Designing very low stakes assessment: put student outcomes first

“It’s is only worth a few marks…

It’s only a few marks.  P’s gets degrees.  No one has ever looked at my academic transcript. It’ll only matter for those around 49%.

Have you ever heard statements like these by staff at universities? Have you been surprised who has said it?

Marks are the most common, basic quantitative measure of student learning performance. They are crucial for maintaining standards in professions. Students have to consistently work hard over a long time to achieve the marks they want. However the reasons why they chase those precious marks and to what standard is as diverse as students are themselves.

Every mark really matters to students when they are:

  • On the cusp of just passing a subject – even more so if it’s their last possible attempt at the subject
  • Worried about the mounting time and financial cost: every fail requires more time, more tuition fees (or HELP-Fees) to graduate.
  • Chasing a GPA to:
    • qualify for further honours or post-grad study
    • be competitive in the job market
  • Under pressure by circumstance, parents or themselves to perform to their own standard rather than the university’s.
  • High performers:
    • wanting to account for ever mark (yes, some students do)
    • worrying about gaps in their knowledge
  • Wanting to transfer between institutions locally or internationally
  • The student’s continued financial scholarship depends on academic achievement
  • Simply looking for feedback on their learning progress.

In assessment design, assigning marks to tasks is often used as a signal to students what’s important to study. If an assessment can be dismissively described as ‘only a few marks’, it’s worthwhile reflecting on the balance of learning value, student effort and teacher effort of having it.

In marking assessment, ensuring every mark earned is awarded. This is especially true when administrating marks goes wrong. As university staff, we have to be our student’s champions in those situations because we understand every mark could matter.

When we say an assessment is only a few marks, let’s catch ourselves and reflect on why we said it, what it really could really mean for a student. Then we will know what the right response will be.

Designing very low stakes assessment: put student outcomes first
unsplash-logoSeth Doyle

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