Teaching & Learning Resource Center

Designing Assessments of Student Learning

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Nyseth Brehm head shot
Hollie Nyseth Brehm, ​​​​​Associate Professor,
Department of Sociology 

Professor Hollie Nyseth Brehm was a graduate student the first time she taught a class, “I didn’t have any training on how to teach, so I assigned a final paper and gave them instructions: ‘Turn it in at the end of course.’ That was sort of it.”

Brehm didn’t have a rubric or a process to check in with students along the way. Needless to say, the assignment didn’t lead to any major breakthroughs for her students. But it was a learning experience for Brehm. As she grew her teaching skills, she began to carefully craft assignments to align to course goals, make tasks realistic and meaningful, and break down large assignments into manageable steps.

"Now I always have rubrics. … I always scaffold the assignment such that they’ll start by giving me their paper topic and a couple of sources and then turn in a smaller portion of it, and we write it in pieces. And that leads to a much better learning experience for them—and also for me, frankly, when I turn to grade it .”

UX Tip

Reflect  

Have you ever planned a big assignment that didn’t turn out as you’d hoped? What did you learn, and how would you design that assignment differently now? 

What are students learning in your class? Are they meeting your learning outcomes? You simply cannot answer these questions without assessment of some kind.

As educators, we measure student learning through many means, including assignments, quizzes, and tests. These assessments can be formal or informal, graded or ungraded. But assessment is not simply about awarding points and assigning grades. Learning is a process, not a product, and that process takes place during activities such as recall and practice. Assessing skills in varied ways helps you adjust your teaching throughout your course to support student learning

Background

Instructor speaking to student on their laptop
Formative assessment allows you to observe students’ learning, monitor progress, and provide informal feedback on their work. 

Research tells us that assessments don’t only measure how much students have learned. They also play an important role in the learning process. A phenomenon known as the “testing effect” suggests students learn more from repeated testing than from repeated exposure to the material they are trying to learn (Karpicke & Roediger, 2008). While exposure to material, such as during lecture or study, helps students store new information, it’s crucial that students actively practice retrieving that information and putting it to use. Frequent assessment throughout a course provides students with the practice opportunities that are essential to learning.

In addition we can’t assume students can transfer what they have practiced in one context to a different context. Successful transfer of learning requires understanding of deep, structural features and patterns that novices to a subject are still developing (Barnett & Ceci, 2002; Bransford & Schwartz, 1999). If we want students to be able to apply their learning in a wide variety of contexts, they must practice what they’re learning in a wide variety of contexts.

Providing a variety of assessment types gives students multiple opportunities to practice and demonstrate learning. One way to categorize the range of assessment options is as formative or summative.

Formative and Summative Assessments

Opportunities not simply to practice, but to receive feedback on that practice, are crucial to learning (Ambrose et al., 2010). Formative assessments facilitate student learning by providing frequent low-stakes practice coupled with immediate and focused feedback. Whether graded or ungraded, formative assessments help you monitor student progress and guide students to understand which outcomes they’ve mastered, which they need to focus on, and what strategies can support their learning. Formative assessment also informs how you modify your teaching to better meet student needs throughout your course.

UX Tip

Technology Tip

Design quizzes in CarmenCanvas to provide immediate and useful feedback to students based on their answers. Learn more about setting up quizzes in Carmen. 

Summative assessments measure student learning by comparing it to a standard. Usually these types of assessments evaluate a range of skills or overall performance at the end of a unit, module, or course. Unlike formative assessments, they tend to focus more on product than process. These high-stakes experiences are typically graded and should be less frequent (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Formative assessment examples

Summative assessment examples

  • Weekly quizzes

  • Classroom polling or surveys

  • In-class group work

  • Games

  • Brief reflections or quick writes

  • Informal homework

  • Midterm or final exams

  • Other high-stakes tests

  • Papers, essays or reports

  • Final projects or presentations

  • Performances or demonstrations

  • Portfolios

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a common framework for thinking about how students can demonstrate their learning on any given assessment. It is frequently used for planning course and lesson outcomes as well.

The revised taxonomy from 2001 includes six categories of cognitive processes by which learners interact with knowledge. Students can remember content, understand ideas, apply information to new situations, analyze relationships between ideas, evaluate information to justify perspectives or decisions, and create new ideas or original work. Assessing students on a variety of these skills will give you a better sense of how well they understand your course content.

UX Tip

Digital Tools

Like many aspects of our 21st century lives, activities and assessments in today’s classroom are inextricably linked with technology. In 2008, Andrew Churches extended Bloom’s Taxonomy to address the emerging changes in learning behaviors and opportunities as “technology advances and becomes more ubiquitous.” Consult Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy for ideas on using digital tools to facilitate and assess learning across the six Bloom’s levels.

