Blog Post

Rethinking Assessment: Some Questions to Ask Yourself

Red Apple wrapped with Tape Measure, CC BY 2.0 Marco Verch

Originally posted on CUNY Humanities Alliance. Featured image CC BY 2.0 of Marco Verch.

This past semester in particular, I’ve received a lot of questions from graduate teaching fellows about restructuring their courses’ assessment structures (mostly to be more in line with their student-centered pedagogical methods). After all, it creates a bit of a hypocrisy when a teacher tauts to their students that the class is a self-guided journey of individual growth, while the teacher is assessing the quality of the students’ work against each other. There are many distinctions we can make in types of assessments: diagnostic vs. formative vs. summative, quality vs. completion, norm or curve-based vs. personal or iterative-based, etc. So, let’s walk through some questions to help you make decisions on what assessment structures will work best for your class. Note: I have some pretty strong opinions on the matter. If you’re looking for a more impartial guide, check out the Teach@CUNY Handbook 2.0, Chapter 4: Grading and Assessment

Before we begin, you need to have a good understanding of what you are trying to assess. Each course should ideally start with learning goals: What do you want students to learn by the end of the class? Content? Skills? To avoid your pet peeves? To become better humanists? To become more engaged citizens? To personally connect with the course content? Some of these are straightforward department requirements, but others are less tangible. If I want students to personally connect to one of the social movements we’re covering in class, that’s a very different goal than wanting students to understand the historical impact of those social movements. And, I would assess those goals very differently. Before we can begin, whatever your goals are as an instructor, you need to list them out – all of them, the practical and the personal. Then, as we go through the questions below, consider how you’ll know whether you’ve achieved those goals.

You also need to know what restraints you’re working within. Does your department require four papers for this class or two exams that are department-written? Do you have to stick to a grading curve? Is there content or skills that students will need to know for future courses? With everything in life, you have to know what you can change and what you can’t. List these basic requirements out as well, and consider how you might be able to use them or adapt them so that they fit your learning goals and assessment needs. 

With these two lists, we’re ready to begin: 

1) Are you assessing quality or completion? 

When we talk about assessment, many people presume that we’re discussing evaluating the quality of someone’s work, and that quality is measured against the rest of the class or against a standard level of quality that the evaluator has come to expect (or that they believe future evaluators/teachers will expect). I know some of you are wondering: How otherwise would you evaluate an essay? You think it’s good enough that they turn in 4 pages riddled with spelling mistakes, missing a thesis statement, and only tangential arguments? 

I believe that most of traditional paper grading is done at least partially based on completion. If a paper is turned in, on time, at full length, no matter how abhorrent the work is, we don’t usually grade something below 50%. I would argue that that first 50% is a completion grade. They did the work; they tried. So, we give them something. What if more parts of the paper writing process were this way?

What if one in-class activity was to write a thesis statement, and completing that activity was worth 10%. Then, another take-home activity was creating topic statements under that thesis, and that was another 10%. And, on from there! You would literally scaffold out writing a paper that they could all get 100% on, unless, of course, they didn’t do the work. If they received feedback – from you or from their classmates – on each piece of this process, the quality of the papers would probably dramatically improve too (and without you even grading or assessing for that). 

All I’m suggesting here is that, for a moment, you strip away the assumption that all grades (at least for papers and exams) must be based on the quality of the work, and be honest with yourself about the ways you’re already grading for completion. Consider being transparent with your students about those distinctions, and making those different markings. If 50% of a paper is really just completion, then maybe that should be reflected in your grading rubric?   

2) If you’re assessing quality, are you evaluating their individual improvement or evaluating a person’s ability compared to everyone else in the class? 

Hopefully, by now, we all have heard that people with a growth mindset learn far more over time than those with a fixed mindset. If you haven’t heard this before, Carol Dweck did some fantastic research showing that students who believed their abilities were fixed – that they had innate abilities and inabilities – were not as motivated to work hard and learn more over time. That finding held no matter how good the students’ baseline abilities were – the top of the class, or the bottom. Whereas, those with a growth mindset, who believed that they could learn new skills and information by working hard and applying themselves, were able to learn much more than their fixed mindset peers over time. 

If that’s true, how can we encourage students to have a growth mindset, and continue to evaluate them based on their ability compared to everyone else? How can we expect that doing so will help them in any way? Shouldn’t we be comparing their ability to their own individual past abilities? 

Sure, I could see it being helpful to tell students they are not yet at an aptitude that they need to be in order to do something else they would like to do. For instance, if you have a student who would like to pursue Psychology as a major, and is having a difficult time understanding Freud’s theories or articulating them in your Psych 101 course, it’s helpful to tell them that working towards that understanding will help them pursue their future goals. But, it’s not really necessary to integrate that into your grading or assessment structure. That’s a choice you get to make. 

Now, some departments require grading curves. The extreme example of this happens in law schools, where there are automatic and enforced grading curves. I remember being a first year in law school, sitting in a class of 100 people, and understanding that before we’d even cracked our books open, 1 person would fail, only 2 people would get a 97%, and then 4 people would 93%, and on down the scale. If the entire class was miserable, 2 people would still get 97%. If the entire class was amazing, 1 person would still fail. Most of our grade, about 80% of it in each class, came from one three-hour written exam at the end of the course. And, we would be hired by law firms based on our class standing, based on the cumulation of these final grades. Yup, that’s stressful, and maaaaybe motivating? But, does being able to write really well under pressure mean that someone retained the information better? That they’ll make a better lawyer? Or conversely, do we think that applying those grading curves will make someone be able to write better under pressure? 

