students unfamiliar with assessment practices in Australian
Helping students understand assessment expectations
Australian higher education has assessment practices that are
quite different from assessment practices in some other international
settings. The following suggestions will particularly benefit
international students unfamiliar with assessment practices in
Australian universities and may also assist local students to
adjust to this higher education’s new expectations.
There is an accompanying guide, Advice
for students unfamiliar with assessment practices in Australian
higher education, that teaching staff are encouraged to freely
reproduce and distribute to students.
The first lecture would be the appropriate time to incorporate
a short, verbal briefing on the basic assessment requirements.
Ideally, all tutors and casual marking staff should be present
for this session. Here, you would provide a general orientation
to the regime in place for the subject, make the objectives of
each task clear, outline your broad assessment-related expectations
of students and communicate the criteria on which students will
be marked. Accompanying written guidelines should contain explicit,
unambiguous instructions and exemplars that model the appropriate
discipline-based thinking, writing and/or performance to guide
student efforts in completing assignments and studying for exams.
The department policy and practice on extensions and special
consideration should also be outlined and the relevant resources
and support defined. As well as advising students of when you
are available for one-to-one consultations, you should also encourage
all students to make use of the language and learning support
services available on campus and through the university website
as soon as possible.
“The process for arriving at a
is a mystery for many international students”
The demystification of grading nomenclature in the briefing will
be of particular value to international students. Many international
(and local) students find the grades given for pieces of work
and for whole subjects different to those they may have experienced
elsewhere. Specifically, the names of the grades (‘A’,
‘B’ or ‘High Distinction’, ‘Distinction’
and so on) are often different to those to which they are accustomed.
It is therefore helpful to provide students with university policy
that outlines grade nomenclature and the criteria for deriving
grades, either through its inclusion in handbooks or the provision
of the website location. Once this is done, an overview of the
process of attributing proportional marks to particular tasks
and then combining or averaging marks to arrive at particular
grades will be helpful for students, particularly those newly
arrived in Australia. This information on what will be rewarded
in assessment can directly improve student learning by helping
students to focus their study habits.
The issue of plagiarism must also be mentioned in this briefing.
This is a highly complex concept, particularly for students from
educational settings where the practices for using the work or
words of a master or expert in a field are quite different from
those used in Australia. This issue is discussed later in the
section ‘Unintentional cheating’ and is also covered
in the accompanying student guide.
At the end of the assessment briefing, ask students, in their
own time, to consider what they have learnt from the briefing,
to examine the written guidelines closely and to then formulate
any related questions and concerns and bring these to the assessment
debriefing session to follow.
This session is best held in a lecture about one week after the
briefing session, when students have had time to consider the
requirements and at least some may have commenced work on the
assignment or study for the exam. Once again, the presence of
all teaching and assessment staff will be beneficial. This session
should be structured so that student questions and concerns are
directly addressed. It may be helpful to ask students to work
very briefly in groups of two or three students to summarise their
main questions. Alternatively, you may ask students to write down
their questions and to hand them in. Lecturers experienced with
these debriefing sessions normally find that the range of questions
for a well-designed assessment regime is narrow. The small amount
of time spent addressing student queries during a lecture avoids
much greater time spent repeating oneself in one-to-one appointments
later — and all students at the lecture can benefit from
In relation to international students, it is helpful to avoid
assuming any difficulties these students may have with understanding
assessment requirements are necessarily related to language. Many
international students have a high level of language proficiency
but a low level of cultural knowledge. The use of Australian jargon
in instructions can affect international students’ understanding
of the task. It is therefore advisable to avoid the use of jargon
and Australian idioms as much as possible.
International students (like local students) can become disheartened
if they do not do as well as they thought they might have in assignments
or exams. Often it is helpful to gently alert students that it
may take time to adjust to the requirements of assessment in universities
in Australia and that many students do not get perfect or very
high marks for assignments and exams, even if they have done so
prior to entering university. Reminding students of the importance
of continuing to try to improve as they learn more about assessment
practices and about the course material may also be helpful.
Feedback is critical to the learning process. When most international
students receive their assignments, tests or exams back, they
carefully check for marks, comments or other feedback. This is
to be encouraged — the provision of as much helpful feedback
as possible in writing and redirection to support resources and
services as appropriate is likely to greatly assist learning.
Consistency between markers is essential and the use of marking
guides can help achieve this, as well as provide an outline for
students of what is required. For assessment tasks held early
in the semester, a brief assessment feedback session where common
strengths and weaknesses in student efforts are shared during
a lecture may be appropriate. A summary of these strengths and
weaknesses might also be published on the subject homepage.
Overcoming six assessment challenges for students unfamiliar
with assessment practices
1. Lack of local cultural knowledge
Setting assignments and readings based exclusively on local content
or issues or the application of theory or concepts to local situations
and scenarios is likely to seriously and unfairly disadvantage
many international students. International students should have
the option to use their knowledge of their own local context in
at least some assignments. Including the choice of culturally
diverse assignment topics, texts and exemplars to all students
will not only help international students demonstrate their understandings
of concepts but will also offer the opportunity for local students
to broaden their horizons.
