressed through intonation in the voice and facial expressions of the marker. Absent those features, it can come across as very serious, and lacks intricacy.
• Students commented that this kind of feedback can also become too ‘waffly’ and lack focus.
Summary – This kind of feedback gives the strongest impression that the tutor has considered the assignment overall, mulled it over and arrived at a holistic impression, something that was highly valued (contrast with: ‘a marked rubric alone shows that the tutor perhaps didn’t think about it that much’). However, the writing needs to be clearly focussed on specific ways in which the student can improve (i.e. bullet points).
• Students commented positively that the rubric showed very clearly how successful an assignment had been in general terms. However, they were concerned that it does not explain how to improve if you have not done very well.
• Students questioned how the final mark is actually calculated through the use of a qualitative rubric where the different elements are unweighted – this was considered to lack full transparency.
• It was unanimously agreed that a rubric without comments was not a preferable form of feedback on its own due to lacking feed-forward information, despite the fact that the adjacent rubric statements (i.e. in the next grade band up) also appear to students in the feedback.
• Students did not like the way in which the rubric statements were represented in a consecutive list (see below) when printed off. They much preferred the grid they were used to (i.e. with grade boundaries as the columns and rubric criteria as the rows).
Summary – a rubric is useful in showing how successful an assignment has been in a broad and general sense. The only way in which it could be more useful would be if the rubric were more specific to this particular assignment (and so have multiple rubrics across programmes/the School)
1. All forms of feedback, taken together, were considered to be useful.
2. The three different forms of feedback need to support each other (e.g. the rubric needs to reflect the written comments, tutors could use the same language in their text comments as that used in the rubric statements)
3. No matter the means by which feedback is given, students want to feel as though their work has made an impression on their tutor.
4. If tutors want to mark mostly through Quickmarks and rubrics (and provide greatly reduced written comments), this may be perceived negatively by students who expect a more personalised response.
The following points may require consultation from Blackboard:
• One participant suggested that different colours may be used to indicate whether quickmark feedback is positive or negative.
• A tutor suggested that it would be helpful if tutors could have flexibility about where to position their Quickmarks in their set, otherwise they just appear rather randomly. This is an issue when marking at speed. )
• All participants suggested that they like the use of ticks in marking, but no alternative was suggested. Can a tick symbol be included in the quickmark set?
• Tutors are able to expand the rubric when marking. Can it be presented to students in this format?
Dr Madeleine Davies and Michael Lyons, School of Literature and Languages
The Department of English Literature (DEL) has run two student focus groups and two whole-cohort surveys as part of our Teaching and Learning Development Fund‘Diversifying Assessments’ project. This is the second of two T&L Exchange entries on this topic. Click here for the first entry which outlines how the feedback received from students indicates that their module selection is informed by the assessment models that are used by individual modules. Underpinning these decisions is an attempt to avoid the ‘stress and anxiety’ that students connect with exams. The surprise of this second round of focus groups and surveys is the extent to which this appears to dominate students’ teaching and learning choices.
The focus groups and surveys are used to gain feedback from DEL students about possible alternative forms of summative assessment to our standard assessed essay + exam model. This connects with the Curriculum Framework in its emphasis on Programme Review and also with the aims of the Assessment Project.
These forms of conversations are designed to discover student views on the problems with existing assessment patterns and methods, as well as their reasons for preferring alternatives to them.
The conversations are also being used to explore the extent to which electronic methods of assessment can address identified assessment problems.
Having used focus groups and surveys to provide initial qualitative data on our assessment practices, we noticed a widespread preference for alternatives to traditional exams (particularly the Learning Journal), and decided to investigate the reasons for this further. The second focus group and subsequent survey sought to identify why the Learning Journal in particular is so favoured by students, and we were keen to explore whether teaching and learning aims were perceived by students to be better achieved via this method than by the traditional exam. We also took the opportunity to ask students what they value most in feedback: the first focus group and survey had touched on this but we decided this time to give students the opportunity to select four elements of feedback which they could rank in order or priority. This produced more nuanced data.
A second focus group was convened to gather more detailed views on the negative attitudes towards exams, and to debate alternatives to this traditional assessment method.
A series of questions was asked to generate data and dialogue.