I know it’s a bit of an absurd example, but most of us – whether we think of it this way or not – grade on a curve of some sort. Maybe your grading curve is generous, and you only give grades above a 75. Maybe you’re stricter and never give someone higher than a 95. My question is why? Why can’t you give everyone an A? Why can’t everyone succeed if they do the work and improve their own skills during your class? Does your department require a grading curve? Do you even know? Or do you just assume that it’s a requirement, or that we should grade on a curve? 

Is there a way that you can, instead, base the grade on how much each individual learns or improves over the course of the semester? Is there a way to integrate iteration, review, reflection, and improvement into your assessment structure? 

3) If you’re grading for completion, are you expecting perfection to happen spontaneously, or are you scaffolding the assignment to help structure completion? 

None of us sat down one day and decided to write an essay, or a research paper, or a novel, or a song, or a poem. We all painstakingly learned how each one of those things is formed – the slow, grueling process that makes the words make sense on a page. Truly, our process, as humans, of learning to convey meaning to other humans began before we were born. But, we forget that. It’s not useful to us to remember how we learned something; it’s more important to retain what we learned. 

Each assignment can be broken down into smaller components that you are looking for when you assess it. If you make smaller, even low-stakes assignments that allow students to try each of these components out and get feedback on them, you’ll be showing them one process of putting the completed assignment. 

When I mention providing feedback, most teachers balk that they don’t have time to give everyone feedback on every step of their writing or assignments. But, I never said you have to give the feedback. Teachers often forget that there are 20+ other teachers in the room, and often students are more likely to be honest with each other, and more reflexive to each others’ critical feedback. Are there ways that you can build in completion-based assessments for pieces of a larger assignment, and even completion-based assessments for their peer-review of each others’ work? 

4) Are you using evaluation tools to help students learn (formative), or to understand what they have already learned (summative)?

When we think of multiple choice exams – well, half of us will probably immediately have a stress-anxiety reaction, but – we all think of tricky, end-of-semester or end-of-chapter multiple choice exams meant to evaluate how much we’ve actually taken in of the text we’ve read. 

What if multiple choice exams were given to a group of students, to discuss and analyze, before deciding as a group what their answers were? What if multiple choice exams were given in the form of a class jeopardy session? What if they were given as book or library or internet scavenger-hunting assignments? 

These aren’t just activities to make learning a little more fun (though, I think they do). These are ways to use multiple choice exams as learning tools, rather than as assessment tools. Now, this may get me in trouble with some department chairs and administrators, but if your department requires you to give a multiple choice exam, is there any restriction on giving it twice? Once, using the questions in a fun, interactive, social way as a learning tool to make sure everyone in the classroom is actually learning all the things the department wants them to know, and then another time for the actual individual proctoring of the exam? Just think about it…. 

5) In order to understand if the students learned something in your class, do you need to know what they know when they begin the class? 

Social scientists would probably say ‘yes.’ For example, say it’s really important that all of your students leave your class knowing how to do a close analysis of text. What if 60% of your students already know how to do that? Would that change the way you structure your class so that the 60% wouldn’t be bored (or could even help) the 40% learn that skill? Yeah, it’s hard to build a syllabus with that flexibility in it, but it’s not hard to alter your daily lesson plans according to the expertise in the room. 

Are there ways you can use your first few assignments as completion-based assessments – with feedback –  to understand where your students are in their learning before the course gets too far ahead of itself? Are there ways you can solicit your students to volunteer if they’ve done something similar to the task at hand? If you’re trying to get them to write poetry, do you have any songwriters or Shakespearean actors or haiku fanatics in your class? Are you creating space so that you can find out that the quiet student in the back of the class has published a collection of poetry in Russian before coming to the US? 

I’ll leave you with a short story that I hope will inspire you to rethink the way you grade and the feedback you give to students: 

After I completed graduate school, I was helping a loved one start community college. I will never forget his first college essay: a two-page, opinion-based essay with a five-paragraph structure. It was something I could have done in 45 minutes by the time I was a junior in high school. But, he’d never been to school past 6th grade. He had been an avid fiction reader most of his life, but he’d never heard of a five-paragraph structure, or a thesis statement for that matter. He spent an entire weekend – Friday night, all day Saturday, Saturday night, and all day Sunday – writing, and rewriting, and reviewing, and rewriting that darn essay. I was aghast (and slightly annoyed, if I’m being honest) at how much time this took him! That whole weekend, every few hours, he’d come to me with more questions and things to review. Luckily, he didn’t have a job to run off to or family to attend to. He had the luxury of sitting at his desk, rewriting for an entire weekend. 

After all that work, I was confident he would receive an A on the paper, or at least some good feedback from the professor. But, when he got back his paper a week later, his paper had a large red B+ at the top, a few red check marks in the margins, and the word “Nice” at the end. He was destroyed. It took me another week just to convince him that learning was a process, that a B+ was a good place to start from, and that he would get better with even more work. 

That English 101 professor didn’t know him, didn’t know he had spent a whole weekend working on that paper, didn’t know he’d rewritten it 10 times, didn’t know that he was completely unfamiliar with thesis statements when the assignment was given, and didn’t know how their cursory B+ and red marks – given without thought or additional comment – could so negatively impact a new student. He was one of a hundred students with mediocre writing ability that the professor had to grade every week. 

If you haven’t gleaned this yet, I think assessments should be based on completion, should allow students to iterate and learn and grow, that the assessment itself can serve as a learning tool, and you might want to start your class by figuring out what your students already know before you decide what they need to learn. You may disagree completely, and that’s fine. But, the questions themselves can help you decide how to structure your course assessments.

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