2. Unintentional cheating
One of the most common issues for international students (and
domestic students as well) is unintentional plagiarism. In some
educational settings outside Australian higher education, the
more closely a student can replicate the work or words of an expert,
the greater the student’s learning or mastery of the subject
is considered to be. Some students are unaware that this is not
usually the case in Australian higher education and that, in sharp
contrast to their previous experience, they may be penalised for
It is advisable to explain to students that learning to correctly
use the words and ideas of others is, in most courses, essential
for their success as a student in Australian higher education.
Of course, it is equally advisable to provide the necessary resources
and support so that students can develop the requisite skills.
Pointing students to language, learning and library resources
and programs will be helpful, as will the accompanying student
guide Advice for students unfamiliar with
assessment in Australian higher education.
3. Tutorial participation
A proportion of assessment is often made up of a participation
requirement. Even if this proportion is very small, it is appropriate
that all students have an equal opportunity to participate. It
is often assumed that the apparent reluctance of some international
students to participate in tutorials is caused by a lack of confidence,
language skills or shyness. While these may be contributing factors
in some instances, there is at least one other over-riding factor
for many international students: being unsure of the implicit
social conventions for turn-taking in group discussions and feeling
hesitant to ‘interrupt’ another speaker and causing
offence or embarrassment.
Teaching all students how to signal that they wish to make a
comment (making eye contact with tutor, raising eyebrows, raising
a finger, raising a hand, taking an audible breath) is likely
to be useful for students unaccustomed to the conventions for
group discussions between students and teachers. Alerting students
to these simple devices will provide them with a socially acceptable
mechanism for politely interrupting. Breaking students into smaller
discussion groups within tutorials provides opportunities to practise
such strategies in the relative informality a small group allows.
A few suggestions to encourage participation:
Make the expectation of participation clear
and unambiguous — let students know what, exactly, participation
Use ‘icebreakers’ for the first
few weeks to get the students used to talking to each other
and create a relaxed atmosphere.
Learn the students’ names — this
will personalise interactions and encourage communication.
Use open-ended questions and explain that there
is no right or wrong answer (where this is appropriate) —
remember to give students time to answer, especially if they
are from non-English speaking backgrounds.
Ensure you show you value all answers. This
can be done by non-verbal signals (for example, a nod or smile)
as well as through verbal responses using students’ names.
Use the ‘think-pair-share’ technique,
which is also called the ‘pyramid’ technique. Set
a problem, challenge or issue for discussion. Ask the students
to think about and then record their thoughts on the issue (think);
discuss their thoughts with another student (pair); the pair
joins with another pair to discuss the issue further. One member
of the group of four reports back to the whole group (share)
Use ‘buzz groups’, so named because
of the noise they create. Ask small groups of two or three students
to undertake a mini-task or brief discussion that will take
a few minutes only. Typical examples are reflecting on material
covered or brainstorming questions about a topic in progress
or thoughts about a new topic (Barrington, 1998).
Keep in mind that for many international students, being asked
to formulate and articulate their opinions, especially if these
are required to be analytical or critical, is a challenging experience.
Doing so in front of others, including a highly respected teacher,
while unaware of and unaccustomed to the conventions of group
discussion and while using a non-native language makes this an
uncomfortable and unsettling experience. The more international
students can be supported in their attempts to participate, the
more likely they are to do so.
4. Group work
Detailed guidelines on the design and management of effective
group activities and assessment relevant to all students can be
found at Assessing Group Work. Of particular
relevance to international students is securing appropriate group
membership. Where international students are left to their own
devices in gaining membership of a group, there is a risk that
they may have difficulty negotiating the subtleties in approaching
and integrating into a group. Many international students find
themselves excluded from the often mysterious processes Australian
students move through to mutually select fellow group members.
International students may end up in groups with no local students,
with the result that no-one in the group has experience of group
work or assessment and the group as a whole is puzzled about what
Some international and local students may prefer to work with
others from the same educational background but all students should
be offered the opportunity to benefit from working with students
from different backgrounds from their own. Some planning on the
lecturer’s part will be necessary to facilitate the group
membership appropriate for the task.
5. English language skills
Some international students find that even though they have high
scores on IELTS or TOEFL or other English language tests, when
they get to Australia they have some difficulty understanding
spoken and written language. It may take some time for them to
adjust to the Australian accent and use of English. To assist
students to develop their listening and reading skills, it is
useful to encourage them to read as much as they can in English,
including newspapers and magazines as well as academic texts.
Suggest they listen to the radio or television and to conversations
around campus or home to familiarise themselves with the way English
is used in Australia. Try to use an appropriate pace in your own
speech and avoid colloquialisms and idioms as much as possible.
In terms of writing, many international students have little
experience of writing essays or assignments in the particular
way Australian university assessment demands they be written.
Their early attempts to incorporate the appropriate conventions
for written, compared with the more familiar oral, style and format,
argument and genre in a non-native language, are accomplished
in a very brief time span and often with little or no guidance
or support. It may be helpful to encourage students to ask for
help with their written language from the appropriate university
service. It may also be helpful to assure international students
that many local students from English speaking backgrounds need
and seek help to develop and improve their written language skills.
