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Grading should reflect how well students have achieved the intended learning outcomes for the subject or programme. The principle is the same as Constructing Assessment Criteria for particular assessment tasks, and as such it should be criterion-referenced not norm-referenced (CRA not NRA).

In developing grading criteria, a framework is required to enable teachers to describe and conceptualise the very best (A+) and the least acceptable (D) performances (see qualitative assessment). Counting "marks" is usually not the best way to go (see quantitative assessment). The institution may develop an overall framework for grading, but individual departments will need to develop content specific criteria of what they mean by "A-ness", "B-ness" etc. In traditional honours degrees, this is well worked out already for the different classes of degrees. The SOLO taxonomy can be useful for deriving such qualitative categories.

SOLO taxonomy

SOLO stands for Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes. (Biggs and Collis, 1982) As students learn, the outcomes of their learning display stages of increasing structural complexity. The taxonomy distinguishes between five levels of understanding: prestructural, unistructural, multistructural, relational, and extended abstract. These five levels are hierarchical, with extended abstract representing the highest level of understanding.


One will be able to


  No understanding. One simply misses the point.  


  Possess knowledge of a single fact about something, e.g. one begins to be able to name things.
Examples: name, label, identify, recognise, execute simple procedures


  Recite multiple but isolated facts about something.
Examples: list, describe, match, outline


  One begins to see relationships between things and be able to form a holistic picture of the issue.
Examples: apply, explain, analyse, discuss, compare, relate

Extended abstract

  At this level, original thinking is evident and one begins to generate new ideas that go beyond what is already known to him/her.
Examples: theorise, criticise, create, generalise, hypothesis, design

Source: Modified from Biggs, J (2003). Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 2nd Edition, Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

The above is only a generic model, it needs adapting to suit particular tasks in different disciplines. There are many examples of such uses of the SOLO taxonomy on the internet.

Arriving at an overall grade from a number of assessment tasks

Even though the initial assessment has been graded qualitatively, combining performances in several assessment tasks is easily done by converting grades into numbers, combine and then re-convert back to grades.

Arriving at an overall grade can also be handled qualitatively by using profiling.


Profiling is one of the ways to handle the problem of weighting and combining assessment results. When all tasks are of equal importance and each is graded qualitatively, the final grade can be derived from the most typical or modal response. If a student is mostly working at B level, a grade B is assigned. In case of uneven profile, the highest level the student has achieved could be taken as the final grade on the grounds that the student has demonstrated this level of performance in at least one task. A conversion can also be used: A= maximum performance on all tasks; B= maximum on two tasks, very good on remaining ones; C= one maximum, two very good, rest pass, and so on.

Some assessments require the students to demonstrate different levels of performance in different tasks and hence required a weighted profile. For instance, Task A might require a high level of understanding, Task B declarative knowledge of selected topics, and Task C correct terminology only. All have to be passed at the specified level. Weighting in this case is not an arbitrary juggling of numbers but a profile determined by the structure of the curriculum objectives. For further information, see Biggs (2003, pp197-207).


The Hong Kong Polytechnic University The University of Hong Kong

This project, funded by University Grants Committee of Hong Kong, is an inter-institutuional collaborative project involving the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the University of Hong Kong.

  Copyright & Acknowledgement | Content by the ARC Editorial Team | Updated June 30, 2007 Copyright © 2005 ARC. All rights reserved.