Marking criteria

Creating robust, meaningful and actionable course marking criteria (and accompanying assessment mark schemes)- link to glossary of terms- which work for both staff and students, is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching, learning and assessment design. In part, this is due to the multiple functions marking criteria simultaneously serve:   

  • Enables us to evidence and benchmark student achievement aligned with course/sector/professional body standards.  
  • Provides a road-map for staff so that we achieve greater consistency around marking and feedback.  
  • Provides a road-map for students so they know what is expected of them and how they can improve their future assessment performance.  

In addition to the need for marking criteria to carry out a variety of functions for different stakeholders, challenges also arise linked to the language of marking criteria which can create uncertainty for students and staff alike; unpicking marking criteria can sometimes feel like a form of assessment in itself!  In spite of staff’s best efforts, students can lack clarity in terms of distinguishing their analysis from their evaluation or being able to identify what makes the difference between work which is very good and excellent. Consequently, staff can end up spending a lot of time and energy clarifying this for their students. 

A step-by-step guide

In order to make marking criteria work for everyone involved, the following step-by-step guide can be used to create, review or refine marking criteria and is designed to specifically address common challenges around marking criteria faced by staff and students. Whilst the guidance can be used by individual staff, it works best when carried out as a collaborative course-wide exercise involving both colleagues and students. 

Start with your intended learning outcomes (course or unit level), Office for Students grading descriptors, or accrediting body criteria. Linked to this, consider the broad headings you currently use, or may want to use, to assess your learners. It can be useful to think of these as lenses which intersect, rather than entirely separate categories.

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Product or Process? 

You may want to consider what style of marking criteria you use. Product orientated marking criteria tend to award marks to specific outputs (e.g introduction, conclusion) whereas process orientated marking criteria tend to focus on the process students have engaged in, the steps they may have taken and the skills they have utilised. The most common example of this would be where marks are awarded for knowledge, communication and application.

When identifying your marking lenses at a course level, you may want to consider the weighting of each lens throughout the year/course. For example, is the knowledge lens weighting greater at the start of a course and lower when students are in their final year of study?  Conversely, it may be that you expect application to weigh more strongly towards the end of a course as students build on the foundational knowledge established earlier.

Under each lens consider which areas of focus you would like to assess students against. The examples provided here have been drawn together from examples used at Bath across a range of subject disciplines and levels of study. This list is not exhaustive, rather use it as a way to consider how to break down the areas of focus that are most relevant to either your course/ unit etc.  N.b. Just as the lenses often intersect, so will the different areas of focus you identify.   Could click through to the bank below rather than having this on the same page. 

Research – primary/secondary  
Key theorists/theories and proofs  
Unit content/slides  
Level of description (i.e succinct)  
Following a given process    
Paragraphs (and sentences)  
Engaging style (e.g presentation)  
Data presentation  
Accessibility/ease of reading  
Clear signposting  
Relevance of literature/theories/models  
Limitations of literature/theories/models (assumptions)  
Links back to question 
Investigates question  
Original thought  
Contrasting theories/alternate viewpoints  
Structure well organised  
Critical approach to own work and others 
Integration of relevant literature/theories/models  
Application of ideas to context  
Thinking type we would like students to engage in and demonstrate in their assessment e.g. analysis, evaluation, synthesis rather than simple description.  
Unseen theory or calculation questions that extend from ones in the course    

This can be the hardest aspect of designing or reviewing marking criteria. Once you have identified the potential areas of focus, either take these in turn (or prioritise some if there are lots) and work together to articulate what different ‘levels’ look like. Rather than relying on terms such as good or excellent, try to identify what the difference is between each level. This will enable the student to see how they can progress and move from one level to the next.  

Example of ‘levels’ for reading

Consider what the difference is between good, very good, excellent reading looks like. This can be measured in numerous ways: 

  • Scope and breadth of reading e.g. course materials, reading lists, beyond course materials 

Having some consistency at a course level can help students to get a clear sense of what is expected of them and how they can progress their learning via their assessments. In turn, this can save valuable time for staff as there is reduced pressure on them to define and distinguish their interpretation for students.  

The formatting of the marking criteria/scheme can help to ensure students do not overlook or miss important information and can encourage them to engage with the marking criteria in a more meaningful way. Have you considered: 

  • Spacing between areas of focus 
  • Vertical as well as horizontal alignment 
  • Bullet points
  • Bold text to highlight key features/patterns 
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