The Smart Marking System : ensuring university student assessment is fair, accurate, and consistent.

What is student assessment?

Student assessment in UK Higher Education refers to the formal and informal methods and tools used to evaluate, measure, and document the academic progress of students. These can include assignments, practical work, presentations, participation, examinations and tests. Marks are calculated to award degrees and other qualifications and comply with relevant marking conventions.

In the UK, universities compete to attract students and their assessment and marking process feature on their websites and form a part of their commitment to their students. Getting assessments right has always been important but it is now a challenge as assessment is more complex with joint degrees, increased student expectations and new regulatory demands.

Assessment is a critical process for any education institution. Getting it right is a given. Get it wrong and the institution opens itself to claims from dissatisfied students, possibly in the courts. And it risks its public reputation and regulatory standing.

The student assessment process needs to be automated, transparent and auditable.

Assessment systems are failing to cope with new rules and demands

Assessment systems support the administrative processes that deliver on the published marking policies of an institution. Policies exist to ensure students are treated equitably and any exceptional and mitigating circumstances are considered.

This means that all decisions are justified and recorded and awards are fair, reliable, consistent and transparent.

Assessment processes have always had to support complex marking rules; scaling, submission delays, moderation, appeals, alternative marking approaches, multiple markers, external verification and a host of other criteria. Some of these also vary across departments, exam boards and cohorts within an institution. Much of this is done ‘off system’ which puts stress on administrators, particularly when final marks for awards are calculated at the end of the academic year. In general, these rules have been fairly stable with few changes but this is now not always the case.

Assessment staff, processes and systems may now struggle to address new demands from students, faculty, regulators and other stakeholders. Some of the major new challenges are:

  • An increase in the frequency and types of assessment, including assessments carried-out by external providers and increasingly online,
  • Students expectations have increased because of the rise in their tuition fees. This has meant more appeals, demands for greater transparency and feedback,
  • A focus on surfacing bias and ensuring accessibility for all.

Current systems are often based on tools such as Excel or an Access database. These have served well but it is often hard to incorporate new rules, especially at short notice. And they may not be compliant with security and privacy policies, or are unstable and dependent on scarce IT support. As a result, it is not uncommon to see them categorised as ‘high risk’ on an institution’s software risk register.

SMS: A Smart Marking System for all assessment and marking

Institutions now need a single platform for undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate assessments. One that can consolidate all of a student’s online and offline marks regardless of their type or source. A system that can import relevant data, apply the institution’s marking rules and equitably apply them across students. It should also provide status, alerts and analytical capabilities for administrators. And finally, it must integrate seamlessly with existing student information systems such as SITS and Ellucian to ensure data quality and traceability.

Our Smart Marking system (SMS) is a prototype based on our work with assessment systems over the last 4 years. We are now researching the market for a next-generation assessment software tool, either delivered in the cloud as a service (SaaS) or on-premises.

For the technically minded:

Built on Microsoft.Net 6 (to be officially released in November), SMS is future proof, flexible, easy to use and very fast. We use a SQL database with a web based restful API, and it is built on the latest MVC framework, making it easy to incorporate new user needs.

Working in student assessment? This is how you can help

Although we have learnt a lot, we are not domain experts – we need registrars, administrators and IT staff to guide us. You can do this by:

  1. Complete this six-question ‘Needs Survey‘ for your institution,
  2. Spend 5 minutes selecting the priority features you would like to see in our tool,
  3. Contact us for a 20 minute personal demo of our prototype or a conversation about your needs at

Survey links open in Microsoft Forms. Thanks for your input!