What do I have to DO? Student reactions to guidance on assessment tasks


The aim of this project was to gain an insight into what helps and hinders students in understanding what exactly they are required to do to succeed in their assessment tasks. To do this we aimed to capture students’ reactions to the assessment tasks and the additional guidance offered to students in course handbooks. Forty-seven students gave their reactions in five minute interviews in the course of a 30 minute study advice tutorial. The analysis of these data identified three recurring themes: (lack of ) clarity in the assignment brief and its purpose, the accessibility of the language and vocabulary used, and the consistency and quality of documentation related to the assignment (primarily the course/module handbooks). Where the ‘match’ between tutor and student expectations is effective, students will find clarity, comprehensible language, clearly structured guidance, and thoughtful, communicative guidance. Where there is a ‘mismatch’ between tutor and student expectations, students perceive these qualities to be absent, and are less clear about what they have to DO. The observations in this study will be of interest to course teaching teams in devising assessment tasks and to study advisers working with students and/or staff in identifying what works in matching student and staff expectations.

Author biographies

Kate Williams manages Upgrade Study Advice Service at Oxford Brookes University. She is also Series Editor of the Palgrave Pocket Study Skills series and author and coauthor of several books in the series.

Michelle Reid is a Study Adviser at the University of Reading. She is on the steering group for the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE) and she has co-authored the Palgrave Pocket study guide on Time Management.


A prerequisite for success for students in successfully undertaking their assignment tasks is that they should understand exactly what it is they are being asked to DO.  If they do not understand what it is they are being asked to do (or indeed why they are being asked to do it), they do not know how to start.  Staff in both universities engaged in this project (Oxford Brookes and University of Reading) find that this is the point at which many students seek help from the study advice services.

The starting point for a study advice tutorial in these circumstances is to turn, with the student, to the course/module handbook and work alongside the student to enable them to identify, interpret and unpick the various elements of guidance in the handbook. Students need this in order to gain a full understanding of what is required and how to tackle the task. Students need to be able to see the link between the learning tutors expect the course to promote (by looking at course outlines and learning outcomes), the criteria by which this learning will be assessed (by understanding assessment criteria) and exactly what the task requires the student to do in order to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding (in the format of the task itself). Study advice tutors have observed that some students find the guidance offered to them in their course handbooks to be confusing and unclear, even when it is evident to a practised reader that the course team has gone to considerable efforts to include detailed advice.

The work on the structure and language of assignment tasks carried out by Diane Sloan and Elizabeth Porter at the Newcastle Business School, University of Northumberland, was an initial inspiration to the project. Sloan and Porter (2010) studied the reactions of international students to the format and language of assignment tasks and showed that students have clear views on which structure they found was most helpful (Style 3: task and guidance separate but aligned). This work offers useful insights into student reaction to the structure and language of the assignment task itself.

The ‘What do I have to DO?’ project took a complementary approach and aimed to capture student reaction to the pointers and guidance available to them in course handbooks.  The project was intended to offer insights into the following elements.

  • A ‘good match’: where student reaction to the task matches the expectations of tutors in setting the task.
  • A ‘mismatch’: where student reaction to a task indicated that tutor expectations designing the assignment and drafting guidance are not being (fully) met.


Collecting the data

The ‘blue form’ was devised to enable data to be collected from student interviews with study advisers (see Appendix 1). Side 1 offers guidance to the tutor carrying out the interview, Side 2 a straightforward outline of the project addressed to the student, a record of basic data, and the student’s consent. A copy of Side 2 (minus the data record section) was offered to each participating student on a separate sheet. The interview took about five minutes in the course of 30 minute tutorial.

The interview consisted of three elements: questions (tick box) on the guidance; annotations by the student on photocopies or printouts of selected pages of the course handbook, and comments by either the student or tutor. Not all questions were fully completed by all students / tutors. A total of 47 interviews were carried out in March 2011. Four were excluded from the study because they did not produce sufficient useable data.

Collating the data

The focus on collating the data was on the annotations on the extracts from the course handbook, supplemented by the ticks and very brief comments on ‘useful / not useful’ on the various aspects of guidance, and tutor record of comments where provided.

Records of interviews were numbered and annotations and comments transcribed from the records under the headings shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Classification of annotations and comments from interview

Script no Student found useful… Comment/eg Student found not useful … Comment /eg

This summary was used as a basis for identifying specific interviews on which the Elements of a ‘mismatch’, and Elements of a ‘good match’ were based.  

Students were remarkably clear and quick to identify which elements in the course handbooks they found helpful, and which they found unhelpful. The elements identified as unhelpful at best added little or nothing to their understanding of the task, and at worst they contributed to the student’s confusion about what was actually required. These instances suggest a ‘mismatch’ between the expectations of tutors who set the task, and the needs of students for guidance in tackling the task.

Many of the students had positive comments to make about their assignment briefs and documentation. They found their assignment briefs built on their prior learning and understanding; they could identify the connections their tutors were making between the course content, the assessment criteria, and what they were being asked to do. Moreover, the students could see how their tutors were guiding them in what was required. This indicates a positive ‘match’ between the expectations of tutors and students.