A Survey Monkey was circulated to all DEL students with the same series of questions as those used for the focus group in order to determine whether the focus group’s responses were representative of the wider cohort.
The Survey Monkey results are presented below. The numbers refer to student responses to a category (eg. graphic 1, 50 students selected option (b). Graphic 2 and graphic 5 allowed students to rank their responses in order or priority.
Whilst only 17% in the focus group preferred to keep to the traditional exam + assessed essay method, the survey found the aversion to exams to be more prominent. 88% of students preferred the Learning Journal over the exam, and 88% cited the likelihood of reducing stress and anxiety as a reason for this preference.
Furthermore, none of the survey respondents wanted to retain the traditional exam + assessed essay method, and 52% were in favour of a three-way split between types of assessment; this reflects a desire for significant diversity in assessment methods.
We find it helpful to know precisely what students want in terms of feedback: ‘a clear indication of errors and potential solutions’ was the overwhelming response. ‘Feedback that intersects with the Module Rubric’ was the second highest scorer (presumably a connection between the two was identified by students).
The students in the focus group mentioned a desire to choose assessment methods within modules on an individual basis. This may be one issue in which student choice and pedagogy may not be entirely compatible (see below).
Assessed Essay method: the results seem to indicate that replacing an exam with a second assessed essay is favoured across the Programme rather than being pinned to one Part.
The results in the ‘Feedback’ sections are valuable for DEL: they indicate that clarity, diagnosis, and solutions-focused comments are key. In addressing our feedback conventions and practices, this input will help us to reflect on what we are doing when we give students feedback on their work.
The results of the focus group and of the subsequent survey do, however, raise some concerns about the potential conflict between ‘student choice’ and pedagogical practice. Students indicate that they not only want to avoid exams because of ‘stress’, but that they would also like to be able to select assessment methods within modules. This poses problems because marks are in part produced ‘against’ the rest of the batch: if the ‘base-line’ is removed by allowing students to choose assessment models, we would lack one of the main indicators of level.
In addition, the aims of some modules are best measured using exams. Convenors need to consider whether a student’s work can be assessed in non-exam formats but, if an exam is the best test of teaching and learning, it should be retained, regardless of student choice.
If, however, students overwhelmingly choose non-exam-based modules, this would leave modules retaining an exam in a vulnerable position. The aim of this project is to find ways to diversify our assessments, but this could leave modules that retain traditional assessment patterns vulnerable to students deselecting them. This may have implications for benchmarking.
It may also be the case that the attempt to avoid ‘stress’ is not necessarily in students’ best interests. The workplace is not a stress-free zone and it is part of the university’s mission to produce resilient, employable graduates. Removing all ‘stress’ triggers may not be the best way to achieve this.
DEL will convene a third focus group meeting in the Spring Term.
The co-leaders of the ‘Diversifying Assessments’ project will present the findings of the focus groups and surveys to DEL in a presentation. We will outline the results of our work and call on colleagues to reflect on the assessment models used on their modules with a view to volunteering to adopt different models if they think this appropriate to the teaching and learning aims of their modules
This should produce an overall assessment landscape that corresponds to students’ request for ‘three-way’ (at least) diversification of assessment.
The new landscape will be presented to the third focus group for final feedback.
With thanks to Lauren McCann of TEL for sending me the first link which includes a summary of students’ responses to various types of ‘new’ assessment formats.
The ‘Diversifying Assessment in DEL’ TLDF Mini-Project revealed several compelling reasons for reflecting upon assessment practice within a traditional Humanities discipline (English Literature):
Diversified cohort: HEIs are recruiting students from a wide variety of socio-cultural, economic and educational backgrounds and assessment practice needs to accommodate this newly diversified cohort.
Employability: DEL students have always acquired advanced skills in formal essay-writing but graduates need to be flexible in terms of their writing competencies. Diversifying assessment to include formats involving blog-writing, report-writing, presentation preparation, persuasive writing, and creative writing produces agile students who are comfortable working within a variety of communication formats.
Module specific attainment: the assessment conventions in DEL, particularly at Part 2, have a standardised assessment format (33% assessed essay and 67% exam). The ‘Diversifying Assessment’ project revealed the extent to which module leaders need to reflect on the intended learning outcomes of their modules and to design assessments that are best suited to the attainment of them.
