Assessing Student Learning

What do we assess in the first place?

In Course Design, we can never underestimate the relationship between learning objectives and assessment. These two ‘partners in crime’ work together to determine the entire make up of a course. The first step is to create course learning objectives. Based on these learning objectives, what would be the most appropriate assessments to measure students’ attainment of the learning objectives. Once these two components are in place, we flesh out a learning plan – which is to say, we develop lesson plans and create the learning opportunities that will best support our students in reaching the learning objectives. Critical reflection on the learning objectives should lead instructors to an awareness about appropriate, relevant assessments. Read more from the University of Reading on why assessment is important.

Consider, for example, a practicum course in a program designed to prepare teachers of English language learners. If the learning objectives orient student learning toward skills they will need to be successful teachers in the English as a Second Language classroom, how appropriate are multiple choice exams as an assessment tool? On the other hand, in an Abstract Algebra course where students are charged with solving problems through the application of various formulas, how appropriate is a written 5-page reflection paper? Now, this is not to say that mathematicians shouldn’t be writing in their classes or that teachers shouldn’t be tested on content knowledge, but the bottom line is – determine your course learning objectives and align your assessment so that they map to one another favorably and in support of student success!

Types of Assessment

Ideally, assessment will be balanced for a given course or program. This means that instructors should integrate multiple streams of assessment data to inform them on the reality of how well their students are learning the content and skills being targeted by the learning objectives. Some of the streams of assessment that instructors should consider are summative, formative, peer feedback and student self-assessment.

Summative Assessment

Summative assessment is that which happens periodically throughout the span of a class or academic year. It does not happen during the moment of learning, but rather at some later time. It is a useful tool for gauging what students do and do not know at a particular time. This type of assessment often arrives in the form of a quiz, test or exam. However, because it happens after the learning activity, instructors should also incorporate formative assessment for real-time, on-going input on the effectiveness of certain instructional strategies and to help both teachers and learners identify how well the students are learning. In Tools for Teaching (1993), Barbara Gross Davis provides a chapter on Quizzes, Tests and Exams. In this chapter, she covers general strategies for assessing students, outlines several types of tests and presents considerations for designing effective exams.

Formative Assessment

Importantly, formative assessment is built into the instruction and is actually an instructional practice. Formative assessment is like ‘clever’ assessment because it can be integrated into the learning activity without actually feeling like an assessment. Many of the strategies listed on the Active Learning page inherently assess the students, but the instructors must be attuned to this in order for the assessment to be enacted. For example, during an Instant Expert activity, an instructor who monitors group work while each prepares to present on its portion of the content, will note which students are on task, who is tapping into their critical thinking skills, who is academically mature and assertive and which groups are at a loss for the content or skills needed to successfully complete the task.

As a practice oriented approach to assessment, formative assessment allows the instructor to make in-time decisions about instruction to address confusion or revisit certain content or skills that need to be developed further. In addition, the reflective teacher will use these formative assessment opportunities to consider whether or not his or her instructional strategies are effective. It may come to one’s attention that activity instructions are often not delivered clearly or that the lectures are disengaging and students are not retaining the information necessary for subsequent classroom activities.

There are many useful Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) that instructors can implement to assess student learning and teaching effectiveness. Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching provides a nice backgrounder on CATs with a chart of sample CATs you might like to try. In addition, the University of Oregon has a list of 50 CATs for assessing: course-related knowledge and skills; learner attitudes, values and self awareness; and learner reaction to instruction.

  • Peer Feedback –  Keep in mind that students do not arrive to class ready to provide feedback to one another without training, support and guidance. The following steps will promote more useful, constructive feedback among peers: model the act of providing feedback; provide a rubric or guide for giving feedback that is relevant and meaningful; allow students to simulate the feedback process with a single text; provide an opportunity to reflect on the process; monitor and guide students during the actual feedback session. Oxford Brooks University has created this handout to highlight the 3 key steps they envision for the peer feedback process with a detailed account of activities within each step.
  • Self-Assessment – Incorporating self-assessment into courses requires goal-setting, modeling, guidelines, and support to ensure that students provide fair input on their own work. Testimonials I’ve collected of motivated, self-directed students who have engaged in self-assessment often incorporate stories about how they wanted to be fair, so they didn’t give themselves an A, because an A is supposed to be perfection and surely they weren’t perfect. These same students often follow this report up with a lament about how other students in the class, who didn’t do nearly the amount or same quality work as them, gave themselves an A (and the teacher didn’t contest). This makes for a pointless use of self-assessment and unfair grading practices. It is important that checks and balances are in place so that the act of self-evaluation is purposeful as a process of reflection for the students and an aid in grading for the instructor.

Rubrics – Design and Use

A rubric is an evaluation tool used to measure learning. Well-designed rubrics are beneficial to both the students and the instructors because they clearly set the expectations for assignments, they measure skill development (e.g., higher order thinking, problem-solving, communication) and they assess learning outcomes. This paper clearly and briefly outlines what a rubric is and provides tools and tips for designing and evaluating rubrics. The Association for Assessment in Higher Education has compiled a vast list of sample rubrics from countless fields to show the variety of styles, language and rating scales possible in rubric design.

Reducing Test Anxiety

In courses where the majority of the assessments are summative (i.e., in the form of quizzes, tests and exams) it is critical to consider the stress and anxiety that the students may be experiencing. Again, Tools for Teaching saves the day with a great chapter packed with ideas for Allaying Students’ Anxieties About Tests. In this chapter, Davis proposes several ideas to address ‘test stress’. The following is just a sample of tips from her chapter:

  1. Avoid ‘pop’ quizzes.
  2. Administer ‘practice’ tests prior to the actual test.
  3. Teach test taking and study skills.
  4. Increase office hours during the week of exams.
  5. Let students bring a crib sheet with additional notes or formulas they might need.
  6. Give extra space on multiple choice questions so they can write in an explanation of their choice.
  7. Let students ‘buy’ information with points: e.g., ‘pay’ 3 points for additional information to answer a 10 point question. If they get it right, they get 7 points.
  8. Let students complete a take home version of the in-class test and earn back half credit on missed questions they complete correctly at home.
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