Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Assessment literacy

This implies understanding how assessment systems work in universities. Sambell (2013) makes a strong case for enabling students to have a sophisticated and articulated understanding of what goes on inside the ‘black hole’ that assessment is sometimes perceived to be. She and colleagues(Sambell et al., 1997) propose that students often have little idea of what happens to work once it is submitted, and give little thought to the agency of marking or how grades link to criteria. Working on a course which had very high attrition rates, she devised a module that required students to engage deeply with issues such as criteria, weightings and level, and enabled them to encounter and review a variety of assessment methods so they could see how performance needs to match to practice.

Fostering assessment literacy can include getting practice using diverse assessment methods through un-graded rehearsal and practice opportunities, and helping students gain clarity on how assessment regulations work in their own university. In a global context, the issue of what a pass mark comprises can be a fruitful topic for discussion, with students from some nations having experienced pass marks in the 80s and others more used to only having to obtain 40% or less. Grades similarly can cause confusion: whereas students in the US may commonly encounter the grade A+, this is not normally used in the UK for example, where A tends to be the top grade. A C grade may mean adequate but not brilliant work to some students, but when counted towards a grade-point average in other nations spells disaster. Making all this kind of information explicit can really help students understand the localised context. Students possessing assessment literacy capabilities can be more strategic in their behaviours, thereby putting more work into aspects of an assignment with high weightings and interrogating criteria to find out what is really required and so on.

Advice on helping students build their assessment literacy:
  • Systematically introduce your students to a variety of assessment methods relatively early in the programme so they develop familiarity with what they are likely to encounter later.
  • When you are introducing a method of assessment that might be unfamiliar to some students, for example, peer assessment or e-portfolios, be sure to give them a clear briefing about the purposes of the new form of assessment, opportunities to ask questions about it and a chance to rehearse it in a non-summative mark-bearing context.
  • Students from different nations may well assume that the assessment modes they are most familiar with are the norms, so it can be helpful to open a dialogue with different students to clarify issues like duration of examinations, expectations about sticking to word lengths and marking conventions.


Sambell, K. (2013) Engaging students through assessment, in E. Dunne and D. Owen (eds) The Student Engagement Handbook: Practice in higher education, Bingley: Emerald.

Sambell, K., McDowell, L. and Brown, S. (1997) ‘But is it fair?’: An exploratory study of student perceptions of the consequential validity of assessment, Studies in Educational Evaluation, 23(4), pp. 349–71.

Sambell, K., McDowell, L. and Montgomery, C. (2012) Assessment for Learning in Higher Education Abingdon, Routledge.

For more detail on assessment literacy, see Chapter 6 in Brown, S. (2015) Learning, Teaching and Assessment in Higher Education: Global perspectives.