Connecting Assessment and Learning

Spencer Benson

Educational Innovations International Consulting, LLC

"Assessment is the engine that drives learning.”

Nearly all educational processes involve assessments, whether it is student self-assessment, assessment designed to give feedback, or high stakes assessments to test knowledge. Overall, assessment is integral to both teaching and learning. Assessments are often the primary means by which we, as faculty members, determine performance, ability, and knowledge and assign course grades. To enhance learning, assessment may be used to identify prior knowledge, facilitate student engagement, evaluate teaching activities, and motivate students.

One simplistic, but useful, way to classify assessment is summative or formative (Benson, 2004). Formative assessments provide information on students’ levels of understanding or performance. Formative assessments are designed to facilitate learning and improving teaching, curriculum/course design, and learning progress. They are typically low stakes and inform the teacher and student about current understanding and practices, primarily to improve understanding and performance. Summative assessments are used to evaluate student knowledge, understanding, or performance. Generally, they involve tests to determine grades and rankings.

The focus on summative assessment, and the resulting grades is endemic, students want to know what will be on the test, how well they did, and whether there is a curve. This focus on grades is not unique to higher education. From very early years in primary school students are “tracked” by their summative assessment results. Middle school grades determine the courses taken in high school, high school grades determine college attendance, and proficiency in college determines acceptance into graduate programs, medical schools, law schools, and a host of other professional training programs. For obvious reasons, grades have numerous stakeholders: students, teachers, classes, schools, systems and country ranking (TIMMS, PISA). Grades are often gatekeepers and pathways to access, advancement, recognition, and rewards. Lastly, students too often use grades and rankings as a measure of self-worth, and for students with a fixed mindset, the ability to do well and be recognized becomes the primary thing that is valued within the educational system. In educational settings from grade school through university summative assessments in the form of tests and the resulting grades are one of the primary ways motivate students, as illustrated by the ubiquitous question “will this be on the test?”. Unfortunately, tests are rarely designed to facilitate student learning, even though they can be an effective means to both motivate and enhance learning.

The basic underlying assumption of summative assessment measures is that grades represent ability and knowledge. Although students who receive high grades typically have a better grasp of the material than those who do poorly on tests, this does not mean high scoring students have really learned the material, retain it for a period of time beyond the test, or know how use the information acquired (Annaberg, Weimer). In addition, testing and performance ranking often fosters stress, anxiety, discomfort and can lead to unintended outcomes including depression and even suicide (Huffington Post).

Many formative assessments facilitate learning and motivate students: the ubiquitous; “are there any questions?”, 1-minute papers, pop quizzes, on-line quizzes, clicker questions, muddiest point, jeopardy games, etc. Formative assessments are frequently low stakes and often assigned a few points to encourage students to complete them. Formative assessment “sans” points are unfortunately often ignored or not taken seriously. How do we adapt summative assessment that captures the developmental aspects of formative assessments? One obvious solution is well-constructed assessments that empower students and align with the course learning outcomes. Such assessments would allow for the summative nature of assigning grades, but also the formative aspect of providing feedback and potential growth. Examples of these assessments include projects, short structured writings, digital presentations, and authentic assessments that put newly acquired information to practical use within the discipline being studied. Although in many institutions the hourly, mid-term and final exams are entrenched within the curriculum and may be required, we must consider how we could better adapt more “traditional” summative assessment approaches as means to facilitate deeper learning?

Below are four suggestions that have been shown to provide for deeper learning. Two approaches are focused on getting students to think about the content in useful ways and two are designed to help students perform better on traditional assessments. I am sure there are many more and hope that readers will share their own ideas and approaches via the comment box.

  1. Practice Questions: Periodically provide one or two practice exam questions similar to what might be on the exam (e.g., at the start of each class or as a lecture break). These can be challenge questions that require fundamental concepts, application, and higher-order thinking (i.e., Blooms Taxonomy).

  2. BYOQ [Build Your Own Question]: Have students construct possible test questions (see Scholarly Teacher Blog, 2018). One approach is to make this a small group in-class activity where students develop, exchange questions and classify them according to Bloom’s Taxonomy. With a bit of practice, students will be able to questions that you can adapt for use on the test.

  3. The Help Card: Hand out a 4x6 index card the week before the exam and allow students to bring this “help card” to the exam. It must be handwritten, signed and turned in with the exam. The purpose of handing out the cards is so they are uniform and easier to handle. The help card reduces test anxiety, encourages students to organize and prioritize information and the act of constructing the card can be an effective study mechanism for many students. I have used help cards in classes as large as 300 students, and it works. I routinely give a prize for the best card.

  4. The Test Retake: This learning exercise is optional and works for best for in-class short answer or mixed formats tests that are graded and handed back at the next class. To give sufficient time grading it is best to give the test at the end of the week to capitalize on the extra time the weekend provides. Once the tests are returned, students have 48 hours to retake the test and hand in the original plus the retake at the start of the next class period. To facilitate re-grading, the retake must be typed, and the original plus the retake are handed in together. In addition, students must redo all questions for which they did not receive full credit. The test document is uploaded to the class website so they can download and type in their answers. Their final test score is the average. It is possible for students to end up with a lower score but it is rare. Students are allowed to use any resource that is non-human and must sign an honor pledge stating they have abided by this rule. Test retake is especially helpful for the first exam since it allows students who did poorly, to learn the material and rescue a poor grade which may reflect a misalignment of their study efforts or understanding the nature of the questions that would be on the test. My experience is that 20 to 30 % of the class use this option, in a class of 200 this means one might regrade 40 to 60 typed tests. Since the final score is the average, students who score above 80% can at best increase their score by up to 10 points, those that score 60% can change their grade from an F to a low B. I have routinely used this in introductory science classes of 50 to >200 students.

Instead of thinking of assessments as something that either is for grading or feedback, keep in mind that assessments may be able to do both. Develop assessments that provide for deep learning and improvement, yet also allow you to determine the extent to which students have acquired the desired information or process.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are your preferred means to get students to use traditional summative assessments as a pathway for learning?

  2. Do you hold the position that providing sample test questions is spoon feeding or teaching to the test? What are the pros and cons of having class practice questions that are discussed before the quiz or exam?

  3. In addition to the strategies noted in this blog, what are ways you might adapt (or replace) traditional summative assessments to increase student learning?


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