Nineteen of the 47 interviews were selected for analysis. These were those that were particularly explicit in their articulation of the issues around a ‘mismatch’ (n=10) or a ‘match’ (n=9) as described above.  

Results and discussion

The recurring themes in students’ comments about elements they found either helpful or unhelpful were:

  • Clarity of the brief and purpose.
  • Accessibility of the language and vocabulary.
  • Consistency of the assignment documentation.

Communicating expectations: what makes for a ‘mismatch’?

Most student comments indicating a ‘mismatch’ between tutor and student expectations concerned a lack of clarity in the brief itself. The annotations are captured in Illustrative examples of annotations around lack of clarity in the brief and/or purpose of a task are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Illustrative examples of lack of clarity in the brief and/or purpose of a task

Interview Reference Elements of the task  Student reaction
12 Lack of clarity of purpose
Submitting a research proposal, and giving a group presentation of proposals
The student was clear about the task, but did not see the relevance of also doing a (group) presentation which carried no marks.
6 Lack of example
‘You have been hired as a researcher by a leading international investment bank to write a report on …’
The student wanted to see an example of what this sort of report was like.
6 Assumptions about prior knowledge
‘These papers are necessarily quite difficult so concentrate on the underlying ideas and read around … emphasis on critically analysing ..’
Student comment: ‘ .. articles are too difficult to students who don’t have the in-depth background ..’
7 Conflicting advice
The task is outlined in 3 sections, then summarised in bullets. The Coursework Feedback Form reflects the 3 sections (in different words) and adds a 4th: ‘Programme of actions’, which carried 25% marks
‘Too many bits of advice that don’t say the same thing. No suggested structure’
31 Lack of explicit focus
‘The assignment should discuss and analyse what is meant by … in the context of current policy and practice of .. You must ensure that your assignment follows a logical structure ..’
The student was unclear about how to focus on specific examples. The assessment criteria to which students were referred for guidance were ‘too generic’.

Both UK and EU/ International students found a lack of clarity or transparency in the language and terminology used in some guidance. Inevitably, this has a direct impact on the likelihood of a student having a clear idea of what is required in an assessment task. Table 3 captures some examples of language and vocabulary students found unhelpful.

Table 3: illustrative examples of language and vocabulary students found unhelpful

Ref Extracts from course materials Student reaction
5 Assumptions about the language of assessment
You are expected to present a coherent argument ..
You need to show you have … critiqued and evaluated the relevant literature .. refer to sources of good quality ..
‘Most of these are generic to all assignments’‘What does this mean?’ (see italics)
3 Assumptions about students’ capacity to process at the formative phase
Workshop discussion topic: Is X a rationalist tool to aid … or a smokescreen to ….
The student felt unable to tackle the reading  for the workshop because the ‘confusing’ and colloquial language created barriers.
7 Lack of clarity in written guidance
Task outlined 3 times
An analysis of their needs ..
‘Not all saying the same thing…’
5 Your bibliography must be set out correctly (our italics). ‘Bibliography or reference list?’
3 Language appropriate to all students
International students struggled with colloquial language (see 3 above).

Generic assessment criteria (Generic assessment criteria’ refers to criteria taken from a standard template for assessment criteria in the department and not devised or tailored to that assignment) were singled out for criticism as adding little or nothing to students’ understanding of the task, though apparently relied on by tutors to explain the qualities of the academic work required. Unexplained academic language (‘hard to interpret’) seems to be concentrated in these sections of the students’ handbooks.

Learning outcomes are also frequently seen as ‘too generic’ and were often lost as a positive contribution to the student’s comprehension of the task. Sometimes students were pleasantly surprised (in conversation with the study adviser) that learning outcomes could help them make the link between the task and the course content or weekly course outlines, but often they are overlooked as ‘padding’ in the handbooks.

Communicating expectations: what makes for a ‘match’?

1. Clear brief and purpose – gives context and start point. Students react positively to briefs that placed what they had to do in the context of their previous learning and in the context of the module structure. These briefs contained signposting signalling what they should have learned up to this point and how the assignment will unfold over the course of the module.

For example,

A brief for a presentation on a Year 1 Business Management module explained how their preparation for the group presentation would build over the seven sessions of the module and what they should have achieved in each session (no.11).

A brief for a Year 2 Nursing course explained the learning they should demonstrate: ‘This assignment provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate how you have developed skills to manage a challenging clinical situation’ (no. 33).

These briefs approached the assessment task from the perspective of a student and considered how and when they would encounter the task in the process of their learning.

Clear briefs also identified a definite start point to help students begin the assignment. This was signalled by sub-headings like ‘What do you need to do?’ (no.4 and 21), and followed by an approachable simple first step, such as ‘You will need to select a paper to summarise’ (no. 21); ‘Consider a patient or client group you have cared for where sexuality OR sexual health was either not addressed or was not adequately addressed (no. 8). This models good time management and project management processes by showing how a larger task can be split into manageable sub-tasks.

