students unfamiliar with
assessment practices in Australian higher education
Who should use this guide?
This guide provides a brief overview of the practices of assessment
of learning in Australian universities. The information, suggestions
and advice that follow will be especially useful if you are an
international student who has little or no experience of the Australian
university system. It will also be useful if you have had experience
of assessment methods that are very different from Australian
university practices, either at high school or university in another
Typical Australian university assessment
What is assessment?
Most subjects (sometimes called ‘units of study’
or ‘courses’) will have a number of assessment tasks
(often called ‘assessments’) that you will undertake
across the semester. Assessment tasks vary widely and may include
essays; reports; written assignments; oral presentations; examinations;
performances and/or artistic work; as well as class participation
and contributions to group work with fellow students.
Each assessment task you undertake is marked and graded by a
member of staff, who may or may not be the principal lecturer
in the subject. Usually, you will be informed of the grade you
receive and you may also get some other feedback on your work.
Your marks or grades for each assessment are then used to work
out your final mark and grade for the subject. See the section
‘How do you know how well you are doing?’ for more
information about feedback.
How important is assessment?
Assessment is the main way that your progress in your course
is documented and it is a central part of university education
in Australia. Each assessment task is worth a proportion or percentage
of your final grade for a subject. It is usually the case that
the higher the proportion or percentage, the more work required
to complete the assessment successfully.
Each piece of assessment you are required to hand in will also
have a ‘due date’, which is the last date it can be
handed in. It is very important that you submit assessments on
time, as there are usually penalties for lateness. If you have
had personal or other problems that have affected your ability
to complete assessments, you must let the person marking your
work, or your tutor or lecturer, know about these as soon as possible.
It is useful to have evidence of problems (for example, a doctor’s
certificate if you have been ill) to help you negotiate either
more time to do the assessment, or an alternative assessment task.
What should I do first?
Find out what’s required
It is important to start by spending some time carefully reading
the assessment requirements for each subject. Ask your tutor or
lecturer to explain anything that is not clear. Often, a number
of assessment tasks from different subjects are due around the
same time and you might find that there are periods in the semester
when your workload is very heavy. Plan ahead and make sure you
start your assignments and study for exams as early as possible.
Don’t wait for the lecturer or tutor to give you examples
of examination questions and answers in advance – usually
they will not do this and will be expecting you to find information
Australian universities have services and resources to help local
and international students improve various aspects of their study
and learning. Ensure you learn how to use the library —
university libraries usually run orientation and skills programs
— and seek help from language and learning support services.
Find out what language or learning services are available as soon
as you can and make use of the on-line and print resources, workshops,
group programs or individual appointments available. The sooner
you access help, the sooner your learning will benefit.
Five particular assessment challenges for international students
There are five assessment–related challenges that many
international students experience in Australian universities,
particularly those familiar with different educational expectations
and conventions. Each is explained below along with some suggestions
for how to manage each challenge.
1. Unintentional cheating
One of the most common issues for international students in relation
to assessment in Australian universities is unintentional cheating
through what is called ‘plagiarism’. Put simply, plagiarism
is when a student uses the ideas, work or words of someone else,
without properly acknowledging where these ideas, work or words
came from. In Australian universities, to use the ideas of others
without acknowledgment is considered to be cheating and universities
view such action very seriously.
For a student with experience of different educational practices
it is sometimes easy to ‘cheat’ without realising
you are doing so. After all, in some educational settings, the
more closely a student can replicate the work or words of a master
or expert in a field, the better the student is considered to
be. For example, a student in such a setting who can, in exam
conditions, recite word-for-word the teachings of a particular
scholar is likely to be well rewarded with high marks —
this is not the case in Australia. Similarly, in such a setting,
a student who can faithfully repeat the words and ideas of a scholar
in their written assignments outside exams will also be well regarded
and considered to be an excellent student — once again,
this is usually not the case in Australia.