The provision of exemplars, such as model reports, products or
performances, illustrations of genres and worked solutions to
problems are highly valued by all students but in particular by
international students who may never have seen anything similar.
As one staff member expressed it, “Without these, it’s
the equivalent of trying to write a PhD without ever having seen
Finally, paying careful attention to the wording of exam papers
will be of great benefit to international students, especially
those from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds (NESBs). What may
seem quite clear to a native speaker can be highly ambiguous to
a non-native speaker. Some universities offer services where staff
expert in this field read exam papers to check for such ambiguity.
A critical colleague (preferably from another discipline so that
content is not the focus) may also be able to assist in this type
6. Oral presentations
Many international students find oral presentations a very difficult
undertaking for some of the same reasons outlined in the section
on tutorial participation. International and local students will
be greatly assisted by the provision of as much information as
what, exactly, staff require in the content
of the presentation (for example, the scope, the amount of detail);
what, exactly, staff require in the format
of the presentation (for example, how long the presentation
should be, whether or not students are required to use aids
or props, and whether or not students are expected to prepare
questions for the class); and
how the presentation will be graded (for example,
the criteria for a good presentation, how much each criterion
It is most important to emphasise the importance of careful and
thorough preparation of a presentation, in particular the need
for rehearsal. The accompanying student guide may be helpful in
The debate on compensatory grading for international students
There is little doubt that the development of the complex skills
necessary to undertake a typical assessment task can take a substantial
amount of time to master, despite the best intentions and commitment
of an international student unfamiliar with both conventions and
the language. The inherent disadvantage of international students
in demonstrating their knowledge creates dilemmas for staff in
designing fair assessment and fair ways of acknowledging academic
achievement. Often the main challenge is in finding alternative
ways to acknowledge the capabilities and knowledge of international
There is much debate about the pros and cons of compensatory
assessment practices for international students. In short, there
are two quite contrasting points of view. On the one hand, lack
of familiarity with language is the basis of an argument for grading
the work of international students whose first language is not
English using special criteria or levels of performance that take
into account their lower proficiency with the language. The key
assumption of this argument is that it is possible in assessing
student learning to separate language from analytical skills,
argument and underlying knowledge. If this assumption is accepted,
it may be appropriate and reasonable to use grading mechanisms
that compensate for the poorer language skills of some NESB students.
For example, while marks might not be removed for errors in language
use, students’ work might be graded only in terms of a pass/fail
distinction. Proponents of a compensatory approach such as this
argue that the crucial intellectual development to be facilitated
in university students is in the area of thinking and ideas, not
in grammar and spelling.
On the other hand, there is the argument that a poor grasp of
English inevitably leads, through the inability to express thoughts
coherently, to poor argument or analysis: in this way of thinking,
language and knowledge are inseparable. From this point of view,
one way in which to manage the diversity of skills in a student
body is to use a range of assessment tasks beyond the written
essay or report. Such a range may be appropriate not only for
international students, but also local non-native speakers, students
with disabilities and students with a range of learning styles
and preferences. Portfolio assessment (see below) provides one
method for implementing a range of assessment tasks that allow
both students and staff to monitor student progress. A progressive
approach to the traditional essay or report might be appropriate.
This is where, for example, the accuracy of content and format
and the volume of research in the first essay or report receives
proportionally more marks than expression, but that this balance
shifts for later pieces of work when expression is expected to
Universities, faculties and departments may have policies that
specify particular rules and regulations for the assessment and
grading of international students in order to maintain academic
rigour and appropriate standards.
One method for mapping the development of skills
One way in which both a range of tasks and a development
of skills might be explicitly monitored is through portfolio
assessment. The potential for evidence-based assessment
of international (and local) student work via a portfolio
may be worth investigating in particular contexts. In principle,
portfolios are useful in two major ways. The first is that
they can demonstrate the student’s knowledge, understanding,
skills, values and attitudes relevant to the area of study.
Secondly, they are likely to be learning experiences in
themselves because the student learns from the construction
of the portfolio.
A portfolio should include both agreed criteria that are
aligned with the requirements of the subject and examples
of work that demonstrate knowledge and understanding of
that criteria. The lecturer judges student merit via portfolio
components or the portfolio as a whole. Components might
include, for example:
- a learning log or journal
- annotated bibliography
- visual art
- video or audio taped reflections
- written assignment(s)
- any evidence of the achievement of the set criteria.
The likely benefit for international students is that they
can demonstrate their learning without principal reliance
on the written word. However, assessing and grading portfolios
can be time-consuming for staff, particularly with large
student groups. The information provided by students is
subjective and therefore may compromise reliability. However,
assessment regimes that contain a portfolio component as
well as other more traditional text based tasks might provide
a workable balance in some contexts.
A companion resource that examines these issues from the student
perspective, Advice for students unfamiliar
with assessment practices in Australian higher education ,
is available for free reproduction and distribution to students.
Ryan, J. (2000) A Guide to Teaching International Students
The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford Brookes
Ballard, B. and Clanchy, J. (1997) Teaching International
Students IDP Education Australia, Deakin, ACT.