Developing a sense for quality

Rene Kneyber

Formative action is goal-oriented action, but how can students assess if they have achieved a particular goal?

When you pass a ball, and it reaches the receiver, then you can tell from the result whether you did well or not. The feedback is implicit, and also easy to grasp.

But with many academic assignments, the answer to the question “Did I make it?” is a lot more complicated. If you have to write a letter, or a reflection report, or answer an exam question, you can’t automatically tell whether you did well or not by looking at what you wrote down.

In order to more effectively self-regulate towards goals, and process or give feedback along the way,  it is beneficial for students to develop a ‘sense for quality’. In this blog I will discuss what a sense for quality is, and what strategy is effective for developing a sense for quality.


A sense for quality in teachers

You might not be aware of it, but as a teacher you will have developed a lot of sense for quality. Not only through expertise in the subject, but also by gaining assessment expertise.

The latter you develop naturally as a teacher in your working life, as you have to perform hundreds, if not thousands, of assessments per year. Assessment expertise not only gives you insight into what range of quality you may find (what is best, what is worst, and what you can broadly expect from students); but you also gain a skill whereby you can still grade different executions of an assignment along a similar bar, i.e. two assignments may have been executed quite differently and still have the same degree of quality, e.g., a 7 out of 10.

It is this expertise, in addition to your subject knowledge, that you rely on when formulating feedback as a teacher. Although there are different terms for this type of expertise, at The Formative Action School we refer to it as a sense for quality.


Why develop a sense for quality in students?

A disadvantage of expertise is that you can also develop the “curse of knowledge”:  it can be difficult to put yourself in the shoes of novices. You look at the same thing, but you see different things. The curse of knowledge means that the lack of a sense for quality among students can be an underestimated problem, which can leave teachers wondering why you should spend time and effort developing it at all.

The answer to that question is two-fold. The first point is that a lack of sense for quality can get in the way of the independence. Students will be unable to assess for themselves where and how their efforts on an assignment could be improved. Of course, as a teacher you can take on that role, and be a circulating “sense for quality”. But apart from whether that is realistically feasible, there is also the question of desirability: Do you want a better product, or do you want the person in front of you to become more capable of making a better product on their own? By giving expert feedback too often, you undermine students’ independence and learning. [see our free chapter on transformative feedback]

The second point is that in the absence of a sense for quality, the feedback you give might not be effectively processed. Feedback may be very clear to us as experts, but may be too difficult to understand for our students.


A sense for quality with more complex tasks

These two points hold up especially when the tasks require more “higher order” skills such as analysis, synthesis, creativity, evaluation and critical thinking and have a more holistic quality, a sense for quality of students becomes even more important. If a student has to write a narrative essay, there are a lot of quality aspects to this: from sentence structure to spelling to grammar, but story construction and creativity are also important. The quality of an essay is not the sum of all these factors, but lies in the whole configuration of those factors. You then have to consider everything, and judging whether something is “quality” involves a lot of implicit knowledge.

If a student has to make a success of such a complex task on their own, it is important that they have a good sense of what they are working toward, and what they need to pay attention to along the way.


Criteria and rubrics do not replace a sense for quality

A common way to clarify what quality looks like is through the use of criteria and rubrics.

Quality criteria (or success criteria) describe which criteria a task must meet. While criteria obviously provide more guidance for the learner, many will still struggle with the question of when it is exactly right or good enough, even though these criteria can be very clear to an expert.

An attempt is often made to get around this problem by using rubrics. In these you describe what a student has to do to meet each criterion, and classify this description by level (e.g.: insufficient/satisfactory/good).

A rubric is, of course, clearer than a list of criteria. But a possible disadvantage of rubrics also immediately becomes apparent. Given their descriptive nature, rubrics contain an excess of text, and that will scare many students off. But even those who read it all may still question what exactly is meant in some of the boxes.

Rubrics are well-intentioned, and you obviously want to give students guidance in how they are assessed. I wouldn’t want to propose that we do away with them outright. But if we want students to develop a sense for quality, more is needed.


Developing a sense for quality with exemplars and dialogue

To instill a good sense for quality in students, the use of exemplars is necessary. Here you show how others (for example, last year’s students) completed a particular assignment, and you use these exemplars to have a structured conversation with the class about it. Both activities are necessary: Using exemplars communicates things that can’t be communicated well in other ways; looking at and comparing exemplars provides insights that sometimes can’t easily be put into words. And dialogue is necessary because other students may have insights you wouldn’t have come up with yourself: their perspective provides a kind of second-opinion to your own assessment.