Australian university assessment practices value and reward students
for using the words and ideas of scholars, but only if they
are used in two particular ways. These two ways are outlined
‘Quoting’: Using the precise words of someone else
to support your ideas
One of the ways students are encouraged to use the ideas of masters,
experts and/or scholars in their field is to use the precise
words of the scholar to support the student’s own ideas
or to emphasise a point the student is making. Sometimes
when you wish to refer to the work of another person, it is best
to use the precise words of that person. When you do this you
are expected to acknowledge that someone else wrote the words
you have used.
‘Paraphrasing’: Reporting the ideas of someone else
in your own words
At other times you may not wish to include the precise words
used by another person but you do wish to report that person’s
ideas. So a second way that Australian university students are
encouraged to use the ideas of experts is to summarise the
ideas of these scholars in the student’s own words.
For example, a student at an Australian university who can, in
answer to a relevant exam question, write a summary of the ideas
of a particular scholar in a way that clearly shows the student’s
understanding of the ideas, is likely to be rewarded with high
marks. When you summarise the main ideas you have learned from
someone else in your own words, you are also expected to clearly
acknowledge that someone else first wrote the ideas you have
How do I acknowledge I have used someone else’s work or
In the case of both quoting and paraphrasing, there are rules
for how to acknowledge where the words and ideas you have used
have come from; in other words, there are rules for how to acknowledge
the original authorship.
It is essential to consult with your
teachers about the exact rules for acknowledgment of authorship
required in your subjects.
The rules for acknowledgment are referred to most often as the
rules of ‘Referencing’ or ‘Citation’.
The rules are quite complex and they must be followed closely.
Unfortunately, there are a number of different sets of rules that
are used in different circumstances and this can create some confusion.
However, the two main methods of acknowledging the ideas of others
Your teachers should provide you with specific details of the
particular method and rules they expect you to use. If they do
not, you may ask them which method they would prefer you to use.
If necessary, you can ask at your university library, learning/academic/study
skills services or the international office for the rules of each
Why do I have to use these complicated methods and rules?
One of the central purposes of Australian higher education is
to produce graduates who are independent thinkers, able to critically
analyse information and ideas. This means that during your time
at university in Australia you will be asked not just to become
familiar with the ideas of scholars and experts but to examine
these ideas closely and to decide how much or how little you agree
with them. You will learn to form opinions about ideas and to
communicate these opinions verbally and in writing. These opinions
must be based on evidence and one common source of evidence is
the ideas of others. You are likely to find yourself using the
ideas of one scholar to analyse and perhaps criticise the ideas
of another. This is considered excellent scholarly practice in
There are two reasons, then, why Australian university students
are expected to acknowledge the source or origin of the words
of scholars they use in their assessment tasks. The first is that
you need to let readers know where you found your ideas so that
they can check to see they are reliable and valid ideas for the
point you are making. Secondly, you need to make it clear which
ideas are yours and which are those of others.
It is essential for your success as
a student in an
Australian university that you learn how to correctly
use the words and ideas of others in your own work.
2. Tutorial participation
Part of your assessment and marks for a subject may come from
participation in class or tutorials. Even if class participation
is not assessed, it is likely you will be expected to participate
Some international students find it difficult to participate
in class discussions. Students from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds
(NESBs), for instance, may not be confident in their spoken language
ability and may feel shy about speaking in public, especially
in front of native speakers. If this is the case for you, remember
that Australian staff and students are accustomed to hearing students
from a wide range of backgrounds speaking in class. Try not to
be nervous. Speak slowly and clearly. And remember too that your
English language ability will improve as you practise.
Other international students do not feel shy about speaking,
but are unsure of the ‘rules’ of how to take turns
in a group discussion or may feel hesitant to ‘interrupt’
another speaker. If this is the case for you, watch local students
carefully to see how they show that they would like a turn or
how they ‘interrupt politely’. Copy what the successful
contributors do. You will notice that they time their contribution
carefully so that it comes just as someone else has finished speaking.
You might notice that just before they speak, they raise one finger
or their eyebrows, or take a breath, to indicate to the discussion
leader and the other students that they would like a turn. They
may even raise their hand. Start by practising ‘polite interruptions’
on your own or with friends, and then first try contributing in
the class where you feel most comfortable. Once you have begun
participating, you will find it gets easier.
