From IELTS to University: Working with Assessment Criteria

International students face many new challenges at university. One of the most significant is the variety of assessment forms: coursework essays, coursework reports, group presentations, individual presentations as well as final exams, both seen and unseen. Each of these assessment forms has a criteria which examines 3-6 areas such as language and grammar, task completion and critical analysis. For written coursework, if a student uses the criteria to understand the differences between the fail, pass and higher levels, they can amend their work accordingly. The purpose of this blogpost is to teach international students to utilise assessment criteria to achieve higher grades.

Understanding Assessment Criteria

Figure 1

Figure 1, (courtesy of shows the IELTS Writing assessment criteria for Bands 8 and 9. It assesses four different areas: Task Achievement, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource and Grammatical Range and Accuracy. The marker would then designate 25% of the final grade to each area, combining them for an overall grade. Although the areas on the IELTS criteria are more language-focused than university criteria, the basic principle and structure is the same. What is interesting is that the differences between the bands are relatively slight; for example, in Task Achievement the descriptor requires ‘fully satisfies’ for Band 9 and ‘covers…sufficiently’ for Band 8. For written coursework, an approach which precisely seeks to fulfill the descriptors of one or two higher bands can yield an improvement of at least 5% in the overall grade.

Using university assessment criteria to improve writing grades

One of the easiest ways to raise your writing mark into the higher band grades is by improving your referencing. Many university courses use the Harvard Referencing style, which involves a brief in-text reference and a final bibliography or reference list. Students often lose marks for formatting errors in their reference list, as the punctuation and presentation of each reference follows very strict conventions. Equally, criteria often assess the range of forms of in-text referencing (summarizing, paraphrasing and quotation), as well as the skill by which these references are incorporated into the text. This means that students commonly lose marks for over-reliance on one referencing form. My recommendation is to avoid using software to help with the referencing until you are confident with creating references. Also, my advice is to aim for perfect referencing, with no errors. This just takes time and help from the relevant section of the university library website.

Another strategy by which students can easily access a higher band score is by correcting their grammar. It always amazes me how few students make full use of the grammar correction function in Microsoft Word. In a Word document go to File/Options/Proofing/Settings and then tick all the boxes in Grammar, Clarity, Conciseness and Formality. Figure 2 shows the Conciseness and Formality categories. Note that the Formality category lists several problem areas for international students in academic writing: for example, informal language and contractions.

Figure 2

Using university assessment criteria to improve speaking grades

Students are often required to present at least one oral assessment on their course, whether an individual ppt presentation, a team ppt presentation or a poster version of one of these. Speaking assessments usually have a communication element to their criteria, which examines the speaker’s  success in engaging the audience in areas such as the use of body language, pronunciation and clarity of expression. For international students, pronunciation can be a significant concern, particularly when using unfamiliar, topic-specific vocabulary. The quickest way of improving the score in this element is to practice the pronunciation of difficult words which reoccur in the presentation. For example, if the presentation requires the repetition of ‘management’ twenty times in five minutes, then the incorrect pronunciation of this one word will result in the speaker losing marks.

Another area where students struggle to achieve higher bands in speaking assessment is in critical thinking. This assessment criteria is more commonly associated with writing assessment, but in fact it is usually a component of speaking too. Whereas in writing assessment the question tends to prompt a critical response, by inviting a student to report on and then evaluate two sides of an argument, speaking assessments tasks may not have an equivalent structure, so the presenter must think more tactically about how to insert critical thinking into the task.

One useful approach here is to apply the basic principles of evaluation. These principles, outlined in Bloom’s Taxonomy, are characteristics of evaluation which include defending, appraising, selecting, judging and arguing. Incorporating these characteristics into a presentation or other speaking assessment transform it into a critical piece of work. In a presentation this could mean selecting one point as more significant, and giving reasons for this selection, or it could be presenting a counter-argument to a main argument, and then evaluating which of these is stronger.

To conclude, international students need to use every strategy available to succeed at a western university, and need to be more strategic about their studies than native speakers, as international students don’t have the advantage of studying in their first language. I hope this blogpost encourages international students to think in this way about their studies, and that it helps them achieve higher grades.










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