Assessment for Growth
Could we be using better assessments with alternative grading?
Today we bring you a guest post by Chris Creighton, Ph.D., who is a Lecturer of Mathematics teaching introductory math courses and STEM Curriculum Specialist helping faculty with course and curriculum designs at Colorado State University Pueblo. Starting in January 2023, he will be joining the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Faculty Resource Center as an Instructional Designer.
As we talk about grading systems such as standards-based grading or specifications grading or some blended style many of us implement, we should also discuss what we are grading. The first step of backwards design is to align your learning objectives with the course aims, goals, and “big ideas”.1 In this post, I will be focusing on the next step of backwards design: assessments, or as I like to think about them, answering the question of “how are we gauging student knowledge?”
Thinking back to my education, how was I assessed? All through my schooling, it was exam after exam. Yes, I had to submit a piece of writing in an English or Sociology class, but through college it was nearly all exams. As a double major in math and physics, I routinely had classes where the only means of assessment was taking an exam on the topic. This trend even continued on through graduate school. I had a couple of oral exams in math, but first I had to pass written qualifying exams. This trend continues at many institutions.
As one of the most prevalent forms of assessment, typical exams are pretty easy to set up and administer. You write closed problems aligned with your learning objectives and assess student understanding in a controlled, timed, written environment. There are reasons why we use them. In terms of cognitive psychology, testing a student's knowledge promotes subsequent learning and retention.2 Exams are quite scalable, particularly for those of us teaching large classes. Students are accustomed to taking and studying for exams, having done so through much of their schooling like myself. It is a known system to everyone.
Like everything else in life, there are some issues with the typical written exam as a tool of assessment. They are often high-stakes: They may have consequences for students depending on their performance and have an overstated impact on grades. Even with alternatively graded exams, missing or doing poorly on an exam can have a ripple effect across numerous learning objectives. High-stakes exams lack consistent evidence in promoting learning.3 Many students are affected by test anxiety which negatively impacts their performance after a certain anxiety threshold is reached.4 I have had students who can do the problems when I write them on the board but freeze when faced with the timed, high-stakes paper version of the problem on an exam.
Exams can also have major biases: women often underperform compared to men.5 Exams written with ideal-abled students in mind have major issues with accessibility. As an example, questions that use grammatically complex word problems for students to work within a time limit can cause stress and anxiety in students working in their second language, those who are dyslexic, or those for whom the time limit itself causes stress. Exams also often procedurally exclude non-abled students from fully participating.6
When students are facing exams that have high stakes, especially those who have issues of self-efficacy and motivation, many students will turn to cheating as a means to achieve their goals.7 Additionally, taking exams is not a skill many need outside of school, meaning exams are an inauthentic experience and a misrepresentation of how we apply knowledge. Exams also encourage students to find the answer they believe the professor wants, limiting creativity and divergent thinking. Considering all of these things (and more), if I were using exams as the sole assessment tool, I’d have some concerns about the validity and accuracy of the results.8
When students and instructors interact to assess, it’s similar to running an experiment. A chemist runs an experiment that shows a surprising result. Have they opened up a brand new area of chemistry that could revolutionize the field? Based upon this one experiment, unlikely. They would need to run the experiment in at least triplicate, test the experiment set up, and even design new experiments using different methodologies to verify. When only using one type of assessment like exams, we run into the same issues. Often, learning objectives only show up once or twice on exams (which reassessments do aid) but measuring learning is much deeper than “can the student answer this written question?” Even the design of the questions is tricky as one has to ask if the question is directly assessing the learning objective or some combination of other likely prerequisite topics or their ability to interpret the language. I can admit to being thrown off by a math problem that was written in a way to be precise instead of being clear. It is tricky even in the best of circumstances!
Exams can fit within an assessment framework via more open-ended and constructive designs but should not be your only form of assessing learning. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework provides excellent scaffolding for flexible assessment practices. Relevant to assessments, the UDL framework states that one must provide multiple means of engagement, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of representation. Students who are interested, motivated, and have means to demonstrate their learning through their own identity with a reduced number of barriers will provide you with more than sufficient data to make a deeper determination of their knowledge. Allowing students multiple ways of representation and expression will open the doors to more authentic tasks as students bring their identities and interests into the course.
I think of authentic tasks as trying to answer the questions “what does learning look like in this field?” or “how would this idea be applied?” then use those tasks as the students’ assessment. For example, I have assessed students through office hour conversations where we are just discussing math, asking and answering questions of each other. Often authentic tasks are more open-ended such as having a student complete a project. In an intro statistics class, is it more worthwhile to have students answer questions on an exam or present a statistical analysis they did on a project of their choice? They would likely have to do statistical analyses in their future job!
As some practical means of assessment, I work to incorporate oral discussions as a part of my reassessment options for students. I let students take written assessments and do them on the chalkboard instead, as some students think better “on their feet.” Using assessment types such as project-based learning, presentations, teaching each other, discussions, and other oral traditions (such as story-telling); problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, academic journaling, amongst many others can help triangulate student learning in ways that exams cannot assess alone and prepares them for the future in authentic ways.