3. Group work
Group work is very popular in some courses in Australian universities.
Some international (and local) students find this type of assessment
confusing at times but the simple suggestions below are likely
to help you avoid confusion and problems:
Try to choose a group where there are Australian
students – they are likely to be more familiar with the
requirements of group work and this will help you
Read the assessment requirements very carefully
– ask your tutor or lecturer if you are not sure exactly
what you have to do
Be sure to ask your group members questions
if you are not sure about your role in the group – for
example, “I’m very keen to be involved, what can
I do?” or “How can I help get this assignment done?”
Make sure you arrive on time to all group meetings
and contribute fairly to the work of the group
Ensure that you do the work you say you will
do – if you are having trouble, ask for help as soon as
If you have to write an individual report,
check that you understand the requirements clearly and ask someone
to read and comment on a draft of your report
Make sure you hand your work in on time.
4. Communicating in Australian English
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 difficulty understanding some
spoken and written language. It often takes some time to adjust
to a different accent and use of English, as well as to Australian
idioms. Try to read as much as you can in English, including newspapers
and magazines as well as your academic texts. You might also find
it helpful to listen to the radio or television or to conversations
around campus or home to familiarise yourself with the way English
is used in Australia. Speaking is also helpful in developing your
skills — practise by having conversations wherever possible,
asking questions in class and participating in tutorial discussions.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help with your written language.
Many local students from English speaking backgrounds need and
seek help with problems with their own written language skills.
The way in which assignments are written in Australian universities
may differ significantly from the way in which you are accustomed
to writing. Plan to write several drafts of your assignments,
leaving plenty of time to review and edit them.
5. Oral presentations
Many international (and local) students find oral presentations
– presenting a talk or paper in front of the class –
a difficult thing to do. Make sure you collect as much information
as possible on what is required from you in the presentation (for
example, for how long should you speak, whether you are required
to use presentation aids or props and whether you need to prepare
questions to ask the audience). Try also to collect as much information
as possible on how your presentation will be marked (for example,
the criteria of a good presentation and how much each criterion
The key to doing well in oral presentations is to prepare carefully
and thoroughly and as part of this preparation, to practise. Once
you have completed your research and decided on the material you
will present, it is critical that you practise your presentation.
Practise aloud, with any aids you intend to use, such as an overhead
projector or a whiteboard. If it is not possible to have access
to a room with such aids, any room will do and you can pretend
to change transparencies and/or write on the board. Planning and
practising at what points you will change the transparency or
write something on the board during your presentation is an important
part of your preparation. Do this by yourself or, if possible,
in front of a small group of friends and ask them to give you
feedback. You can do the same for your friends. Time your presentation
to make sure it does not take longer than the allocated time (remember
that it takes longer to say something aloud than to read it silently).
How will you know how well you are doing?
Many international (and local) students find the grades given
for pieces of work and for whole subjects different to what they
may have experienced elsewhere. Specifically, you may notice that
the names of the grades are different to those you may have seen
before. The names vary across universities in Australia, with
some awarding, for example, ‘A’, ‘B’,
‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘E’, with others
awarding, for example, ‘High Distinction’, ‘Distinction’,
‘Credit’, ‘Pass’, ‘Fail’ to
refer to similar levels of achievement.
Each university in Australia has its own policy on grading practices
and has explanations for each of the grades that students can
receive for a piece of work or a subject. These policies are usually
available on the university website. If you have trouble finding
them, ask the student union or international office for help.
When you get your assignment, test or exam back, check carefully
for marks, comments or other feedback that your tutor or lecturer
may have provided. If it is possible to make an appointment to
see your tutor or lecturer for more detailed feedback, do so as
soon as possible. Listen carefully to what they tell you about
your work. Use this feedback to improve future assignments/exams
either in that subject if possible, or in future subjects.
Try not to become disheartened if you do not do as well as you
thought you might have. Many local and international students
take time to adjust to the requirements of assessment in universities
in Australia. Many do not get perfect or very high marks for assignments
and exams, even when they may have done so in other educational
settings. Remember that the important thing is to keep trying
to improve as you learn more about assessment practices and about
your course material.