How will I assist my students to achieve learning and know whether or not they’ve succeeded? We have typically thought of assessment as putting exams, papers, and projects into the course design in order to generate a grade at semester’s end. Assessment is not only about grading, however, because grades do not necessarily disaggregate the knowledge, skills, and critical thinking that make up the complex learning outcomes of a course. Since a goal of assessment is advancing and measuring student success at achieving the learning outcomes, “every assignment should help students achieve important learning goals.” (Suskie, 2009, 155. Italics added)
Typically, course design begins with the content the professor has to impart, but course design organized around student learning outcomes begins with “what students would have to do to convince me that they had achieved” the learning outcomes.(Fink, 2003, 63) Starting with learning outcomes, we then ask what students need to do in order to achieve the sought-after learning. Grant Wiggins named this backward design, (Wiggins, 1998) and L. Dee Fink argues it is the most effective way to think about “what kinds of teaching and learning activities will suffice” to enable students to master the learning outcomes we’ve set for a course.
Graded course assignments laid out in the syllabus serve two functions. Grades function primarily as summative assessments, which typically occur at the end of a project or semester. Course assignments should also enable formative assessments and gathering information about student learning during the semester in order to improve the learning in classrooms and assignments before final exams or projects. In a course organized around student learning, assignments don’t simply measure learning at the end of the course; they are an essential component of learning throughout the course.
Assignments and assessment strategies will vary greatly among disciplines, courses, and instructors, but here are some general tips. (Suskie, 2009, 155, 161)
- Make assignments worth grading. (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998, 17)
- “Give students a variety of assignments, not just traditional essays and research papers” and mid-term exams.
- Be cognizant of linking course assignments and classroom activities to the learning outcomes. How will assignments or activities produce learning and also data so that you (and they) know they have learned what you expect them to learn?
- “Ask yourself if students will learn significantly more from a thirty-page assignment than a five-page assignment – enough to justify the time that they and you will spend on it.” Would you be able to teach students how to use peer reviews so that you aren’t responsible for all the essay reading, feedback, and evaluation?
- “Break apart large assignments into pieces that are due at various times.” “You might ask students to submit an outline of a research paper first and then an annotated bibliography.”
- Investigate whether your discipline or field has produced information about assignments and assessment strategies. Especially in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) area, a lot of thinking has gone into better teaching for better outcomes. See, for instance, http://flaguide.org/goals/goals.php.
- Use homework assignments for practice and then assess mastery by requiring students to apply the new knowledge to realistic tasks. (Fink, 2003, 88)
- Ask colleagues about assignments they have used that elicit the kind of learning you want to measure and that were interesting and challenging to students.
- Assign work so that students come to class with a first exposure to material and you do not have to use classroom time introducing material in a lecture format.
The Teaching Strategies sidebar gives some more useful hints about classroom time use, minimizing paper-grading time, and using student peer review for papers.
Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing Student Learning. A common sense guide, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Walvoord, B. & Anderson, V.J. (1998). Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment. Designing Assignments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.