What to expect when you're alternatively assessing
Things to be ready for when you jump in to alternative assessments.
So you’re taking the plunge: Next semester, you’re going to change up your assessments. Perhaps Robert’s post from last week, three key steps for getting started with alternative assessments, got you moving. Or, maybe you’ve been thinking about it for a few semesters and finally decided to jump in.
As you plan your classes, you know what you’re going to change. This week, I’ll discuss some other things that will likely happen in your freshly updated classes. These are mostly very positive things, but they can surprising if you aren’t expecting them.1
Grade distributions change
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, but it often is: When you change your assessment strategy, grade distributions change too.
There are two ways this tends to happen in Standards-Based Grading and similar systems. First, average class grades increase. Second, grade distributions become more bimodal, that is, fewer students earn middle-level grades (like C’s) while many more earn A’s or B’s. Sometimes, D’s or F’s increase slightly.
Both of these have the same underlying reasons. The four pillars of assessment mean that students’ growth matters in their class grade. In particular, reassessments without penalty mean that a student’s ultimate level of understanding is what counts in their final grade. Compare this to a traditional points-and-partial-credit class, where an early failure weighs on a student’s grade forever.
The net effect is that students tend to earn higher grades. Early struggles turn into later successes, and so those struggles don’t weigh down grades. This makes a student’s final grade into a more honest indicator of their actual level of understanding. This leads to more A’s and B’s. Students who have the potential to earn an A or B in a traditional class might be unable to progress past a C, because of the way early failures are averaged in. Those same students, with the opportunity to show their growth, now earn a more accurate final grade. For me, this is one of the best parts of alternative assessments.
Alternative assessments change the incentives for students, especially by destroying the “one-and-done” approach that points and partial credit encourage. Suddenly, it’s worth the effort to go back and come to a deeper understanding of a previous topic. Some students embrace these changes. Many need encouragement and reminders about what they can do and how to do it. Expect this: You’re swimming upstream against a lifetime of expectations about how grades work. Reminders about reassessments and how your grading system works are critical throughout the semester.
In my experience, no matter how clearly and frequently you communicate this, there are usually a few students who don’t embrace a new assessment method. These are often students who are used to “getting by” on partial credit. They have internalized that approach so much that they won’t or can’t change their behavior. Because they no longer earn partial credit for the same (unsatisfactory) work, these students end up earning D’s or F’s instead. Again, this is a more honest grade, but it’s also not what anyone wants to happen.
Be ready to identify these students and intervene early. This requires some preparation: Have systems in place to help you identify students who aren’t making use of reassessment opportunities, or who are showing a lack of understanding of your system. Some easy ways to do this: I color-code revised work in my gradebook, so that I can easily skim a row to see if a student has been revising. If you offer multiple attempts, consider organizing your gradebook so that you can see a student’s attempts next to each other in the order they attempted them. This helps you notice if (for example) they are unnecessarily completing problems on objectives they’ve already completed, or are trying multiple assessments and haven’t made progress. Also, plan some times into your course schedule for gathering feedback: Anonymous surveys, chances to talk about grades during class, or even individual check-in meetings.
A personal conversation in office hours can make a big difference. It especially helps to focus on the benefits for the student and help them make a concrete plan to get back on track.
One last thought: A higher class average isn’t the same thing as grade inflation. I hear this concern often, especially from instructors who are worried that their department chair, dean, or colleagues will interpret higher grades as “lack of rigor”. Here are three arguments that help address this:
Grades in a Standards- or Specifications-based class are backed up by concrete evidence that directly links to course objectives. This clearly connects a student’s actual work to their grade.
That work must meet a very high bar. You are most likely holding students to a higher standard than you would when grading with points, since there’s no way to “get by” with partial credit. Students rise to the occasion and will amaze you with their learning.
Finally, reassessments mean that students can earn a higher grade because they’ve actually learned. Lower grades due to averaging are actually less honest, because they don’t represent a student’s true knowledge.
Grade inflation happens when grades increase but aren’t linked to greater learning. In an alternative assessment system, grades increase because what students actually learn counts directly in their grade.