Feedback: the student focus groups convened for the ‘Diversifying Assessment’ project returned repeatedly to the issue of feedback. Conversations about feedback will continue in DEL, particularly in relation to discussions around the Curriculum Framework.
Digitalisation: eSFG (via EMA) has increased the visibility of a variety of potential digital assessment formats (for example, Blackboard Learning Journals, Wikis and Blogs). This supports diversification of assessment and it also supports our students’ digital skills (essential for employability).
Student satisfaction: while colleagues should not feel pressured by student choice (which is not always modelled on academic considerations), there is clearly a desire among our students for more varied methods of assessment. One Focus Group student argued that fees had changed the way students view exams: students’ significant financial investment in their degrees has caused exams to be considered unacceptably ‘high risk’. The project revealed the extent to which Schools need to reflect on the many differences made by the new fees landscape, most of which are invisible to us.
Focus Groups: the Project demonstrated the value of convening student focus groups and of listening to students’ attitudes and responses.
Impact: one Part 2 module has moved away from an exam and towards a Learning Journal as a result of the project and it is hoped that more Part 2 module convenors will similarly decide to reflect on their assessment formats. The DEL project will be rolled out School-wide in the next session to encourage further conversations about assessment, feedback and diversification. It is hoped that these actions will contribute to Curriculum Framework activity in DEL and that they will generate a more diversified assessment landscape in the School.
Jeanne-Louise teaches design practice, theory and research skills across a range of genres and platforms. She is the Programme Director for the MA Creative Enterprise and the Pathway Lead for the MA Communication Design (Information Design Pathway).
Typography has been keen to continue to support the move from offline to online submission, feedback and grading, where possible. In particular, the Department has wanted to ensure a more consistent and streamlined approach to managing assessment, especially given the range of diverse submission types within Typography programmes. The Department were also very keen to ensure that online marking tools allowed colleagues to provide feedback that supports students’ design literacy. In this respect, markers aim to give feedback designed to allow for openness in the ways students think and that builds students’ confidence to develop their own design judgement.
The University has a long-term vision to move toward online assessment, where practical, and improve underlying processes. In 2015–6, the Department of Typography adopted a policy of either online submission or dual submission (where students are asked to submit both an online digital ‘copy’ and in material form as relevant to the particular deliverables of different design briefs) across the undergraduate degree. Paper-based feedback forms were replaced with online rubrics. The Department mainly made use of Blackboard as a marking tool but with some further use of Turnitin, particularly for essay based assessment. The Department has undertaken this change in the context of growing student numbers, increasing diversity of student cohorts and growing numbers of international students. The trends have increased the need to adopt more efficient and streamlined assessment processes.
Over the past four years the Department has supported student online submission and the increased use of marking tools. In 2014, The Head of Department and I initially worked together to explore different online tools to find sustainable assessment practices for increasing cohorts. We liaised with our IT partners who encouraged us to work with Maria Papaefthimiou – as they were aware that the University was setting up a new TEL team. Maria introduced us to Blackboard rubrics, which we piloted for both practical and written forms of assessment.
These early initiatives were reviewed ahead of our decision to adopt online assessment for all undergraduate coursework (with a few exceptions such as technical tasks, examinations and tasks where self or peer assessment plays a particular role in the learning process). I then translated our paper-based forms into a set of Blackboard rubric templates for colleagues to work with and provided a workshop and video resources to support the transition.
For almost every submitted piece of work, students receive feedback from colleagues using either Turnitin or the Blackboard marking tool. Each piece has an online submission point so that colleagues can provide feedback online, often using the rubrics function within the Blackboard marking tool.
One of the challenges faced by the Department has been managing non-standard types of submission. Typography employs a particularly broad range of assessment types including self- and peer-assessment and group work. It also handles a range of different physical submissions such as books or posters and assessment involving creating designs like websites and app prototypes that exist only in digital form.
Because of the nature of the work, dual submission is common. Our policy of online submission for written work and dual submission for practical work ensures that – regardless of the nature of the work – students receive feedback and grades in a consistent manner throughout their degree.
