Teaching your first course is probably the most exciting, rewarding, and at times, nerve-wracking of academic adventures. For the first time in your academic career, you are responsible for producing something, in this case, a learning environment and a course, that is not the result of your effort alone. The people who make classes successful are ultimately the students. You need them on your side if you want to maximize their learning (as well as your own).
There are a lot of things that you can do to get them on your side: choosing great learning materials, don’t overwhelm them, support them and so forth. The easiest way though to sabotage all this good work is to be unfair or unclear about how you assess student work.
Chances are you think you know how to assess students work. After all, as a T.A. you’ve likely marked dozens if not hundreds of papers based on the professor’s expectations. But this is only one small part of assessment, the last part in fact – evaluation or assessment of student learning. I prefer the latter term (as does the Ontario Government) for a very specific reason. Evaluation implies that you are simply sorting students into categories. The most famous, and misguided example of this thinking is those who worry about their class “fitting” the bell curve. The Bell curve describes the distribution of student achievement, it can shift along the X and Y axes. It should never be used to determine student marks, especially in small sample sizes (like say a class of 100 or less) as its about as arbitrary as throwing papers downstairs and giving A’s to the ones that go furthest. Evaluation based on fitting the curve isn’t actually evaluating the merits of students work, but simply sorting them into categories, and so poorly reflects their achievement in the course. Evaluation requires no learning objectives to be established. It offers students little in the way of advice on improvement. If you are evaluating, you aren’t teaching anymore, you are gate-keeping.
So what does assessment of student learning mean? It’s the final step in the whole process of assessment designed to see how well students have mastered the course content and what they have learned. It’s the mark on the final paper and comments about what students did well (or didn’t do so well). It helps us produce grades, but it doesn’t help as much when it comes to student learning. In order to get to assessment of learning, you first need to know your departure point, where you want to go and be able to help your students get there. This is why at universities and colleges you are now likely to hear all kinds of chatter about “low-stakes, high frequency” assessments. This is what they are talking about – giving your students meaningful and useful feedback early on to guide their growth and learning before you give them a mark.
This process begins with being explicit about the course expectations and the learning outcomes. You can’t just throw a bunch of readings or lectures together that form a narrative with two or three assignments and call it a day. You need to be clear about how the things you do in your class fit specific objectives. Do you want students to develop their oral communication skills, or focus more on writing? These questions should be answered before you decide on what kinds of assignments you are planning to give your students or how you are going to introduce the material. In order to put these plans into action though, you need to know where your students are at and how they can get to where they need to be. You need to assess them.
What this means is that you should ALWAYS be assessing your students. This doesn’t mean giving them marks every day. In fact, marks are probably the least valuable thing you can ever give your students to help them learn. Constant assessment means monitoring their progress in light of clear learning objectives and giving them regular feedback. Record how many times they speak for each class in a seminar, jot down general impressions on the quality of those comments for each class. If a student raises a hand in your lecture and asks a question or makes a comment, make note of their name. Ask students to reflect on their own study habits, class preparation habits and relationship with the course and communicate it to you. Also, take note when you notice an improvement.
So what do you do with all this information and data? You can use this for two kinds of assessment other than assessment for learning: assessment of learning and assessment as learning. The first of these assessment categories focus on when you use your information to figure out where a student is at and where they need to go. Assessment of learning is to help you plan your course and figure out the best way to approach the material and reach your learning objectives. This can take the form of asking students to explain what they know about a particular topic or why they took your course to see where it is they are coming from. It also means figuring out how familiar they are with primary research or essay writing. You might be tempted to complain that they should know those things already. You might be right, but if you don’t ask you aren’t going to help them overcome that knowledge deficit, you’ll just let the problem persist for someone else to eventually deal with. By assessing for learning you ensure that your assumptions are valid and it gives you a baseline from which to build your course objectives. Maybe you find out there is a big deficit in essay writing. Now you can devote maybe half a class to it to make sure your students know what is expected of them. Now maybe your students write better papers that you find less frustrating to read. Bad student work is as much a reflection of poor teaching as it is of poor learning.
Next is the assessment as learning. This is about assessing your students in order to help them reach learning goals. This can take the form of students reflecting on their own work, or comments on from peers and instructors that explains how the student plans to operationalize feedback into improved outcomes. It can mean having students engage in self-assessment on their participation. It’s about having the student think about how what they are doing is affecting their learning. This can be extremely important for students and powerful in helping them reach their potential. Building multiple steps into your assignments with numerous chances for feedback can help you use assessment as learning.
Only after you do these two other forms of assessment should you even begin to start thinking about assessment of learning. By the time you get to marking you should have a lot of information on your students, understand well how they learn and what motivates them. You should know exactly how the final paper or the presentation show the students ability to master the course learning objectives. Ideally, the mark will reflect more closely the student’s achievement rather than the institutional compulsion to sort: something your students will appreciate and reward with increased engagement and take away from your course.