Standards-based assessments for public health education: Use of rubrics and exemplars


The current University of Sydney Assessment Procedures has highlighted the need and requirements to apply standards-based assessments to our teaching. It explains what standards-based assessment means at our university teaching, i.e. “awarding marks to students to reflect the level of performance (or standard) they have achieved. Students’ grades are therefore not determined in relation to the performance of others, nor to predetermined distributions.”

One of the aims of standards-based assessment is to make objective, fair evaluations of students’ achievements based on clearly communicated criteria and expectations. The usage of rubrics and exemplars could be effective measures in promoting standards-based assessment. Panadero & Jonsson’s study has reviewed how rubrics can positively affect students’ learning. It is also acknowledged that some factors can mediate the effectiveness of the use of rubrics, such as subjects, assessment tasks, transparency, and how the rubrics are used.

It is noted that most of the successful experiences in using rubrics and exemplars reported in literature are from undergraduate teaching, and mainly in disciplines other than public health. Despite the wide application of standards-based assessment in higher education, very limited evidence can be found to promote standards-based assessment in public health higher education, which is a clear gap that needs further research. A very recent study, conducted by my colleagues at the School of Public Health, James Kite and Philayrath Phongsavan, has for the first time evaluated the use of a new rubric for a postgraduate public health unit. The findings indicated that students generally welcomed the introduction of assessment rubrics, as well as highlgihted some positive impacts on students’ achievements. The study also called for more formative evaluation to ensure clear and transparent rubrics.

Developing a rubric that is clear, fair, and easily understood by students requires great effort. Some useful tips may include:

  • Be clear on what you want to assess
  • Write in well-defined language that can be understood by students, keeping in mind possible diverse cultural and disciplinary backgrounds
  • Be sure marks that are allocated to criteria reflect the amount of time students might spend on each criterion
  • Explain the rubric clearly to students prior to the task
  • Revise and evaluate according to student and peer feedback

Here at the Sydney School of Public Health, strategies and policies are in place to promote and facilitate standards-based assessment, including benchmarks for assessment across the School, and a general rubric for assessment of essays for public health, which provides a template from which unit coordinators can make adjustments based on their own specific learning objectives and assessment tasks. Use of exemplars is also encouraged but there is little to no data or systematic reviews on what kind of rubrics/exemplars are being provided to students, and how we actually use these measures in our teaching practices.

It is expected that the approach to providing rubrics and exemplars varies across the School. For example, do we just provide an example of a previously submitted high-distinction assignment, or with include annotated feedback on how it met particular standards? Do we need marking criteria that have as much detail as we could provide, or it is better to leave some space for students to develop their own ideas? Are we able to engage our public health postgraduate students in marking process similar to what has been done for undergraduate students in other disciplines? Unfortunately, I do not have the answers yet.

What we do know is that there is room to improve our practices in applying standards-based assessment. As highlighted from the recent student survey in the School, one of the biggest concerns from our public health students is the inconsistency in marking. Given the positive impacts of standards-based assessment on student learning, it would be very valuable and timely to develop initiatives to start the process to collect data/evidence in standards-based assessment to improve our teaching practice and learning outcomes.

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