Demystifying mark schemes: How clever design can reinforce trust in your assessments

by Simon Child, 18 April 2023
Abstract image of pencil on wall

Mark schemes (sometimes referred to as rubrics) play an essential role in most types of assessment. Whilst most people will immediately think that a mark scheme acts primarily to provide enough information to teachers or examiners to judge student work, they also give useful information to students about what a ‘good’ response might look like.

Because of the range of purposes for mark schemes, they are useful for a variety of stakeholders including teachers, learners, assessors, parents and even wider society. They are often publicly available, and so act as a declaration of the performance standards that an assessment values and credits. In this sense, they are a statement on what is significant within an assessment or qualification and act as part of the overall communication with stakeholders who are concerned with the validity, rigour, or quality of qualifications.

Therefore, as a practitioner it is important to understand both the theoretical and practical thinking behind mark scheme design to confidently navigate this public discourse. Demystifying and optimising your approach to mark schemes will benefit your practices in many different ways, including the ones listed below.

Theory and research

Whenever I support practitioners who are looking to optimise their mark scheme design, I think it is important to set out the theory and research underpinning the process. Understanding the range of design options available to practitioners, and making connections between the assessment task and its implications for purposeful mark schemes is an important first step in being able to diagnose issues and justify your practices. At Cambridge, we are able to draw upon some of the latest research that recommends how mark schemes can be designed to be accessible and understandable to the widest range of audiences.

Diagnosing mark schemes

One of the most interesting abilities you gain from an increased understanding of the theory behind mark scheme design is the ability to diagnose potential issues with mark schemes that you have developed and used. Using real-life examples is an important part of developing your critical eye for mark scheme design features, and I find that using a systematic framework for considering different elements of mark schemes (e.g. formatting, specificity to the assessment task, terms used within each level) and practicing this application can form long-term strategies.

Justify your decisions on mark schemes

This demystification of mark schemes will lead to you having the confidence to justify your assessment-related decisions. Mark schemes are an essential document for ensuring assessment validity, so if you can justify why each design element of the mark scheme has been chosen based on sound theory and research, it both reduces the risks in terms of assessment validity, but also increases the overall confidence of your stakeholders. For example, if you are looking to switch from a multiple-choice based assessment to an assessment that contains longer-form responses, then you can show how the features of the mark scheme (such as the terms used in level descriptors) are defined to support marking reliability

2023-03-09 Simon Validity blog

A workshop on mark scheme design

In my upcoming workshop Understanding and optimising your mark schemes, I introduce a model for considering the design of your mark schemes. The idea behind this model is to help you think about five key elements that support effective mark scheme design. Understanding these elements will help you think systematically and critically both in the design and review stage of your practice.

If you would like to understand the different approaches to mark scheme design and gain some practical guidance on how your mark schemes can be optimised, then you can sign up for our September workshop.

Before you go... Did you find this article on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook? Remember to go back and share it with your friends and colleagues!

Related blogs

Key bloggers

Tim Oates Blogger
Tim Oates

Director of Assessment and Research

Research Matters

Research Matters 32 promo image

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.