In 2011, Offerdahl and Tomanek completed a case study of three university science professors. The purpose of the study was to see if introducing the instructors to formative assessment techniques (such as using clickers to poll students on their understanding of topics during lectures) would impact the instructors’ attitudes about assessment. Prior to being introduced to the techniques, all three instructors indicated that the primary purpose of assessment was evaluation—it allowed them to gather the information necessary for the assignment of grades. However, two semesters later, the instructors revealed a broader conception. They now saw the benefit of using assessments early and often—as formative and often ungraded check-ins—to see how well students understood the topic before it was too late. As Offerdahl and Tomanek put it, the instructors moved from a conception of “assessment of learning” to one of “assessment for learning” (p. 782).
The change in thinking about assessment that Offerdahl and Tomanek describe in these three instructors is reflected in the current literature on best practices in assessment. Assessments can be more helpful to both students and teachers when they are thought of as tools that instructors can use to understand how the learning is going (Fernsten & Fersten, 2005). From this perspective, assessment is not about evaluating students’ performance and finding it either good enough or lacking, which has been the traditional view. We teach because we want students to be able to do and understand certain things. Assessment allows us to check in on how the process is going.
Prior to assessing students’ work, particularly when a grade is at stake, it is crucial to set clear guidelines about the nature of the work that is expected (Fersten & Fernsten, 2005). Students report wanting clearer prompts and more guidance on assignments, particularly those that ask them to reflect on their learning process or evaluate their own progress (Parkes & Kadjer, 2010). Ideally well in advance of when a project or presentation is due, students should have a clear idea of the characteristics of a good and poor submission (Sendziuk, 2010). Nilson (2010) recommends giving detailed instructions and a rationale for all major assignments. If students understand why they are being asked to complete a particular project, they will likely be more engaged while completing it. Fernsten and Fernsten (2010) caution that “strategic” (p. 305) prompts are both specific (e.g., What did you think about the book? is too vague to be effective) and, in requiring students to make a claim, they push students toward being autonomous learners, which is truly the goal of higher education. Some find rubrics to be helpful tools in communicating expectations for an assignment to students (Parkes & Kadjer, 2010); however, others caution that rubrics can be too generic to provide meaningful feedback (Sendziuk, 2010). The bottom line is that, when it comes to classroom assessment, students are better able to tailor their efforts to produce a product that satisfies the expectations of the instructor when they know ahead of time what those expectations are.
After setting clear expectations for what the qualities of a good assignment are, the next priority is to give timely and constructive feedback to students about their submitted work. Sendziuk (2010) describes how nearly 22% of students polled indicated they never bothered to pick up graded work (let alone read the instructor’s comments). When asked to explain why, most students described previously having received little to no personalized comments on their written work, leading them to conclude it simply wasn’t worth it. Instructors can change this pattern by providing detailed and personalized comments on students’ work, and/or following in Sendziuk’s footsteps and crafting follow-up assignments that prompt students to engage with instructor feedback by requiring they revise a draft in light of the instructors’ comments for a new grade. Griesbaum and Görtz (2010) describe how feedback is an important instructional tool. It directs learners’ attention to certain aspects of their performance. When learners receive information about how they have performed, they are then in the position to adjust subsequent performances, hopefully moving themselves progressively closer to the desired standard. Instructors should keep in mind that students feel vulnerable when receiving feedback. The feedback should focus on the performance or product, not the person, and, after hearing it, students have a clear idea of how to improve (Sendziuk, 2010).
Recent work on best practices in classroom assessment has revealed a number of important characteristics. Among other characteristics, good assessment is “process-oriented” (i.e., focuses on the route to high achievement, not solely on the end goal of achievement itself), “open-ended” (i.e., seeks creative answers), “values contextualized communicative tasks”, “uses criterion-referenced scores”, and involves “individualized feedback” (Kurt, 2014, p. 333). As mentioned earlier, good assessment is often ongoing. If learning is assessed in an ongoing manner, instructors avoid the pitfall of getting to the end of a unit and only realizing after the tests come back that students failed to grasp important concepts (Nilson, 2010). Some scholars argue that good assessment is ungraded. Parkes and Kadjer (2010) discuss how learning goes deeper when students are able to take risks, which they often feel more comfortable doing on diagnostic, ungraded assessments (in this case, students reflected on their learning processes via video blogs). Sendziuk (2010) argues that good assessment promotes autonomy. When students are aware of expectations and understand the assessment process they become able to assess their own work and they are less dependent on the professor. Garland and Kolkmeyer (2011) describe how faculty partnerships can be used to discuss assessment options and improve assessment practices.
Methods of assessment that are likely to meet some or all of the above-named best practices include learning portfolios and e-portfolios (e-portfolios are online portfolios where students document their learning via constructing a website) (Fernsten & Fernsten, 2005; Nilson, 2010), blog and video blog (vlog) posts (Parkes & Kadjer, 2010), and written reflections. For example, students could be asked to submit a brief cover letter with a revised draft describing the changes made (Harvey, 2009). Students may also be asked to reflect on their work processes rather than products (Fernsten & Fernsten, 2005). Fernsten and Fernsten (2005) caution that it is important not to punish students for revealing negative aspects of their work processes, unless what they reveal violates ethical practices for the submission of academic work. In the example they give, if a student has written a good paper but reveals in his reflection that he waited until the last minute to start writing, resist the temptation to lower his grade. The authors argue that what the student learns from what it felt like to write the paper in this rushed manner is all part of the learning process and, if instructors punish students for telling the truth in their reflections, they will quickly end up getting sanitized reflections that only reflect what students think the instructor wants to hear and defeat the purpose of this reflective exercise.
Written by Julia Hayden Galindo, Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education
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