Methods of assessment: implications for international students

A student wearing headphones using a computer for assessment

Students doing computer-based assessment


Assessment and feedback are both integral elements of learning, and methods in both can pose problems for students unused to the UK higher education system. The third area of activity in the UK Higher Education Academy Professional Standards Framework
( is: ‘Assessment and giving feedback to learners’. The activities below will explore the role of assessment in learning, and identify some of the diverse and evolving methods of assessment which students may face during their courses. The implications of this diversity for international students will be considered, as well as reflecting on ways of supporting them.

Each section has a Portfolio Activity associated with it that can be incorporated into a portfolio for personal or assessment purposes. There is also a Linking Activity which synthesises the 3 portfolio activities.


Learning Objectives:
• To examine the role of assessment in higher education.
• To examine the range of assessments in higher education.
• To explore how international students can be supported in appreciating the expectations of assessments.
• To design an appropriate framework of guidance concerning assessments for international students in our own areas/institutions.

Activity 1: Designing effective assessments

This activity is based on an article by George Brown from the Assessment Guides series published by the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN, now part of the Higher Education Academy) (Brown, 2001).

The article Assessment: A Guide for Lecturers combines theoretical background with practical guidance. The description of this article states:

‘This guide is designed to help lecturers to review, refresh and refine approaches to assessment. It is based upon the theme of alignment between intended learning outcomes, assessment tasks, criteria, marking and providing feedback’.

Brown states that ‘effective assessment methods and tasks are related to the learning outcomes and the methods of learning’ (p.4) and he produces a model (Figure 2) linking this process to external influences such as standards and benchmarking, as well as university policy and strategy. It could be argued that methods and tasks (of both learning and assessment) are also based on specific cultures of learning, and on pages 8-9 in the section ‘Cognitive demands’ Brown specifically refers to models which are influential within the UK culture of education such as Bloom (1956) and Biggs (1997; 1999). The guide is generic, and makes no specific mention of international students, or of the extra tasks of deciphering the assessment requirements for students from other cultures of learning.


Consider the following assessment issues which are taken from Brown's article, in relation to the needs of international students.

1. Look at Brown's list of ‘principles of assessment’ (below) and note down any extra principles (related to internationalisation) which would apply:

• assessment shapes learning so if you want to change learning then change the assessment method;
• match the assessment tasks to the learning outcomes;
• match the criteria to the task and learning outcomes;
• keep the criteria simple;
• be fair, reliable and valid in your marking;
• provide meaningful, timely feedback.

2. Look at the list of common weaknesses of assessments and decide which three of these might have most impact on international students.

3. Below are some questions that lecturers might ask when designing an assessment. Note any additional questions that should be considered particularly with the needs of international students in mind.

a. What are the outcomes to be assessed?
b. What are the capabilities/skills (implicit or explicit) in the outcomes?
c. Is the method of assessment chosen consonant with the outcomes and skills?
d. Is the method relatively efficient in terms of student time and staff time?
e. What alternatives are there? What are their advantages and disadvantages?
f. Does the specific assessment task match the outcomes and skills?
g. Are the marking schemes or criteria appropriate?

4. Look at these examples of assessment types (some of which you probably use). Select which ones you know or think would present most additional barriers for international students.

Read the full article: Brown (2001) Assessment: A Guide for Lecturers (Word document 1.34MB)
Download the Effective Assessments Portfolio Activity (Word document 26KB)

Activity 2: Student perceptions of assessment

Student reflections on assessment reveal that the challenges they face are very varied and will be influenced by their prior knowledge of the subject, the culture of learning they are familiar with and, to some extent, linguistic difficulties.


Consider again some potential weaknesses in assessment (based on Brown 2001) as you read the extracts below and choose which areas of weakness (relating to assessment) are being articulated in these extracts from three international student interviews.

"Now I have 3 essays to do. One is about Machiavelli. 2nd one is about development studies in third world and last one is sociology about comparing Marx, Durkheim and Weber on conflict theories."

"...the tutor said ‘you need more tell detail about theory’, so I asked him why you say ‘that’s good’, ‘that’s good’ ‘that’s good’ …"

"Q: How easy was it to understand what the task was, what they wanted you to do?
A: I just feel difficult, and I don’t know, ‘cos I don’t know the system, … and I don’t know, so I just think maybe I will see some book, some article from book or from website."

"Actually I am really afraid as exams are really different from essays and presentations for me. And I might again end up failing. But now I try not to think that and let myself study a lot. I changed a lot. I mean I think I became to study more. Otherwise, I can not follow lectures or anything. So I have to study a lot."

"Q: could you understand, from reading the module guide, could you get a clear idea of what they wanted you to do, or did you need to discuss it more?
A: … when I did the first and the second assignment I wasn’t aware... "

Read the three extracts in full:
Case studies of international students concerning assessment (Word document 31KB)

Read Yuko's story (Powerpoint presentation 72 KB) from Spack (1997)

Download the Portfolio Activity (Word document 24 KB)

Activity 3: Guidance for international students concerning assessment

This activity presents some ideas and advice on good practice in assessment and strategies for providing support for international students in the area of assessment.


Consider the following statements and select whether you consider them to be a reflection of student or teacher perceptions.

Repeating advice or instructions is patronising

The level of respect I am accorded is embarrassing and inappropriate

I am not clear if the response I have had is positive or negative

This work is taking far too long

A reading list is given because it is expected that all items on it will be read

I am uncomfortable with giving my opinion

They are just not doing it the 'right way'

Download Portfolio Activity (Word document 24KB)

Further reading:
Race (2001). Assessment: a guide for students

Suggestions for teaching international students more effectively

Joughin and Macdonald (2001). A model of assessment in higher education institutions (PDF document 71 KB)

Video on presentation techniques for international students
Teaching presentation skills to foreign students

Video of a student case study

Would you like to review the main points?

Show review


Brown, G. (2001) Assessment series 3. Assessment: a guide for lecturers. LTSN Generic Centre: York.

Spack, R. (1997) The acquisition of academic literacy in a second language: a longitudinal study. Written Communication, 14 (1), 3 - 34.

© Dave Burnapp, University of Northampton / Alison Dickens, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, University of Southampton