More recently, we have introduced some new practices that support the development of professional skills and enhance the transparency of group work. For example, professional practice assignments use a project management app, Trello. Students are assessed on their usage and the content (including reflection) they input into the app. The tutor can, for example, set up a Trello group and monitor group activity. Some practical modules require students to use prototyping software or create videos. In these cases, it might be easier for students to share links to this content either by submitting the link itself online to Blackboard or to a dedicated Typography submission e-mail address monitored by administrative colleagues (although this second approach may change as we work with the EMA Team).
A second issue faced by the Department during implementation, as a result of the significant diversity of assessment, is that the management of online submission can become confusing for students in terms of what exactly they should submit and how. The diversity of assessment allows students to demonstrate a range of learning outcomes and broad skills base but the Department has had to ensure that students fully understand the range of submission practices. This challenge exists both in Part 1 when students are being introduced to new practices and in Parts 2 and 3 where a single design brief may have multiple deliverables. We are continually working to find the best balance between ensuring the kind of submission is always appropriate to the learning outcomes, provides students with experience in industry standard software and tools, and is accompanied by clear guidance about submission requirements.
The shift from offline to online assessment within the Department has led to a range of changes to the staff and student experience:
1. Online feedback for students has meant that they now always know where their feedback is. There is no need for them to contact their tutors to access content.
2. For some staff, the use of online marking and feedback has meant spending some time getting used to the interface and learning about the functionality of the tools, particularly the Blackboard marking tool. There have been some issues surrounding the accessibility of rubrics within Blackboard and their consistent use, which the Department has had to work through. In general colleagues are now reporting that online marking has significantly reduced marking time, especially where more detailed rubrics have been developed and trialled in the current academic year.
3. The Department has spent time thinking carefully about the consistency of the student assessment experience and making the most of the functionality of the tools to make marking easier and, potentially, quicker. As a result, there is a sense that the practices adopted are more sustainable and streamlined, which has been important given rising student numbers and increasingly diverse cohorts.
Over the last year, following recommendations from Periodic Review, the Department has been trialling different practices such as the creation of much more detailed rubrics. As noted above, detailed rubrics seem to reduce marking and feedback time, while providing students with more clarity about the specific criteria used to assess individual projects. However, these do not always accommodate the range of ways in which students can achieve the learning outcomes for creative briefs or encourage the design literacy and independent judgment we want students to develop. We are also working on ensuring that the terminology used in these rubrics is mapped appropriately to the level of professional skill expected in each part of the degree. The Department is currently looking at the impact of this activity to identify best practice.
Typography is keen to continue to provide a range of assessment options necessary for developing professional skills and industry- relevant portfolios within the discipline. We are committed to complementing this diversity with an assessment and feedback process that gives students a reassuring level of consistency and enables them to evaluate their performance across modules. There is some scope to develop the marking tools being used. It would, for example, be very helpful if Blackboard could develop a feature where students can access their feedback before they can see their marks or if it allowed colleagues to give a banded mark (such as 60-64), which is appropriate formative feedback in some modules. In addition, Typography students have reported that the user experience could be improved and that the interface could be more intuitive. For example, it could contain less layers of information and access to feedback and marks might be more direct.
More broadly, the shift from offline to online practices has been one driver for the Department to reflect on existing assessment practices. In particular, we have begun to consider how we can better support students’ assessment literacy and have engaged with students to review new practices. Their feedback, in combination with our broader engagement with the new Curriculum Framework and its impact on Programme Level Assessment, is informing the development of a new set of rubric templates to be adopted in autumn 2018.
For further information please see the short blog, ‘Curriculum Review in Practice Aligning to the Curriculum Framework-first steps started at: http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/engage-in-teaching-and- learning/2018/04/09/curriculum-review-in-practice-aligning-to- the-curriculum-framework-first-steps-started-by-jeanne-louise- moys-rob-banham-james-lloyd/
Catherine Foley is a lecturer in Primary Maths Education in the Institute of Education. She is Director of the Primary School Direct programme which trains people to be teachers whilst they are working in schools.
Catherine describes her experience of using the Feedback Studio to move from Word-based marking an assignment to full use of Grademark.
Catherine Foley is a lecturer in Primary Maths Education in the Institute of Education. She is Director of the Primary School Direct programme which trains people to be teachers whilst they are working in schools. Her experience of electronic marking relates primarily to a 20 credit postgraduate module which is part of this programme, developing the reflective practice and critical thinking of the trainees. The module is assessed through one piece of written work which is assessed formatively and summatively and is taken by approximately 80 students each year.
