An Essay on Teaching: Designing Assessments, Part 2

This is the second in a two-part series on designing assessments that promote learning

Providing useful, actionable feedback; keeping in mind differences in students’ pace and style of learning; and transforming setbacks into opportunities for growth are three key ways that teachers can empower students and promote real learning.    

According to Stephen Brookfield, a teaching expert at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota,  there are several attributes that characterize helpful feedback to students: clear communication of criteria, immediacy, regularity, accessibility, affirmation, future-orientedness, justifiability and usefulness to students’ development.  

Helpful Feedback

  • You can communicate criteria clearly by using a rubric that is shared with students early on, preferably when you first assign the assessment activity. This will likely help students direct and align their efforts with the assessment’s intended learning outcomes. Brookfield reminds us that rubrics can be useful as long as they do “not become reified and unchallengeable” and are instead focused on helping students understand your expectations and address them.
  • Rubrics also serve as useful feedback vehicles as students become aware of specific areas they need to improve upon and how they can go about that. If you’re willing to try a more inclusive approach, you can try involving students in creating the rubric. That can promote student growth and empowerment as their participation enhances their ownership of the learning experience as well as their understanding of task requirements. It can also develop a lifelong learning skill of becoming more aware of how a particular activity connects with its goals.
  • Provide timely and regular feedback. Doing so offers scaffolding and skill development opportunities for students as they incorporate the instructor’s feedback in future course requirements.
  • Make feedback accessible to students, both in terms of language (avoid words and sentences that are vague or difficult to understand) and by being accessible yourself as the instructor whenever possible to discuss the feedback with students, to hear their viewpoints and to clarify points of confusion.
  • Give affirming feedback, where you highlight what the student has done well. This can be a powerful means of building student confidence and engagement, and can directly reinforce good performance. Maha remembers a time when she gave students feedback on how to improve upon a project without also emphasizing what the students were doing well. The next draft of their project had lost some of its strengths! We don’t want students to lose track of what they are already doing well.
  • Self-assess or peer-assess. Peer assessment can be done in pairs or in large groups, anonymously or not, and often requires you to structure the process and the assessment criteria for students (again, you can develop these collaboratively with the students) and to discuss how to offer constructive feedback to peers.
  • Whole-class feedback activities. In some contexts, whole-class feedback can be helpful. This can be done by showcasing samples of old or current students’ work, usually anonymously, and asking students to provide affirming as well as critical feedback according to a rubric.

Opportunities for Differentiated Growth

If the goal of assessments is to promote learning, then we need to provide opportunities for students to grow, keeping in mind individual differences in their starting points, goals, paces and approaches. Some strategies for this include:

  • Divide large tasks and projects into stages or phases in which students can receive regular feedback that informs their work on subsequent milestones.
  • Scaffold differentiated growth allowing each student to follow their own pace to account for different student preparedness, abilities and life circumstances.
  • Encourage reflection on the learning process at every stage. This may also help students figure out areas of strength and weakness, which can enable you to provide each student with individual and targeted feedback and support early on.

Attitudes Towards Failure

“It is essential that we develop a learning space where failure is positive, as it is a catalyst for growth and change. Students need to recognize that taking a risk and not succeeding does not mean they are failing: it means they need to try another way.”
– Starr Sackstein, Teacher, Long Island City High School, and author of “Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School”

In their professional and social lives, people will often make mistakes and even fail before they succeed. There is a lot of talk in academia these days about having and promoting positive attitudes toward failure, and viewing failure as a learning opportunity. Some strategies to use in assessment include:

  • Reduce impact of mistakes on the final grade. Offer many small low-stakes opportunities to develop a skill before it culminates in a larger assessment that will affect the student’s grade.
  • Grade process (improvement) not just product. This offers opportunities for students to show their thinking and ways of working on a project, and gives them a chance to talk about how they would have made the product better if they had had more time. The development of student skills and knowledge while working on your course is important especially when students come in at different levels in skills-based courses; whereas focusing just on the product privileges the students who are already well prepared and hides the process of learning and improvement for others. Executing good ideas does not always come easy for students in the end-of-semester rush, and it’s important to recognize whether students are aware of the shortcomings of their own work. That in itself is a useful skill to nurture.
  • Focus grades on what’s important. We need to constantly remind ourselves of what our learning goals are, to ensure we are not placing too much weight on secondary learning outcomes. For example, if we want our students to give a presentation and we care most about their oral communication and not on their multimedia skills, then students need to know they need to focus on how well they speak and not how flashy their presentation slides are. Putting more weight on what is most important will help students shift their priorities and be more willing to make mistakes safely in the less important areas.
  • Share your own stories.This is a tricky one, but sharing with students your own stories of learning from failure can help them see the value of such learning, and recognize you, the instructor, as vulnerable and fallible in your own right. If you aren’t comfortable doing this yourself, check out this podcast where several educators share their stories of failure.

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 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.

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.


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