How to help your students improve their grades

Involve students in all aspects of assessmentHow to post it

In order for students to be able to do well in assessments they need to fully understand what you are asking them to do (the task) and the standards required (Marking criteria).

A good way to do this is to set aside time in class to discuss and work through the assessment brief, criteria and some examples of students’ work. These opportunities should be an integral and seamless part of course design and the learning process. (See O’Donovan, 2004; O’Donovan et al . 2008; Sambell et al., 2006; Sadler, 2009).  

Example activites

  • Set up an activity in class in which students discuss in small groups the marking criteria for your assignment. You could ask them to explain what they think are the differences between an A, B, C, D or E grade assignment. 
  • Set up a cross marking exercise in which students compare  past students’ (anonymised and unmarked) assignments and use the criteria to judge the grade they think the students were awarded. 
  • Take a look at this video clip about social work practice and inclusive assessment. This shows a classroom session in which students develop their skills in assessing and evaluating their own and others’ reports by working through a practice assignment.   They discuss how others approach their assignments and how their work will be judged. This sort of exercise helps all students achieve higher grades.

These activities provide the trigger for students to talk through their understanding and application of  the criteria. They can compare the grades they awarded with reference to the criteria, and discuss the things they still don’t get. It also gives useful info to the tutor about the clarity and appropriateness of the assignment so that they can clarify and improve the brief and criteria.

Encourage social networking and peer support

Students find the support of their peers really important to their understanding and enjoyment of their studies. Peer support networks emerge naturally among friends but some students find it difficult to join in or set up their own networks because of their personal circumstances.   Peer support networks that are engineered through modules and programmes can help to ensure that all students can benefit from peer support whether face to face or virtual. Virtual discussion boards and online forums, through which students can discuss what is expected of an assignment as well as give and receive advice and feedback, are becoming more common in courses (for examples of these see Brett & Cousin, 2010 and Heinrich et al., 2009). However, you need to set or negotiate the ground rules for inclusive and collaborative learning behaviour that include trust, respect and  equality.  You need to be established these rules early and maintain them throughout the module to prevent exclusionary practices (see Hughes 2007 and 2010).

Make greater use of formative, peer & self assessment

We know that students who are confident learners seek out and access opportunities for formative feedback.  Others who have less self-confidence and who may feel uncertain about their academic work, do not always take these opportunities. Yorke (2003) argues that by making formative assessment a compulsory element, and not an option, all students get equal opportunity for feedback on their work without the fear of failure. Another way of developing students’ understanding of and involvement in the assessment process is to allow self and peer assessment. Recommended for mainly ‘low stakes’ assessment (Sambell and Hubbard 2004).  A low stakes assessment might be one that does not count towards the final degree, or whose weighting is very low, say, 20% of the overall mark.  Peer and self assessment not only increases students understanding of assessment, it develops autonomous learners, confident in approaching staff for clarification and guidance. 

Have a look at these examples of how students give feedback to one another using technology:

  • Gymnastics session
    In the first clip the tutor explains the process and reminds the students of the criteria from the previous session.The students develop their routines and give and receive feedback from their peers who have filmed their performances on flip video cameras.
  • Gymnastics session - peer feedback using technology
    In this clip the students provide detailed and accurate feedback on the specific criteria. This use of peer feedback not only improved their performances in advance of the summative assessment, it also improved their questioning skills. 

Designing better assessment briefs

The way we write the assignment brief is crucial to the performance of our students.  Please refer to How to write a good assignment brief

References and further reading

Brett, P & Cousin, G. (2011) Students as Partners in Blended Learning. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. 3

Heinrich, E., Milne, J., Ramsay, A., & Morrison, D. (2009). Recommendations for the use of e-tools for improvements around assignment marking quality Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(4), 469 — 479.

Hughes, G. (2007). Diversity, identity and belonging in e-learning communities: some theories and paradoxes. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(5-6), 709-720.

Hughes, G. (2010). Identity and belonging in social learning groups: the importance of distinguishing social, operational and  knowledge-related identity congruence. . British Educational Research Journal, 36(1), 47-64.

O’Donovan, B., Price, M., & Rust, C. (2004). Know what I mean? Enhancing student understanding of assessment standards and criteria Teaching in Higher Education, 9, , 9, 325-335.

O'Donovan, B., Price, M., & Rust, C. (2008). Developing student  understanding of assessment standards: a nested hierarchy of approaches Teaching in Higher Education, 13(2), 205 - 217.

Sambell, K., McDowell, L., & Sambell, A. (2006). Supporting diverse students: developing learner autonomy via assessment. In C. Bryan & K. Clegg (Eds.), Innovative assessment in higher education (pp. 158-168). London, New York: Routledge.

Yorke, M. (2003). Formative assessment in higher education: moves towards theory and the enhancement of pedagogic practice. Higher Education, 45, 477-501.

For more information about this topic and inclusive learning and teaching in HE generally you may be interested in participating in the HEA/JISC funded online module Learning to Teach Inclusively.  See project website for more details