Up until the current academic year, although students would submit their work through Turnitin (for both formative and summative attempts), they would receive feedback in the form of underlined grading sheets and text-based comments which would be completed for each student and uploaded to be released to them via Grade Centre. As with other IoE programmes, all submission, grading and feedback for this assessment is now carried out electronically.
This year, we decided to use the full electronic feedback option for both assessments since the first formative experience would give students (and staff) the chance to get used to the system. We developed our own rubric for the assessment. For the formative assessment, we decided not to use quickmarks but just to focus on becoming familiar with using the rubric. For the summative assessment, both a rubric and quickmarks were used: the quickmark set is the same as that used for other initial teacher training programmes.
In my own marking, I found it helpful, when getting started, to open out the full rubric in a grid from the sidebar in the feedback studio. After a while, I was clear what the different statements meant and so could use the sliders more confidently.
Speed of marking. Although marking has not been any quicker so far overall, it is likely that this will speed up as the administrative problems are ironed out and we get to know the system. Not having to save individual files saves a lot of time which can be spent on quality feedback.
Ease of moderation. Because all the assessment and feedback is in the same place, it is much more straightforward and a module convenor is easily able to quality-assure the marking that is taking place.
Curriculum review opportunity. Developing our own rubric for the assessment encouraged us to review what we had been doing. It made use stop and examine our taken-for-granted practice.
Student ownership of feedback. We had a workshop on developing academic writing and it was interesting to see all the students with their laptops open, looking at very specific pieces of contextualised feedback received online for their first assignment.
Using rubric reports for bespoke study advice sessions. We used the function in Turnitin to generate a report on how well students had achieved as a cohort in relation to the different rubric themes. We sent the report to one of the study advisers who was then able to use this to pinpoint areas to focus upon in helping students work towards their next assignment.
Many of the challenges we experienced were due to the fact that the assessment is marked by five different members of staff:
When we were using Word-based documents for feedback, we could shape and guide the feedback which tutors were giving more easily (for example with a writing frame). In the feedback studio, the text comment box presents markers with a blank space so it has been harder to ensure a common approach across markers. We therefore agreed a common structure for feedback in this box.
The marking team had differing levels of experience with electronic marking. Because the quickmark set had to be uploaded by each marker to their Blackboard account and not all markers were present on campus at the same time, this was a logistical challenge.
With the options for quickmarks, rubric statements and open text comments, it would be easy for markers to over-assess each piece of work. Our agreement was that, since students were getting extra feedback in terms of the first two kinds of feedback, the final text comments should be brief and simply recognise specific areas of success then pinpoint areas for development.
Limitations in functionality of the feedback studio. Some markers liked to be able to use Word to check the number of times a student has used a particular phrase or look at the consistency between citations and references: you can’t currently move around the document so easily (unless you download it). Some warning or confirmation messages from the system (for example when moving onto the next piece of work) would make it still more user-friendly. With several people involved in marking an assignment, it is easy for markers to accidentally change each other’s grades – it would be helpful if grades and comments could be ‘locked’ in some way. Are different levels of access possible, so that external examiners can see the feedback studio but without being able to change feedback?
There are still issues (mostly to do with administrative protocols) to iron out. The IoE is currently reviewing its moderation processes and determining the extent to which students know they have been included. Programme directors are working with their admin teams to determine exactly how academics will be informed when an ECF assignment has been submitted.
Between 2016 and 2018, I led a project aiming to enhance the process of assessing foreign language skills in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies (MLES). The project was supported by the Teaching and Learning Development Fund. Its scope involved two levels of intervention: a pilot within one Part I language module (Beginners Italian Language) and other activities involving colleagues in all language sections and students from each year of study. The project enabled the start of a bank of exemplars for the assessment of a Part I language module; promoted discussion on marking and marking schemes within the department; and made possible a teacher-learner collaborative appraisal of rubrics.