Several benefits emerge from research on this

1. Students start to more profoundly understand exactly what is expected of them in an assignment.

2. Students better understand what the teacher’s expectations are. In research by Hawe and colleagues, they found that first-year students had a better understanding of what constitutes good writing style and content, how deep the content should be, what quality looks like, in what detail answers should be given, and at what level they should write themselves. Students will begin to better understand what also counts, but what cannot be captured in criteria or rubrics.

3. By using exemplars, students become more aware of their own work and thinking. They “translate” the insights from the exemplars into their own work and become more aware of what they are doing. In other words: they develop improved self-regulation through the use of exemplars.

In addition, there are two more interesting side effects:

4. Reflecting on exemplars motivates students and gives them more self-confidence. You can see that others have been successful before you: so what others have achieved, you could achieve yourself.

5. Possibly, it also improves students’ understanding of the lesson material, at least as long as the exemplars also relate to the lesson material covered.


Using exemplars

Using exemplars and talking about them is best done as early in the process as possible, e.g. before students start a task, but not so early that they can’t make sense of it yet.

There are several ways to employ the combination of exemplars, dialogue, and criteria/rubrics, and I will outline some ideas below starting with the nature of exemplars:

1. Use constructed anchor exemplars. You want to show students “typically” good work, and typical mistakes and problems to talk about them. These exemplars are already “in your mind” as a teacher: because of your expertise, you have an image of what is a good example, a bad example, and where things can go wrong. It may be worthwhile to construct these yourself and use them as a topic of conversation.

2. Use exemplars from former students (anonymized). Of course, option 1 can be a lot of work, and often many exemplars are already at hand. Probably students have submitted work before. You could use this (anonymously, of course) as a topic of discussion. Should any “interesting” anchor exemplars be missing, you can still add them.

3. Use current exemplars (if there is enough social safety in the group).

If there are enough good exemplars and interesting mistakes, current work of students can be used. Then, of course, there must be sufficient social safety in the classroom and the work must be anonymized. If these conditions are met, they often enjoy looking at what others have done and learning from it. Moreover, if you apply this strategy in a series of assignments, the class can also see for themselves which progress they are making.


A possible drawback

Of course, one possible drawback is that students will focus on a particular exemplar without too much thought. For example, in graphic arts, you can imagine that students will end up submitting products that are quite similar to the “good” exemplars. Should that be a problem for your specific subject (in graphics arts, creativity and originality is obviously important), you can choose to grab exemplars from a different assignment (with enough similarities), or modify the assignment slightly from what you have as exemplars.


Using rubrics and criteria

Rubrics and criteria can play a positive, structuring role in this type of conversation in a number of ways.

1. Use dialogue about exemplars to build criteria or rubrics together.

Consider starting a conversation without criteria or with an empty rubric. By watching and talking about the exemplars, students can create criteria for themselves, and fill a rubric. This can culminate in a plenary session with one list or criteria or a rubric, but with the advantage that students will understand what it is about.

2. Use dialogue about exemplars to understand criteria.

It is a quite the art form to have such a conversation result in a list of criteria that also makes sense and is correct. And sometimes the requirements are just fixed, too. Suppose that, for some reason, you cannot deviate from an imposed rubric: you can use exemplars to make clear to students what the rubric means.

3. Have students/students apply criteria to sample work.

Another strategy can be to have students apply the criteria to (carefully selected) sample work. By assessing someone else’s work, they develop a certain degree of expertise.


In conclusion

Regardless of the benefits, you’re obviously not going to show exemplars and have a dialogue about them for every purpose. But for more complex tasks and assignments, it can be worthwhile. A sense for quality is helpful for the self-regulation of students; allows them to make better use of feedback; and makes them able to give each other better feedback.

Therefore, “developing a sense for quality” as a strategy should not be seen as time-consuming: it can literally buy you time. Moreover, it is also often an indispensable part of the educational process.


Read more?

You can read more on developing a sense for quality in our book.

If want to know more on how formative action can contribute to self-regulated learning, read our blog here.

Someone who has done amazing work on a sense for quality is Ron Berger. See this podcast for example.

Teaching Walkthrus contains a lot of interesting takes on developing a sense for quality.



  • Rene Kneyber

    René Kneyber is a former teacher of mathematics, and currently a trainer, advisor and board member of The Formative Action School He has written and translated more than fifteen books, including Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. From 2015 to 2022, he was a crown member of the Dutch Education Council.

    View all posts


  • Rene Kneyber

    René Kneyber is a former teacher of mathematics, and currently a trainer, advisor and board member of The Formative Action School He has written and translated more than fifteen books, including Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up. From 2015 to 2022, he was a crown member of the Dutch Education Council.

    View all posts

Latest blogs