Bringing students into this process by asking them to co-create assessment methods can get them excited to show off what they know! How can you co-create assessment methods? Helping students develop techniques to assess their own understanding is both beneficial to their own learning, and also beneficial to you in that it can shift the frame from “instructor assessing student” to “student demonstrating what they know.” One way is to have students write their own exams where you give the students the task of writing a question for each learning objective you wish to assess and have them write out a complete solution for each.9 The design of good problems requires significant understanding of not only the learning objective but integrating it with the prerequisite material. You can even build in peer-assessment by having students break into groups and work to improve the exam questions together or take each other's exam.
A second way to co-create assessment methods is to have students split into groups to teach each other in mini-lessons. You can select a few lessons each semester to be “peer-taught,” breaking students into groups where they prepare a 10-15 minute mini-lesson for each other. Each student presents the mini-lesson to their group who are encouraged to ask questions as you monitor the room. I would suggest crafting guidelines for students to follow when observing their peers and normalize it by having them observe you first and discussing the observations in their groups. Both of these assessing techniques are useful in developing group study habits and self-reflection in addition to students demonstrating their knowledge. Students need ways to assess their own learning; crafting their own problems and teaching each other are great study habits to reinforce.
Bringing in Your Community
One of the best ways to go about redesigning your assessments is to join communities of practice. Find working groups in your area to bounce ideas off of each other. Become friends with your local Teaching & Learning center as they are there to help as specialists in course design. Every part of your course design interacts with the others in surprising ways. As you consider changing grading systems, investigate your assessment strategies as well.
I remember back in graduate school as a teaching assistant in a large-lecture course, proctoring as many as 2000 students, all sitting in silence, working hard to do their best on a multiple choice exam. Students were assessed on the number of problems they could get correct in the time allotted. I say this to point out that you need to consider your department’s policies, student identities, your beliefs, and other factors (the situational factors10) going into the assessment design.
If you teach at a scale like my graduate school experience, there are many limitations to your assessment design. How could one deeply assess at such a scale? Have discussions with administrators to advocate for yourself and your students. Sometimes compromises need to be made. Be kind to yourself if your situation prevents you from implementation and work with your communities to resolve.
I encourage you to always seek new ways for students to demonstrate their brilliance because that is what we are really after. It will make your course just as fun to teach as it is to take!
I would like to thank Denise Henry, Owynn Lancaster, and Rachel Zimmerman for their discussions and feedback. Special thanks to Kelly McNear for editing and David Clark for editing and this wonderful opportunity.
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Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). ASCD. http://22.214.171.124:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/517/1/246.pdf
McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, J. L., Derbish, M. H., & Morrisette, N. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19(4–5), 494–513. https://doi.org/10.1080/09541440701326154
Nichols, S. L. (2007). High-Stakes Testing: Does It Increase Achievement? Journal of Applied School Psychology, 23(2), 47–64. https://doi.org/10.1300/J370v23n02_04
See each of these references for more on test anxiety and high-stakes exams:
Cizek, G. J., & Burg, S. S. (2006). Addressing test anxiety in a high-stakes environment: Strategies for classroom and schools. Corwin Press.
England, B. J., Brigati, J. R., Schussler, E. E., & Chen, M. M. (2019). Student Anxiety and Perception of Difficulty Impact Performance and Persistence in Introductory Biology Courses. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 18(2), ar21. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.17-12-0284
von der Embse, N., Jester, D., Roy, D., & Post, J. (2018). Test anxiety effects, predictors, and correlates: A 30-year meta-analytic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 227, 483–493. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2017.11.048
See England et al., 2019; also:
Odom, S., Boso, H., Bowling, S., Brownell, S., Cotner, S., Creech, C., Drake, A. G., Eddy, S., Fagbodun, S., Hebert, S., James, A. C., Just, J., St. Juliana, J. R., Shuster, M., Thompson, S. K., Whittington, R., Wills, B. D., Wilson, A. E., Zamudio, K. R., … Ballen, C. J. (2021). Meta-analysis of Gender Performance Gaps in Undergraduate Natural Science Courses. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 20(3), ar40. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.20-11-0260
Nieminen, J. H. (2022). Unveiling ableism and disablism in assessment: A critical analysis of disabled students’ experiences of assessment and assessment accommodations. Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-022-00857-1
Anderman, E. M., & Koenka, A. C. (2017). The Relation Between Academic Motivation and Cheating. Theory Into Practice, 56(2), 95–102. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405841.2017.1308172
Feldman, J. (2018). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin Press.
Saucier, D. A., Schiffer, A. A., & Jones, T. L. (2022). “Exams by You”: Having Students Write and Complete Their Own Exams During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Teaching of Psychology, 009862832210976. https://doi.org/10.1177/00986283221097617
Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons.