An Essay on Teaching: How to Design Assessments

This article is the first in a two-part series. Read the second installment here

Designing Assessments that Promote Learning 

Part 1: Intrinsic Motivation

Last semester, we gave a workshop to faculty members at the American University in Cairo entitled “Are My Assessments Really Promoting Learning?” The goal of the workshop was to encourage those faculty members to question the purpose of assessment, and to explore ways of modifying existing assessments in ways that would enhance student learning. Here we are talking about classroom assessments that are usually within the remit of the individual faculty member, things like assignments, quizzes, projects, exams, presentations, or whatever else you use in your classes to assess student learning (graded or ungraded). Our workshop was partly inspired by an article by Kris Shaffer and this particular quote: “No system of academic assessment is intrinsically good, only good for a purpose. That purpose must be established first.”

Before making suggestions, we recognized that students at our institution (as with other institutions) tend to be grade-oriented, and that institutions often perpetuate this attitude. We recognized, also, that Arab students in particular often enter university after years of high school exposure to assessments that are designed to measure memorization or, at best, measure learning rather than promote it; systems that promote competition, where assessment is intended to differentiate between good and poor students, rather than help all students learn. Even Arab students who are exposed to international systems of education will probably have experienced standardized testing, for example, which assumes benchmarks across diverse students, so much of what we say here applies internationally. Students who are less exposed to what we propose here may resist at first, simply because it is unfamiliar, but it is our experience that, overall, students will embrace and appreciate these modifications to the way assessments are conducted.

We hoped that our workshop would encourage faculty members to rethink their own agency within these constraints, and find ways to redesign their assessments with student learning in mind. Even though what we propose below is a set of practical approaches that can be used, one faculty member recognized during the workshop that it was more of a “shift in mindset” that we were trying to achieve, and that once you as a teacher make that shift, imagining new forms of assessment will follow naturally. In practice, readers may find it easier to take small steps, or they may be willing to go further—let us know what you’re thinking, and how it goes if you try it, in the comments below.

We can all, at least, agree with this sentiment from Starr Sackstein (a teacher at Long Island City High School and author of “Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School”): “Any good test will not ask for rote memorization. Life isn’t a test with predetermined questions and answers; we need to teach [students] to attack and solve problems using their knowledge and skills.”

So if you want to focus your assessments on promoting learning, here are some of our suggestions.

Focus on intrinsic motivation

Even though we know that our institutions are often grade-oriented and that our students come from educational systems that make them focused on extrinsic rewards like grades, the only real way to promote deep learning is to motivate students intrinsically. How would you ensure that students are learning for the sake of learning itself and not for some external reward? Here are some ways:

  • Give students choices. Ask yourself what are the key things all students need to learn, and what are the areas where I can give them choice. For example, if you’re not teaching a course whose core learning outcome is writing, you may give students choices to present their work in other forms like video. In contrast, if your core learning outcomes are writing or reading, but not tied to particular content, consider letting students choose their own topics for their reading or writing. Even though this may seem like it is unfair to students, think about how one student may generally be more skilled in writing than others, and how you are privileging that student if all of your assessments involve writing; also consider how some students can probably read and write well on topics they care deeply about, but not practice those skills on topics they do not care about.

Sackstein wrote: “…There is seldom only one right way to do anything. We need to provide opportunities for creativity while students synthesize learning, encouraging them to do things in a way that is intuitive. All learning is subjective, and when we only offer one chance or route for learning, we greatly limit the possibility that every student will achieve mastery.”

  • Make learning relevant. One of the things we hear constantly when we conduct in-class assessments of courses is that students seek to find relevance between their courses and their daily lives. Occasionally, the instructor can make those ties explicit, such as by making parallels between historical and current events, or by making analogies that students can understand more easily. This is easier for some courses than others. Another way of doing it is to encourage students themselves to actively seek those connections and bring them back to the class to share with their colleagues. When possible, consider allowing students to focus their projects on authentic, real-life topics and problems they personally care about.
  • Nurture student agency and empowerment. Consider giving your students more control over their learning. Give them more control over what they do, how they do it, whom they work with, and let them know they will then be responsible for managing that. Invite your teaching and learning center to get feedback from your students that would give you insight into how to improve your teaching to better promote student learning, and respond to their feedback when you can. “The more we include students in the process of creating learning experiences, the better the outcomes will be,” said Sackstein.

We’re hoping to share more ideas from our workshop, focusing on how to use feedback to promote learning, how to use assessment as an opportunity for growth, and how our attitude towards failure can enhance learning. Stay tuned.

Do you have other strategies or tips for making assessments more conducive to learning? Do you have concerns about the practicality of some of these ideas? Tell us in the comments section.

Maha Bali is associate professor of practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, where she also teaches educational game design. She is also the co-founder of VirtuallyConnecting.org. She blogs at http://blog.mahabali.me and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Prof Hacker blog. She tweets at @bali_maha.

Azzah Awwad is the manager of pedagogy and assessment at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching. She has been in the field of faculty development since 2006.


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