Bonfire of the Adjectives: Exploring Standardisation

Contributor: Duncan Cross, University of Bolton,

Ingredients (any equipment or supplies needed for the activity): Parts 1- 4 - 1 set of adjectives per group, Part 5 -  institutional generic marking schemes, Part 5 and 6 institutional generic marking schemes, blank or empty marking template

Method (what you do): Choose up to 20 adjectives that may be used in grading or marking (e.g. Inadequate, poor, good, excellent, outstanding, adequate, exceeds expectations, inappropriate, substantial, insubstantial, superficial, attempts, undefined, ill-defined, comprehensive, ambiguous). Print each word on a piece of paper/card.

Part 1 – Ask groups to put the adjectives in order of highest to lowest and discuss what those words mean to them (5-10 minutes). This may take longer.

Part 2 – Ask groups to choose 7 of those words and put in order from highest to lowest. The groups then need to agree on a definition of what these words mean in relation to each other. For example: What’s the difference between excellent and outstanding? Can something be good but superficial? (10 - 20 minutes)

Part 3 – Ask groups to stick up their lists on the wall and compare word orders and choices. Larger group can then discuss differences and similarities between their choices of adjectives. (5-15 minutes)

Part 4 – Ask if any of the participants do this before they start marking? From this, you can then lead a discussion on the benefits of standardizing expectations before marking, especially when there are multiple markers for modules/courses. (5-15 minutes)

Part 5 – Use your institutional generic marking schemes and ask participants (in groups) to look at the key adjectives in the marking grids and to think about how the different criteria can impact on an overall grade. This follows on from the questions in part 2 – something can be well-written and meet the learning outcomes and be superficial or lack depth. (10-20 minutes)

Part 6 – Look at the grade boundaries on your blank generic marking schemes and pick the widest defined area, e.g. 70-100% or 0-30%, ask groups to subdivide those areas into 10 and pick adjectives to describe each 10%. In groups, or individually, participants can then populate their own (10-20 minutes)

Part 6A (optional) – Lead a discussion on using the Full range of marks. For example; Why do you not give anything higher than a 70? How do learners get from 70 to 90 etc. (10 minutes – 1 hour)

Part 7 – Lead a discussion on how this can help standardize marking in schools/faculties and explore barriers/challenges/stakeholders etc. This can also be used for discussion on consistency of language in comparison to a grade/mark, e.g. ‘excellent’ in feedback but only 50% (5-15 minutes)

Special Notes – Times can be very flexible on these activities depending on numbers and what discipline area participants are from. Parts 1-4 can be used as an activity Part 6A can be a workshop on its own as can Part 7.

 Acknowledgements – I created this from activities that I used in workshops. Apologies if I’ve pinched and morphed an idea.


Higher Education Academy (2012) A marked improvement: Transforming assessment in higher education

Mantz Yorke (2011) Summative assessment: dealing with the ‘measurement fallacy’, Studies in Higher Education, 36:3, 251-273, DOI: 10.1080/03075070903545082

Lots of info regarding this in schools and Further education colleges

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