Exemplars are “carefully chosen samples of student work which are used to illustrate dimensions of quality and clarify assessment expectations” (p. 1315). In addition to offering this definition, Carless and Chan (2017) provide a rationale for using them: “Unless students have a conception of what good work looks like, it is difficult for them to produce quality assignments.” Exemplars are tangible, concrete examples of good work, not abstract descriptions of its desirable features.
Unfortunately, a lot of teachers have serious misgivings about using exemplars, fearing students will see them as models to imitate. Those who use exemplars often respond to those misgivings by pointing out that trying to imitate a good example is not an entirely bad thing. As my colleague Gary Hafer once pointed out to me, most faculty study the journal they’d like to have publish their work—not just the editorial guidelines but the articles themselves. I regularly tell folks interested in publishing in The Teaching Professor to read it and write in our conversational style. Carless and Boud (2018) respond that “exemplars are not model answers but samples to be analyzed and compared with work in progress” (p. 1321). If students are given several exemplars that differ noticeably in style and content, then they see that the teacher isn’t after one particular approach.
The authors of both these articles recommend using student exemplars. They prevent students from concluding that the demonstrated excellence is beyond their capabilities. The authors also recommend using excellent examples, believing that there’s more to learn from high-quality work.
Exemplars not only clarify “what the teacher wants” but also, and more importantly, help students make better judgments about their own work. Being able to assess the quality of what you produce is an essential professional skill. It’s an ability that develops with practice, and making judgments about exemplars is a good place to begin. Because students have no vested interest in the work of other unknown students, those exemplars are easier to assess objectively.
Beyond promoting accurate self-assessment, understanding assignment requirements reduces some of the anxiety that surrounds preparing materials that will be graded. Rather than devoting time and energy to figuring out what the teacher’s after in the assignment, students can dig into the content and focus on what the assignment is designed to help them learn.
Carless and Chan point out that “exemplars by themselves are insufficient” (p. 931). Other work has established that students can make quality distinctions if they are given, say, a poor, a mediocre, and an excellent essay answer. But they struggle to identify specific features or characteristics that make one essay good and another poor. Unfortunately, until they can do that, it’s not likely their own work will improve. Carless and Chan conducted a qualitative study that aimed to identify the kind of teacher-student dialogue that promotes understanding what makes a piece of work exemplary. In the study, students first made individual judgments about the strengths and weaknesses of an exemplar. Then they shared and discussed their assessments with a peer, and those exchanges were followed by a teacher-facilitated discussion.
Based on their analysis of these dialogues, Carless and Chan recommend that teacher-facilitated discussions encourage students to express their views of exemplars even if some of them are divergent. The teacher should “privilege student thinking and reasoning about the exemplars” (p. 939), and teachers can keep track of how student views develop and change during the discussion. Finally, teachers should “make explicit some key qualities of the exemplars” (p. 939). The authors offer this summary: “We infer that the essence of a productive exemplars dialogue is a discussion in which multiple viewpoints are explored to facilitate the co-construction of reasoned judgements about the exemplars” (p. 939). In other words, it’s a discussion that gives students the opportunity to practice making judgments, defending them in light of different assessments, and possibly changing them as a result of the exchange. In the study, at the conclusion of the discussion, students wrote exit slips on which they noted what they’d learned from it.
We all recognize that a good example can be a powerful learning tool when it comes to mastering new content. As this work on exemplars shows, they can be equally powerful in developing the self-assessment skills needed to improve performance.
Carless, D. & Boud, D. (2018). The development of student feedback literacy: Enabling uptake of feedback. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(8), 1315–1325. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2018.1463354 [open access]
Carless, D. & Chan, K. K. H. (2017). Managing dialogic use of exemplars. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(6), 930–941. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2016.1211246