Why didn’t I get a High Distinction?

Have you ever had difficulty with students being able to fully engage with the issues of the course?

Have you ever had difficulty with students understanding the assessment tasks that are required of them?

Do your students experience problems with connecting the ideas discussed in the course with research material?

Do they struggle with the language of the discipline?

Have you ever had students disappointed with their achievements in assessment and you realise belatedly that they have not understood the task?

These issues might be particularly pertinent for first year students who may have had lots of support at school, or have come from a workplace where the emphasis is on doing rather than producing either essays or projects, or have come from overseas where Australian assessment tasks are completely new to them. These students are now faced with working independently on tasks which may be less clear cut than what they have experienced before.

Explaining and unpacking the ideas in a course and the associated assessment tasks with students can often take time. How can you help these students? Here are a number of ways you might be able to support students to understand more deeply what is required of them from the course and to build their understanding of the assessment tasks:

Know your students

1.      The most important thing of all is to find out what students know already. Connecting to prior learning ensures that any wrong learning is amended and any learning they already have is built upon. You could get students to brainstorm – Ask them ‘What do you already know about ….?’, ‘Have any of you ever experienced……?’ or ‘What have you read/seen about…….?’

Learning tasks and assessment

2.      Anticipate difficulty in understanding tasks. The task may be obvious to you but not to students. Have discussions about the tasks with students before they do them.

3.      Get students into pairs and ask them to explain to each other what they think the task is. Draw up a list of questions which can then be clarified.

4.      The language of a subject is something experts take for granted. Ensure that when you run classes you define the language as you go along. Give students exercises in class where they have to use the language of the subject – get them to learn how to use the language in action. Ask students to note down any specialist vocabulary used during the tutorial.

5.      Allow your students (as much as possible) to discuss the discipline material in class rather than have you talking a lot. This enables you to see where students are struggling. It also gives students practice in using the vocabulary of the subject

6.      Have high expectations. Ensure your tasks require students to think and give them room to inscribe their individual thinking on what they are doing.

7.      Let students bring their work to class, particularly at the beginning. The opportunity to share with each other what they have written or designed and to get feedback is critical to the learning process.


8.      Allocate some time in tutorials for students to ask questions and develop a blog or a discussion board where students can ask questions of each other as well as of you. All students will then benefit from your answers as well as the answers of others. It will also be useful to you to see if there are shared misunderstandings from students and to clarify.

9.      Having a blog or a discussion board is a good idea too because it allows students to find an answer to a question which may have already been answered when they are preparing their assignment and asking those same questions. Students might not necessarily come to the same question at the same time.

10.  Provide a range of examples of other students’ work – one example may stop them thinking individually. A range of different ways of tackling a task may help them to experiment.

11.  Ensure that the reading for the course is pertinent, targeted and plentiful. Students should be expected to read in the discipline field. The modeling of these readings or examples of art and design work will help them when they write/create/design.


12.  Get students to reflect in a formal process when they have received their assessed work. They will learn much out of this reflection and extract from this particular assessment lessons which they can use in future work.

13.  You should read those reflections and use it to re-design tasks and the course. Patterns often emerge from the student reflections which show pitfalls in the assessment tasks and gaps in the course. Did what the students produce surprise you? Was this good or bad? Did you fully recognize when you set the task what you were asking of them?

What are students thinking?

Do you ever wonder what the students are thinking about the course and the assessment? Here is an extract from a webpage at LaTrobe University listing what students value most:

  • They want to know what they are working towards, (e.g., outcomes/objectives; assessment criteria; clearly explained assessment tasks).
  • They want to be provided with authentic tasks that are valued by other people (e.g. workplace); valued for the product; and valued for the intellectual challenge.
  • They want some choice and flexibility of tasks and modes of assessment (e.g., peer, self, tutor, mentor, workplace, lecturer).
  • They want explicit learning outcomes; criteria used for assessment; levels of achievement; and suggestions for improvement.
  • They want to know what level of commitment they need to apply.
  • They want reporting of level of achievement on intended learning outcomes.

From James, R., McInnis, C., and Devlin, M. (2002), Assessing Learning in Australian Universities, Centre for Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne. http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/assessinglearning

Extract taken from http://www.latrobe.edu.au/teaching/teaching-resources/assessment.html

Have you got any other strategies that you use to enable students to understand the course and unpack the assessment?
Thembi Mason

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