To enhance Beginners Italian Language students’ understanding of rubrics and their assessment literacy
To increase their engagement with the assessment process and their uptake of feedback
To engage MLES students as agents of change in the assessment culture of the department
To stimulate innovation in the design of rubrics within the MLES Language Team and contribute to develop a shared discourse on assessment criteria and standards informed by the scholarship of assessment
In recent years, there has been an increasing demand to articulate explicitly the standards of assessment and to make them transparent in marking schemes in the form of rubrics, especially in Foreign Languages. It is widely held that the use of rubrics increases the reliability of assessment and fosters autonomy and self-regulation in students. However, it is not uncommon that students do not engage with the feedback that rubrics are supposed to provide. In 2016, the language team of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies started to work at the standardisation and enhancement of marking schemes used to assess language skills. The aim of this multi-layered project was to make a positive contribution to this process and to pilot a series of activities for the enhancement of foreign language assessment.
Review of research literature and scholarly articles on the use of standard-based assessment, assessment rubrics, and students-derived marking criteria.
Presentation on some of the issues emerged from the review at a School T&L Away Day on assessment attended by the MLES language team (April 2017) and at a meeting of the Language Teaching Community of Practice (November 2017).
Organisation of a ‘professional conversation’ on language assessment, evaluation and marking schemes as a peer review activity in the School of Literature and Languages (SLL). The meeting was attended by colleagues from MLES and CQSD (February 2018).
2016-17 – Two groups of students on the Beginners Italian Language module were asked for permission to use exemplars of their written and oral work for pedagogic practice and research. Ten students gave their informed consent.
Collection of written and oral work, double-marked by a colleague teaching one of the groups.
2017-2018 – Organization of two two-hour workshops on assessment for a new cohort of students. Aim: To clarify the link between marking criteria, learning outcomes and definitions of standards of achievement of the module. An anonymised selection of the exemplars collected the previous year was used a) ‘to show’ the quality of the standards described in the marking schemes and b) for marking exercises.
2017 – Organisation of three focus groups with students – one for each year of study – to gain insights into their perspectives on the assessment process and understanding of marking criteria. The discussions were recorded and fully transcribed.
The transcriptions were analysed by using a discourse analysis framework.
Developed, in collaboration with three students from the focus groups, a questionnaire on the use of rubrics. The questionnaire was intended to gather future students’ views on marking schemes and their use.
This multi-layered project contributed to enhance the process of assessing foreign language skills in MLES in different ways.
The collection of exemplars for the Beginners Italian Language module proved to be a useful resource that can also be used with future cohorts. The workshops were not attended by all students, but those who did attend engaged in the activities proposed and asked several interesting questions about the standards of achievement described in the marking schemes (e.g. grade definitions; use of terms and phrases).
The systematic analysis of the focus groups provided valuable insights into students’ disengagement with marking schemes. It also brought to light some issues that would need to be addressed before designing new rubrics.
The literature review provided research and critical perspectives on marking schemes as a tool of evaluation and a tool for learning. It suggested new ways of thinking about marking and rubrics and provided a scholarly basis for potential wider projects. The discussion it stimulated, however different the opinions, was an important starting point for the development of a shared discourse on assessment.
The fuzziness of marking students’ complex performance cannot be overcome by simply linking numerical marks to qualitative standard descriptors. As mentioned in a HEA document, even the most detailed rubrics cannot catch all the aspects of ‘quality’ (HEA, 2012) and standards can be better communicated by discussing exemplars. There is also an issue with fixing the boundaries between grades on a linear scale (Sadler, 2013) and the fact that, as Race warns, the dialogue between learners and assessors (Race, HEA) can easily be broken down by the evaluative terms typically used to pin down different standards of achievement. Despite all these pitfalls, in the current HE context, rubrics, if constructed thoughtfully and involving all stakeholders, can benefit learning and teaching.
By offering opportunities to discuss criteria and standards with students, rubrics can help to build a common understanding of how marks are assigned and so foster students’ literacy, especially if their use is supported by relevant exemplars.
The belief that rubrics need to be standardised across modules, levels and years of study makes designing rubrics particularly difficult for ‘foreign languages’. Cultural changes require time and the involvement of all stakeholders, especially where the changes concern key issues that are difficult to address without a shared view on language, language learning and assessment. A thorough discussion of rubrics can provide chances to share ideas on marking, assessment and language development not only between students and staff but also within a team of assessors.
