Planning for Assessment

Planning for Assessment

Assessment is an ongoing process for ascertaining, understanding, and improving student learning. Assessment is made up of the individual components distributed throughout your course–like assignments, quizzes, exams, and papers–and the ways in which those components are evaluated. While grading can be one component of assessment, grading is not the same thing as assessment, and the two are sometimes viewed as at odds with one another. 

Assessment plans are designed to organize these elements into a cohesive whole. Developing an assessment plan is an integral part of course design to help ensure that the decisions you make about assessing student learning are purposeful, and the assessments in your course are useful tools for learning.

When developing an assessment plan, it is important to:

Communicate Expectations: Define and articulate what constitutes  high and low quality work in your course or on a particular assignment. Being explicit in advance helps to ensure that your assessments are purposeful and clear, and gives students the best chance of meeting your expectations. Assignment descriptions and rubrics are two ways to define and articulate your expectations. This resource explains rubrics in more detail, and this resource explores some of the advantages and limitations of using rubrics for grading purposes.

Align Assessment With Outcomes: To quote Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center, “Assessments should reveal how well students have learned what we want them to learn, while instruction ensures that they learn it. For this to occur, assessments, learning objectives, and instructional strategies need to be closely aligned so that they reinforce one another.” The kind of assessment you choose should depend on what kind of task will reveal whether students have achieved the learning outcome(s) that you have identified.

Provide Early and Frequent Opportunities: Early and regular opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning throughout the term enable both you and your students to monitor progress toward learning objectives. Pace assessments throughout the term to clarify where students are struggling and identify misconceptions so you can adjust accordingly.

Use Multiple Formats: Use a variety of formative and summative assessments throughout your course. Formative assessments occur during the learning process to identify misconceptions and gaps along the way. Formative assessments provide cues to students and teachers about how to adjust in real time. Summative assessments occur at the end of the learning process to summarize students’ learning. Summative assessments can be used for accountability to specific learning outcomes.

Provide Options: Providing a variety of options and building student choice into assessments helps to ensure that all learners can act on new information and demonstrate what they know, regardless of ability, motivation, and learning differences. Draw on principles of Universal Design to allow for multiple means of engagement, action or expression, and representation in your assessments.

Balance Low-Stakes and High-Stakes: Low-stakes assessments are often informal opportunities for students to check their understanding, practice using new material, and adjust without the pressure of a grade or formal evaluation. These might include discussions, practice quizzes and exams, and early drafts, among other assessments. High-stakes assessments are often formal, graded assessments that impact a student’s academic standing in the course. These might include midterm and final exams, term papers, and significant projects, among others.

Consider Traditional and Authentic: Traditional assessments are often contrived exercises, focus on recall and recognition, are structured by the teacher, and provide indirect evidence of student understanding. Authentic assessments involve a real-life situation. They require students to perform a task that involves constructing and/or applying their knowledge and skills, thus providing direct evidence of learning. Often authentic assessments are structured by the student, and frequently are problem-based. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of traditional and authentic assessments and choose what is appropriate for your learning outcomes.

Acknowledge Subjectivity: With no standard approach to grading and a wide range of influencing factors, subjectivity is inevitably a component of assessing student performance. While some disciplines and some assessments lend themselves more easily to “right” and “wrong” answers, many are more qualitative and less definitive in nature. Taking steps to articulate your expectations in advance, set standards for high and low quality work, and apply these standards consistently can help minimize the influence of subjectivity in your assessment of student learning. Rubrics can be helpful in this regard.

Minimize Bias: Knowledge of students' previous performance, personal identities, and other attributes can introduce personal bias into the assessment process. Consider implementing an anonymous grading policy by eliminating identifying information from assignments prior to evaluating them. Construct relevance–or the idea that learners will perform better on assessments if they have seen them in both form and content before–can be another source of bias in assessing student learning. Consider exposing students to both the types of assessments and the related content in a low-stakes situation to prepare them before higher-stakes assessments. 

Share Your Rationale: Sharing the purpose of  each assignment and how each contributes toward reaching a specific learning outcome can help students understand their learning experience more cohesively. Making these connections explicit can support students’ metacognition in a given learning experience, and thereby support their learning.

Give Useful Feedback: Design your assessments to create opportunities to provide useful feedback to students. Useful feedback is focused on things that students can control, is given at a time when it can be applied to improve future performance, and is aligned with specific learning outcomes and/or established criteria. Read more from Brown University’s Sheridan Center.

Turn Assessment Into Grades: Connect your assignment descriptions, rubrics, and other assessment tools to appropriate letter or number grades. Refer to Dartmouth’s Grade Descriptions, and provide students with information and examples of what constitutes A-level work, B-level work, and so on for a given assignment or course. Be specific about which elements of an assignment or course will be formally graded, what grading scale or scales will be used, if you will grade on a curve, if you will give partial or only full credit, and if you will apply a penalty for late work.