Office hours get busier
Many instructors are used to quiet office hours. Even if we practically beg students to come to office hours, there’s an invisible barrier that feels like it keeps them away. Be ready for that to change! Once students start to understand how important and beneficial reassessments are, they’ll come to your office hours in droves. This is not evenly distributed: Expect office hour visits to increase steadily as the semester continues, with peak use typically coming around 2/3 of the way through the semester.
Office hour conversations also become more useful and learning-focused. Rather than “why didn’t I do well on this exam?” or “can I have a point back?”, conversations are about specific work and objectives. This focuses the conversation on course content and learning, rather than the transactional relationship that comes from partial credit. Reassessments ensure that students have a clear and actionable path forward. Help guide students into asking questions about specific objectives and focusing on their work itself.
You should especially expect busy office hours if you offer “on demand” reassessments during them, such as new attempts or oral reassessments. Have a plan: Is there an overflow room where students can take reassessments? Can students schedule specific meeting times to ensure time for reassessments? Have you made a careful plan to keep reassessments reasonable?
In all cases, expect to see many more students, bringing better questions, and being ready to learn. Also, be prepared for students to convince you of their learning during an office hour. If a student can clearly and correctly explain their reasoning at your office whiteboard, do they really need to wait for a future assessment?
Incentives change on assessments
Alternative assessment methods change incentives in many ways. One of those is that assessments are beneficial for students rather than something to be dreaded. Quizzes, exams, homework, and projects all give students more chances to show that they’ve learned. So, students often want more assessments and might even demand them, especially if you use regular quizzes or exams.
This happened to me the very first time I used Standards-Based Grading. Students literally begged for me to offer a quiz during the short two-day week of Thanksgiving, so that they could have another chance to earn credit for some of the learning objectives. Of course, I “gave in”: I wanted to see what they’d learned.
There are also differences in how students approach assessments. If students know that they will have future opportunities to show their learning without penalty, then skipping a problem isn’t a big deal. Embrace this! I encourage students to write “I’m not ready yet” on a problem if that’s the case. This is a form of metacognition, and you will also enjoy higher quality work in your grading. Compare this to the incentives on a traditional quiz or exam, where skipping a problem is a sure-fire way to irrevocably drop your grade by several points. Students are used to having to write something— anything!— no matter how badly done or half-thought-out, to try to earn a few points. This can take time to get used to.
As always, follow up: If a student skips a problem or doesn’t meet an objective several times in a row, do they know what they need to do next? This is an opportunity to make sure they are aware of study resources, review materials, and whatever else they need so that they will be ready for the next assessment. Watch out for students with “magical” thinking that there’s always another assessment coming, and that they will “get it” eventually without having to change their approach.
You’re not going to be satisfied
If you’ve taken our advice, you’re keeping it simple for your first foray into alternative assessments. I guarantee that after the semester, you won’t be satisfied with with how things went. I don’t mean that it will go badly — quite the opposite! Once you’ve dipped your toe into alternative assessments, you’ll keep seeing new ways to improve things for your students and yourself.
Plus, if you’re anything like me, you will feel downright dirty about teaching a class with points and partial credit ever again. (Good news: Once you’ve figured out a system that you like, it gets easier to convert future classes.)
During the semester, be flexible. Keep students’ needs and learning in mind. If something isn’t working, or if you encounter an unexpected situation, err on the side of giving students opportunities to succeed. One of my favorite phrases is, “I’d rather see what you know” rather than blindly imposing an artificial limit or rule.
Keep a list of things you’d like to change. Be kind to “future you” so that next time you teach this class, you’ll be ready to improve your assessment system even more.
Of course, there will be unexpected hitches. Some things will go differently than you expect. Hopefully, this post will help you plan for some of those. Above all, watch the big picture. Keep your eye on what students are learning, and how they are changing in response to a sensible, non-punitive grading system.
You might want to consider sharing some of these insights with your students as well. For example: Tell them directly that the incentives will be different on assignments, and describe some ways that they will need to think differently when approaching a quiz or exam. If you’ve set up your systems so that some students may not need to complete certain questions (because they’ve already completed the objectives), make a big deal about that in class. Being clear and open with students is a good idea in all parts of class — not just the objectives and assessments.