I have tried to engage students in the appraisal of rubrics and to avoid a market research approach to focus groups. It is clear that, if we are committed to make any assessment experience a learning experience and to avoid the potential uneasiness that rubrics can cause students, we need to explore new ways of defining the standards of achievement in foreign languages. Establishing pedagogical partnerships with students seems a good way to start.
I will encourage a differentiation of rubrics based on level of language proficiency and a collection of exemplars for other language modules. The natural follow up to this project would be to continue enhancing the rubrics used for evaluation and feedback in languages in the light of the analysis of the focus group discussions and the review of the literature on assessment, ideally with the collaboration of students. Possible connections between the marking schemes used to assess language modules and cultural modules will be explored.
HEA, 2012. A Marked Improvement. Transforming assessment in HE. York: Higher Education Academy.
In 2016, in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies (DMLES), it was decided that the marking schemes used to assess writing and speaking skills needed to be revised and standardised in order to ensure transparency and consistency of evaluation across different languages and levels. A number of colleagues teaching language modules had a preliminary meeting to discuss what changes had to be made, what criteria to include in the new rubrics and whether the new marking schemes would apply to all levels. While addressing these questions, I developed a project with the support of the Teaching and Learning Development Fund. The project, now in its final stage, aims to enhance the process of assessing writing and speaking skills across the languages taught in the department. It intends to make assessment more transparent, understandable and useful for students; foster their active participation in the process; and increase their uptake of feedback.
The first stage of the project involved:
a literature review on the use of standard-based assessment, assessment rubrics and exemplars in higher education;
the organization of three focus groups, one for each year of study;
the development of a questionnaire, in collaboration with three students, based on the initial findings from the focus groups;
the collection of exemplars of written and oral work to be piloted for one Beginners language module.
I had a few opportunities to disseminate some key ideas emerged from the literature review – School of Literature and Languages’ assessment and feedback away day, CQSD showcase and autumn meeting of the Language Teaching Community of Practice. Having only touched upon the focus groups at the CQSD showcase, I will describe here how they were organised, run and analysed and will summarise some of the insights gained.
Organising and running the focus groups
Focus groups are a method of qualitative research that has become increasingly popular and is often used to inform policies and improve the provision of services. However, the data generated by a focus group are not generalisable to a population group as a whole (Barbour, 2007; Howitt, 2016).
After attending the People Development session on ‘Conducting Focus groups’, I realised that the logistics of their organization, the transcription of the discussion and the analysis of the data they generate require a considerable amount of time and detailed planning . Nonetheless, I decided to use them to gain insights into students’ perspectives on the assessment process and into their understanding of marking criteria.
The recruitment of participants was not a quick task. It involved sending several emails to students studying at least one language in the department and visiting classrooms to advertise the project. In the end, I managed to recruit twenty-two volunteers: eight for Part I, six for Part II and eight for Part III. I obtained their consent to record the discussions and use the data generated by the analysis. As a ‘thank you’ for participating, students received a £10 Amazon voucher.
Each focus group lasted one hour, the discussions were entirely recorded and were based on the same topic guide and stimulus material. To open discussion, I used visual stimuli and asked the following question:
In your opinion, what is the aim of assessment?
In all three groups, this triggered some initial interaction directly with me. I then started picking up on differences between participants’ perspectives, asking for clarification and using their insights. Slowly, a relaxed and non-threatening atmosphere developed and led to more spontaneous and natural group conversation, which followed different dynamics in each group. I then began to draw on some core questions I had prepared to elicit students’ perspectives. During each session, I took notes on turn-taking and some relevant contextual clues.
I ended all the three focus group sessions by asking participants to carry out a task in groups of 3 or 4. I gave each group a copy of the marking criteria currently used in the department and one empty grid reproducing the structure of the marking schemes. I asked them the following question:
If you were given the chance to generate your own marking criteria, what aspects of writing/speaking /translating would you add or eliminate?
I then invited them to discuss their views and use the empty grid to write down the main ideas shared by the members of their group. The most desired criteria were effort, commitment, and participation.
Transcribing and analysing the focus groups’ discussions
Focus groups, as a qualitative method, are not tied to any specific analytical framework, but qualitative researchers warn us not to take the discourse data at face value (Barbour, 2007:21). Bearing this in mind, I transcribed the recorded discussions and chose discourse analysis as an analytical framework to identify the discursive patterns emerging from students’ spoken interactions.
