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Academic Coaching & Writing

IV. Assessing Student Learning

Mar 09, 2018 by Caroline Eisner

Based on last week's blog and your understanding of student learning objectives, you now need to devise the assessments that will measure how well your students meet the learning objectives.

Again, pay attention to the verbs you used in those learning objectives. For example, if the learning objective in an English course is this: “The student will be able to identify Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets, based on form, meter, and rhyme scheme,” then an appropriate assessment might be to ask students to fill in the blanks regarding form, meter, and rhyme scheme for each sonnet.

In thinking about how to assess student learning, you can take one of two tracks:

  • Summative Assessment
  • Formative Assessment

Summative Assessment. If you take this track, you grade your students and, as is often the case, post the grades in your grade book, knowing that some students performed better than others on the test. Their grades would reflect their performance. In a summative assessment, you evaluate student learning at the end of the unit against the objective, and then move on to the next unit.

Formative Assessment. If you take the second track, which is more in line with scholarly teaching, you consider all of the students' performances on the assessment to determine if the students learned what you wanted them to learn.

Rather than inputting grades, ask yourself if your teaching provided your students with enough learning opportunities to deepen their understanding of what you expected them to learn, and, in turn, if your exam was the best way to measure that understanding. Given the evidence of their learning, as indicated by the test you graded, figure out what you taught well and should continue, and what you need to change.

This is considered a formative assessment because, based on this evidence of how your students performed on the test, you make changes to improve their learning and understanding on the topic before moving on to the next. If the students did not perform as well as you expected, you might consider grading the students informally and not posting their grades in the grade book because you have evidence that there is still more teaching and learning to be done to ensure they understand that topic.

In other words, if more than a few students misidentified the types of sonnets based on form, meter, and rhyme scheme, then you probably need to reteach this concept. You may even need to teach the concept in a new way because the first way was not all that effective. This may sound harsh, but I generally believe that when more than a few students poorly present what they know and understand, more often than not it is a failure of teaching, not of students' learning.

Designing Effective and Appropriate Assessments

A colleague once came to my office frustrated that the students in his European History class evidently were not studying hard enough. He told me the highest grade on his latest exam was a “C.” Luckily, he was asking for my advice because I had plenty to give.

I knew his students cared about his course. I asked to look at his exam. I found that he had not written the exam questions in such way that his students were able to demonstrate what they had learned about Europe. The questions were all about knowing the facts—for example, name the largest capital in Europe—and not at all about understanding, even though his course learning objectives were all about understanding European History. He had not given the students any indication that he was interested in only the facts, and yet, this was what he was testing.

In this example, I was able to show my colleague that he had created effective learning situations to help his students practice and meet the noted outcomes and that his students were performing very well in informal formative assessments, such as in-class debates and mock election speeches. He had designed learning opportunities that supported his students in practicing the intended outcomes. However, he had simply failed to provide his students with the ability to demonstrate the expected level of achievement for the intended learning outcomes.

His assessment design was off, and he needed to create new assessments to allow his students to demonstrate how deeply they did understand. Once he did, he was able to feel like the good teacher that he was.

Learning objectives that ask students to use their higher-order thinking skills require faculty to create more scaffolding to permit students to practice and do well on deeper, more meaningful assessments.

Communicate expectations. An important step in creating thoughtful assessments is to create rubrics that communicate to students your expectations of how you will assess their performance on the assignments. Well-formulated rubrics also provide students with clear indications of their strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to reflect on how they can improve. To create rubrics, think about what it is you specifically want to measure and how well you would expect your “best student” to perform. How would this student demonstrate the knowledge and skills he or she learned?

Assessment rubrics are common in writing courses. Here, for example, is a rubric to assess an essay in a first-year composition course. There are several assessment categories in the rubric, but for this purpose I am providing the first category that measures the focus and organization of an essay, on a scale from “exceeds expectations” to “fails to meet expectations.”

  • There is one clear, well-focused topic. Main ideas are clear and are well supported by detailed and accurate information.
  • There is one clear, well-focused topic. Main ideas are clear but are not well supported by detailed information.
  • There is one topic. Main ideas are somewhat clear.
  • The topic and main ideas are not clear.

What have you found when you look across student work? Are students performing at the levels of learning you expect based on your teaching? Are you scaffolding their learning—moving students progressively toward deeper understanding by providing formative support as they learn new concepts—so that their cognitive skills are improving through in-class activities? What proof (or data) do you have that you are teaching your students well? What needs to continue? What should be modified?  How can you use data (formal assessments like exam grades and informal assessments like debates) to improve your students' learning? Answering such questions is the stuff of learning transformation. Becoming a scholar of teaching and learning provides you with the means.

In the next blog, you will learn how to frame your research questions and shape your SoTL project around what you are teaching and what your students are learning.

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