James Elander

  • Conceptual analysis of the pedagogic status of assessment criteria

    James Elander, Lin Norton, Pete Reddy, Diane Stevens and Katherine Harrington, London Metropolitan University, Liverpool Hope University College, Aston University and Southampton Institute.

    Conceptual Paper.

    Themes addressed: Assessment; Skills development and lifelong learning; Supporting learners.


    Students attend closely to feedback (Higgins et al., 2002), but often do not understand assessment criteria (Merry et al., 1998; 2000). Assessment criteria are increasingly used to support student learning through interventions to increase students understanding of, and ability to demonstrate, qualities that are important in their assignments (eg Price et al., 2001; Elander, submitted). There has also been increasing emphasis on skills as learning outcomes in higher education (Dearing, 1997; QAA, 2002), and it is possible to conceptualise certain assessment criteria (eg critical analysis) as generic skills that support employability as well as student achievement. However, the concept of skills has received criticism (eg Whitston, 1998), especially in relation to employability (eg Yorke & Knight, 2002), and it is unclear what conceptual category the qualities that are commonly used as university assessment criteria should occupy.

    Aims and scope

    We provide a theoretical analysis of the conceptual status of the qualities that are frequently used as assessment criteria, based on a comprehensive review of research on student assessment, student learning, skills, and employability. Focusing on a range of core assessment criteria, we consider the case for treating each criterion as a generic skill, a deep learning outcome, and as an example of 'complex learning' (Knight & York, 2002). In each case we consider the implications for student assessment and for improving the student learning experience.

    Theoretical/conceptual contribution

    Treating assessment criteria as skills provides more direct educational applications, like skills workshops focusing on the criteria, but could also promote surface learning strategies in which students are trained merely to simulate deeper learning (what Marton & Saljo, 1997, called the 'technification of learning'). Treating them as examples of complex learning makes 'constructive alignment' (Biggs, 1999) between assessment and learning much more challenging, but could lead to educational applications that are more likely to have enduring benefits, including employability. Assessment criteria differ from one another with respect to their conceptual status, and in the extent to which they are discipline-specific. Our analysis provides the basis for a system of classification of core assessment criteria. Criteria such as 'clarity of expression' should be treated as representing skills that can be developed through generic skills workshops and study guides. Criteria such as 'critical analysis' and 'development of argument' should be treated as complex learning outcomes, for which the appropriate learning support mechanisms should be integrated with discipline-specific (and in some cases subject-specific) teaching. Criteria such as 'addressing the question' and 'use of evidence' occupy intermediate categories that relate to deep learning but have greater transferability between disciplines.


    Greater conceptual clarity over the ontological status of core assessment criteria provides benefits for both assessment and student learning. Our approach provides a foundation for constructive alignment of learning outcomes, assessment criteria and learning development that is grounded in theory and research findings. The proposed system for classifying assessment criteria informs the effective use of assessment criteria to structure teaching, increase student achievement and enhance employability.


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    Dearing, R. (Chair) (1997). Higher Education in the Learning Society: Report of the National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education. London: HMSO.
    Elander, J. (submitted). A discipline-based undergraduate skills module. Active Learning in Higher Education. 
    Higgins, R., Hartley, P. and Skelton, A. (2002). The conscientious consumer: reconsidering the role of assessment feedback in student learning. Studies in Higher Education, 27 (1), 53-64.
    Knight, P.T. & Yorke, M. (2002). Employability and good learning in higher education. www.open.ac.uk/vqportal/Skills-Plus/documents/PubPaper2.pdf
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    Price, M., O'Donovan, B. & Rust, C. (2001). Strategies to develop students' understanding of assessment criteria and processes, in C. Rust (Ed.), Improving Student Learning - 8: Improving Student Learning Strategically. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.
    Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2002). Benchmarking academic standards: Subject statements (phase 2). www.qaa.ac.uk/crntwork/benchmark/phase2consult_textonly.htm 
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