The focus of the analysis was more on ‘words’ and ‘ideas’ rather than on the process of interaction. I read and listened to the discussions many times and, as I identified recurrent themes, I started coding some excerpts. I then moved back and forth between the coding frame and the transcripts, adding or removing themes, renaming them, reallocating excerpts to different ‘themes’.
Spoken discourse lends itself to multiple levels of analysis, but since my focus was on students’ perspectives on the assessment process and their understanding of marking criteria, I concentrated on those themes that seemed to offer more insights into these specific aspects. Relating one theme to the other helped me to shed new light on some familiar issues and to reflect on them in a new way.
Some insights into students’ perspectives
As language learners, students gain personal experience of the complexity of language and language learning, but the analysis suggests that they draw on the theme of complexity to articulate their unease with the atomistic approach to evaluation of rubrics and, at times, also to contest the descriptors of the standard for a first level class. This made me reflect about whether the achievement of almost native-like abilities is actually the standard against which we want to base our evaluation. Larsen-Freeman’s (2015) and Kramsch’s (2008) approach to language development as a ‘complex system’ helped me to shed light on the idea of ‘complexity’ and ‘non-linear relations’ in the context of language learning which emerged from the analysis.
The second theme I identified is the ambiguity and vagueness of the standards for each criterion. Students draw on this theme not so much to communicate their lack of understanding of the marking scheme, but to question the reliability of a process of evaluation that matches performances to numerical values by using opaque descriptors.
The third theme that runs through the discussions is the tension between the promise of objectivity of the marking schemes and the fact that their use inevitably implies an element of subjectivity. There is also a tension between the desire for an objective counting of errors and the feeling that ‘errors’ need to be ‘weighted’ in relation to a specific learning context and an individual learning path. On one hand, there is the unpredictable and infinite variety of complex performances that cannot easily be broken down into parts in order to be evaluated objectively, on the other hand, there is the expectation that the sum of the parts, when adequately mapped to clear marking schemes, results in an objective mark.
Rubrics in general seem to be part of a double discourse. They are described as unreliable, discouraging and disheartening as an instructional tool. The feedback they provide is seen as having no effect on language development as does the complex and personalised feedback that teachers provide. Effective and engaging feedback is always associated with the expert knowledge of a teacher, not with rubrics. However, the need for rubrics as a tool of evaluation is not questioned in itself.
The idea of using exemplars to pin down standards and make the process of evaluation more objective emerges from the Part III focus group discussion. Students considered pros and cons of using exemplars drawing on the same rationales that can be found debated in scholarly articles. Listening to, and reading systematically through, students’ discourses was quite revealing and brought to light some questionable views on language and language assessment that most marking schemes measuring achievement in foreign languages contribute to promote.
The insights into students’ perspectives gained from the analysis of the focus groups suggest that rubrics can easily create false expectations in students and foster an assessment ‘culture’ based on an idea of learning as steady increase in skills. We need to ask ourselves how we could design marking schemes that communicate a more realistic view of language development. Could we create marking schemes that students do not find disheartening or ineffective in understanding how to progress? Rather than just evaluation tools, rubrics should be learning tools that describe different levels of performance and avoid evaluative language.
However, the issues of ‘transparency’ and ‘reliability’ cannot be solved by designing clearer, more detailed or student-friendly rubrics. These issues can only be addressed by sharing our expert knowledge of ‘criteria’ and ‘standards’ with students, which can be achieved through dialogue, practice, observation and imitation. Engaging students in marking exercises and involving them in the construction of marking schemes – for example by asking them how they would measure commonly desired criteria like effort and commitment – offers us a way forward.
Barbour, R. 2007. Doing focus groups. London: Sage.
Howitt, D. 2016. Qualitative Research Methods in Psychology. Harlow: Pearson.
Kramsch, C. 2008. Ecological perspectives on foreign language education. LanguageTeaching 41 (3): 389-408.
Larsen-Freeman, D. 2015. Saying what we mean: Making a case for ‘language acquisition’ to become ‘language development’. Language Teaching 48 (4): 491-505.
Potter, M. and M. Wetherell. 1987. Discourse and social psychology. Beyond attitudes and behaviours. London: Sage.