Ahead of the January workshop ‘Making the grade: How standards based assessment supports diversification’, the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Dr Jenni Carr discusses the relationship between assessment criteria and successfully diversifying assessment.

One of my favourite activities to include in any workshop on assessment is the ‘biscuit exercise’.

On the face of it, it’s a very simple format. Divide the participants into small groups, place a plate of biscuits in front of each group, and tell them not to eat them! The plate of biscuits represents work a student has submitted for assessment. The group task is to write an assessment brief that outlines for the student what the taBiscuitssk is and a set of criteria by which the work will be assessed. The brief and biscuits are then swapped with another group who attempt to assess the plate of biscuits according to the criteria.

Initial reactions to the activity vary greatly. Some participants, perhaps alienated by the apparent frivolousness of the format, are quite resistant to even making a start. Others ‘roll their eyes’ but decide to give it a try, with a few others engaging enthusiastically.  But what usually follows is a great discussion about how we define and apply assessment criteria. There is often quite heated debate about what we can and what we can’t assess ‘objectively’, what space there is for the application of professional judgement and how the students are to make sense of all this.

It’s complicated!

Assessment is a complicated business. In order to simplify matters, as much for the students as for ourselves, we can fall into designing assessment strategies that appear to offer more opportunity for objectivity. With all the best intentions we may narrow our focus in the process, and, consequently, that of our students.

There are many arguments in favour of diversifying methods of assessment. The employability agenda affects many areas of our work, and assessment is no exception. At the same time, there are those who would argue that the primary role of universities is not to prepare students for the work place and that we should not be overly influenced by current job market trends – an argument with which I have some sympathy. On the other hand, often those job market trends reflect wider changes, and certainly part of our remit is to prepare our students to be able to participate fully as citizens in a future world.

One thing in favour of diversifying assessment is that as the research base on assessment continues to develop, it becomes increasingly clear that the assessment methods and conditions we are using are not always the most effective for measuring the skills that we seek to assess.

Roundheads, Cavaliers and Innocents

  A 'Push of Pike' between two teams of the Sealed Knot during a re-enactment of the Siege of Basing House, an event in the English Civil War

In his discussion of the assessment of performing arts students, Paul Kleiman (2001) identifies three approaches – the Roundheads, the Cavaliers and the Innocents.

The Roundheads

In favour of “explicitly stated learning outcomes (making sure the student and the teacher both know what they are aiming towards and what the student is expected to achieve); and criterion-referencing (a set of clearly defined standards against which the student’s work is assessed)”.

The Cavaliers

“Those who believe that creativity and artistic endeavour cannot simply (or complicatedly) be reduced to sets of protocols, learning outcomes and assessment criteria”. That is not to say that they don’t see any need for learning outcomes or assessment criteria, but rather they prefer ‘emergent’ rather than ‘intended’ learning outcomes and for assessment to be viewed more holistically, with the possibility of including self and peer assessment.

The Innocents

Kleiman refers to “often highly experienced and skilled professional practitioners who have recently entered what appears to them to be the overly bureaucratic, esoteric, parallel universe of assessment in higher education”.

Kleiman’s categorisations are useful, but I think gaining a firm grounding in the Way of the Roundheads actually provides the underpinning necessary to move towards being more Cavalier. Being clear ourselves about what learning outcomes are expected and desirable can give us confidence to work with students and adapt to emergent outcomes, for example! Unless we know how best to compile and reference assessment criteria, we are going to find it difficult to guide students in self or peer assessment. Also the notion of ‘Innocents’ is useful within any discipline. Although within the social sciences we may not have the same proportion of colleagues moving from being practitioners into academia (?), GTAs and early career academics may find it difficult to adjust from being the assessed to being the assessor.

But why did I find myself reading around to the topic of assessing dance, drama and music performance?

In order to return to the issue of narrowing assessment, to allow for a more objective stance, colleagues in performing arts education have had to grapple with making assessment of performance fair, valid and reliable. They therefore often have insights to offer on how we consider a more diverse range of assessment artefacts and explain different assessment criteria.

Reading through the information pack for a workshop on assessing performance  (PALATINE, n.d.) I was struck by how carefully different criteria are explained to students. For example, the description of improvisational skills moves beyond the obvious example of an improvised solo performance in an ensemble piece, and outlines examples such as a rhythm guitarist or bass player who responds to a spontaneous harmonic and rhythmic variation played by the keyboard player.

In relation to the stylistic interpretation and technical performance of notated music:

“…if you are using music on stage it needs to be played syntactically accurately, but also interpreted in relation to the style of music you are performing. The most obvious example of this is the swing feel in jazz. Although not notated with swing, the conventions dictate that you play it so. Sometimes even professional arrangers may miss out the obvious elements of a style (for example the use of distortion in a rock solo, or specific inversions that guitarists would use in funk), and you should take it upon yourself to seamlessly incorporate these factors without necessarily being asked.”

These two examples not only encourage students to think beyond more obvious conventions but also address the issue that some conventions are implicit. If, however, one is to demonstrate an understanding within a specific disciplinary context you do need to be able to deploy the skills that that context demands. Sometimes we are guilty of not spelling this out clearly to students. Perhaps we are more Cavalier than we intend to be?

Developing your practice

I will be facilitating a TLC workshop ‘Making the grade: How standards based assessment supports diversification’ on 18 January 2018 14:00 – 16:00 that will explore how we can design criteria that facilitate authentic assessment across a range of assessment artefacts. We will discuss how we can operationalise assessment criteria in such a way as to clearly identify grade boundaries and what constitutes ‘excellence’ within different disciplinary contexts. Do feel free to join us!

Mapping to the National Student Survey (NSS)

This workshop is designed to develop your practice in relation to the following NSS questions in the NSS:

  • The criteria used in marking have been clear in advance.
  • Marking and assessment has been fair.





Kleiman, P. (2001) ‘How to…Perform when the lights dim’ Times Higher Education Supplement, 2nd February 2001.

PALATINE (HEA subject centre for Dance, Drama and Music) Starting out in assessing performance: Workshop for new and early career lecturers information pack. Available online https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/starting-out-assessing-performance. Accessed 6 November 2017


Biscuits https://flic.kr/p/78gWoj

Push of Pike https://flic.kr/p/8xY1QM

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