2. Language and vocabulary  – clear ‘voice’ and use of questions. Students found it helpful to discuss their assignment requirements in a seminar, or have them explained in a lecture. A combination of verbal and written instructions engages more students; it enables them to ask questions and pick up clues from their tutor’s body language, tone, and additional explanations. This suggests that text alone may not be sufficient to bring an assignment ‘to life’ for some students.

A strong personal ‘voice’ was valued, using phrasing and language that was relatively informal and addressed the students directly. For example:

‘I’ll provide a list of papers which I think would be good, if you don’t choose one of these, then please confirm with me which paper you will be summarising by Week 5’ (no. 21).

This personalised the assignment, and created the impression of direct speech which may be more memorable and approachable for students.

In keeping with the strong personal ‘voice’, the guidance that students found helpful used a range of questions to break down what was required and to start the students’ thinking process.

A Year 1 Education module assignment broke the article review into stages with a series of sub-questions such as: Can you place the article within a wider educational debate? Is it a topic related to an educational initiative or in relation to an area of the curriculum or of life in schools? ….. (no. 4)

The questions modelled the analytical, critical thinking process that the tutors wanted, and also gave direction without being prescriptive. Indeed, some of the guidance contained a proviso clearly indicating that the questions were not a step-by-step formulae for an essay, but a tool to enable thinking:

‘The following guidance is not meant to be a prescriptive list, but to give you ideas for the approach you might want to take’ (no. 4).

The students in this study responded well to the questioning approach and did not find the questions overwhelming: As one student commented, ‘They focus the mind’.

Students responded to positively when meanings of terms were unpacked by including the term but then restating it in clearer language that is accessible to both native and non-native English speakers. The choice of language also gave students a trigger for what they actually had to do, for example using active verbs like ‘match’, ‘compare’, ‘support’, ‘challenge’, to break down the process of ‘critically analyse’ or ‘evaluate’. Restating what is required using different language mirrors the process of verbal communication in which tutors repeat and rephrase their explanations.

3. Consistent guidance on both process and structure. Clear assignment instructions gave guidance on both the process and the structure of the task, for example, the assignment instructions first broke down how to critically analyse a journal article in a series of steps, then explained how to write this up in an essay structure giving indications of what to include in the introduction, body and conclusion. Students also found guideline word counts for these sections to be very helpful. The key factor was the consistency and connection between the guidance on process and guidance on structure. For example,

A Year 3 article review assignment explains the analysis process under the heading ‘How should you go about this?’ and then the resulting assignment structure under the heading ‘What should your article summary look like?’ The two sets of guidance link and reference each other, for example: ‘What are the main implications / significance of this paper you are reviewing? This is the main ‘critical’ bit of the paper summary’ (no.21).

This consistency and coherence prevented the guidance, which was very comprehensive, explained in many stages, and used open ended questions, from becoming overwhelming. Students saw it as a unified process and progression, as opposed to a proliferation of different elements to include.


The sources of ‘mismatch’ between tutor expectations when they devise course handbooks and student reaction to this guidance are many and varied. In these examples they range from fundamental issues – like anticipating the prior academic experiences of students on the course to apparently superficial matters that could easily be remedied – such as the use of culturally-specific colloquial language where more dictionary-friendly language could be substituted, or careful proofreading of the guidance when handbooks are being revised.

The ‘best fit’ matches between student and staff expectations occurred when the assignment brief was presented as an act of direct communication between tutor and students. The assignment briefs that received the most positive student comments were often accompanied by a verbal explanation or opportunity for discussion. The written documentation had a strong sense of personal ‘voice’ and used written communication techniques which mirrored the verbal techniques used in lectures and seminars: posing questions, breaking a problem into stages, restating a term in a number of different ways to explain it. These briefs provided structured and consistent guidance on both the process and product of the task which modelled the critical thinking processes the tutors expected from their students.

This study showed how quickly, clearly, and forcefully students expressed their views when asked about their course documentation in a context that was removed from their department and their subject tutors. This model of detailed consultation with students on their interpretation and understanding gives valuable insights into the expectations of students and staff as communicated through their handbooks and assignment briefs. Successful communication is a two-way process. This project shows the great potential for study advice to also be part of this process by helping identify what works in matching student and staff expectations.     


This project was funded by a collaborative Fellowship Project between the study advice services of Oxford Brookes University and University of Reading. Our thanks to the project team and tutors: Claire Baker, Upgrade Co-ordinator at Oxford Brookes University and Janet Godwin, Upgrade Tutor at Oxford Brookes University and author of Planning your essay (2009) Palgrave Pocket Study Skills who took the time to carry out these interviews at a busy point in the semester.  


Sloan, D. & Porter, E. (2010) It’s all in the words: the impact of language on the design and development of assessment briefs for international students. Presentation to the Higher Education Academcy Conference: Shaping the future: future learning. Hatfield June 22.

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