Use exemplars to clarify assessment expectations

Students sometimes struggle to meet or fully understand an instructor’s expectations for an assessment task. For this reason, it can be helpful to share examples of assignments with students. Such examples are known as “exemplars.” They are “carefully chosen samples of student work which are used to illustrate dimensions of quality and clarify assessment expectations” (p. 930). [1]

Sometimes, instructors annotate exemplars to highlight specific assignment criteria. See what annotated exemplars can look like:

Exemplars are more commonly used in writing assignments, but given that they are samples of student work that are used to illustrate quality and clarify assessment expectations, they can be used in assessment tasks such as problem sets, creative projects, infographics, and more. Interested in knowing what students think of exemplars? See Learning about the quality of work that teachers expect: Students’ perceptions of exceptions of exemplar marking versus teacher explanation (a study published in the Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice).

In this article:

Why use exemplars?

Exemplars are useful because they provide students with opportunities to:  

Furthermore, a shared understanding of assessment expectations provides instructors with a powerful opportunity to create learning environments that effectively support student learning, minimize students’ stress, and support students’ overall health and well-being.

While a recognized concern about using exemplars is that showing examples of successful student work can curtail students’ creativity insofar as it maps a narrow path to success, clarifying why you are sharing exemplars can discourage students from simply copying the example.

Students need to see what work that meets expectations looks like. Simply providing students with assessment criteria or “telling” students what the assessment standards are through comments may not be sufficient for students to fully conceptualize strong or weak work. Exemplars can help students improve their work because they allow students to understand the assessment task:

  • Students become acquainted with the nature, structure, and language of specific types of academic tasks, such as essays, reports, literature reviews, and case studies, as well as become familiar with the language and academic conventions required in these tasks. [4]

  • Students gain insight into the different ways a particular task can be completed after seeing exemplars that illustrate a range of quality and engaging in discussions about them. [4]

Students need to develop the ability to make judgments about their work and that of others. Sharing exemplars of student work can clarify assessment expectations, and initiate dialogue around criteria and standards that are needed for students to practice making judgments. It is through discussions with instructors and peers that students can develop the ability to judge their own work and that of others. Exemplars can thus play a role in helping students develop their ability to monitor and judge the quality of their work themselves. This ability is referred to as “self-regulation.” When instructors guide students in how to gain insights from exemplars, they are potentially improving students’ ability to self-regulate, and this ability has been linked to higher levels of academic achievement.

Interested in learning more about student self-regulation?
- Zimmerman’s cyclical representation of self-regulation, which helps make visible the practices students engage in.
- Nilson and Zimmerman’s book Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students’ self-awareness and learning skills.

Students need to learn how to work with feedback. Students do not always know how to process feedback comments or use them to improve future work. Indeed, learning to work with feedback happens through observation, imitation, participation, and dialogue. Exemplars therefore offer an opportunity to explain the feedback process to students. Sharing feedback that accompanies marked exemplars prepares students to act on the feedback they will receive once they have completed the task. Learn more about engaging students in dialogue about feedback.

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Recommendations for implementation

  • Collect exemplars.

  • Decide when to show students exemplars.

    • Introduce exemplars when students have begun a draft or outline of their work. Having grappled with the task themselves, students are better prepared to engage with exemplars.

  • Communicate assessment criteria to students using exemplars.

    • Have students practice identifying what the assessment criteria for a given assessment task are by reviewing one or more exemplars.

  • Use exemplars in tandem with rubrics.

    • Use exemplars in tandem with rubrics or as an alternative to them. When in tandem:

      • Exemplars can potentially help students better understand rubrics. For example, assessment criteria and performance standards on a rubric can be exemplified in annotated samples of student work and thus become more meaningful to students. Learn more about rubrics.

      • Exemplars of different levels of success can be used with a rubric to illustrate to students the fulfilment of assessment criteria or to highlight shortfalls.

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Examples of implementation

  • Students assess and annotate exemplars during class, followed by group discussion and instructor-led explanations about the rationale for awarding specific grades.

  • Students analyze and grade exemplars prior to class, share their analyses in small groups in class, and then report on the strengths and/or areas for improvement of a given exemplar.

  • Students review exemplars and then co-construct assessment criteria with peers and the instructor, followed by appraisal and discussion of selected exemplars. Learn more about this strategy in Feedback strategies: Engaging students in dialogue (see Strategy 3: Collaborating on assessment criteria).

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