Bloom’s Taxonomy can be a helpful guide to predicting which tasks will be most difficult for students, enabling you to provide extra support when it’s most needed. Finally, you can use Bloom’s to craft more transparent assignments and test questions by homing in on the specific skills you want to assess and finding the language to clearly communicate what you want students to do. See the suggested verbs in the Examples section.

In Practice

Consider the following to make your assessments of student learning effective and meaningful.

Align assignments, quizzes, and tests closely to learning outcomes.

It goes without saying that you want students to achieve the learning outcomes for your course. The testing effect implies, then, that your assessments must help them retrieve the knowledge and practice the skills that are relevant to those outcomes.

Plan assessments that measure specific outcomes for your course. Instead of choosing quizzes and tests that are easy to grade or assignment types common to your discipline, carefully consider what assessments will best help students practice important skills. When assignments and feedback are aligned to learning outcomes, and you share this alignment with students, they have a greater appreciation for your course and develop more effective strategies for study and practice targeted at achieving those outcomes (Wang, et al., 2013).

Student working in a lab.
Engaging students with real-world problems, processes, and tools 
will prepare them for success in your field. 

Provide authentic  learning experiences.

Consider how far removed from “the real world” traditional assessments like academic essays, standard textbook problems, and multiple-choice exams feel to students. In contrast, assignments that are authentic resemble real-world tasks. They feel relevant and purposeful, which can increase student motivation and engagement (Fink, 2013). Authentic assignments also help you assess whether students will be able to transfer what they learn into realistic contexts beyond your course.

Integrate assessment opportunities that prepare students to be effective and successful once they graduate, whether as professionals, as global citizens, or in their personal lives.

To design authentic assignments:

  • Choose real-world content. If you want students to be able to apply disciplinary methods, frameworks, and terminology to solve real-world problems after your course, you must have them engage with real-world examples, procedures, and tools during your course. Include actual case studies, documents, data sets, and problems from your field in your assessments.

  • Target a real-world audience. Ask students to direct their work to a tangible reader, listener or viewer, rather than to you. For example, they could write a blog for their peers or create a presentation for a future employer.

  • Use real-world formats. Have students develop content in formats used in professional or real-life discourse. For example, instead of a conventional paper, students could write an email to a colleague or a letter to a government official, develop a project proposal or product pitch for a community-based company, post a how-to video on YouTube, or create an infographic to share on social media.

Simulations, role plays, case studies, portfolios, project-based learning, and service learning are all great avenues to bring authentic assessment into your course.

Make sure assignments are achievable.

Your students juggle coursework from several classes, so it’s important to be conscious of workload. Assign tasks they can realistically handle at a given point in the term. If it takes you three hours to do something, it will likely take your students six hours or more. Choose assignments that assess multiple learning outcomes from your course to keep your grading manageable and your feedback useful (Rayner et al., 2016).

Scaffold assignments so students can develop knowledge and skills over time.

For large assignments, use scaffolding to integrate multiple opportunities for feedback, reflection, and improvement. Scaffolding means breaking a complex assignment down into component parts or smaller progressive tasks over time. Practicing these smaller tasks individually before attempting to integrate them into a completed assignment supports student learning by reducing the amount of information they need to process at a given time (Salden et al., 2006).

Scaffolding ensures students will start earlier and spend more time on big assignments. And it provides you more opportunities to give feedback and guidance to support their ultimate success. Additionally, scaffolding can draw students’ attention to important steps in a process that are often overlooked, such as planning and revision, leading them to be more independent and thoughtful about future work.

A familiar example of scaffolding is a research paper. You might ask students to submit a topic or thesis in Week 3 of the semester, an annotated bibliography of sources in Week 6, a detailed outline in Week 9, a first draft on which they can get peer feedback in Week 11, and the final draft in the last week of the semester.

Your course journey is decided in part by how you sequence assignments. Consider where students are in their learning and place assignments at strategic points throughout the term. Scaffold across the course journey by explaining how each assignment builds upon the learning achieved in previous ones (Walvoord & Anderson, 2011).

Be transparent about assignment instructions and expectations.

Instructor giving directions to a class.
Discussing assignment prompts and rubrics in advance goes a long way to support student success. 

Communicate clearly to students about the purpose of each assignment, the process for completing the task, and the criteria you will use to evaluate it before they begin the work. Studies have shown that transparent assignments support students to meet learning goals and result in especially large increases in success and confidence for underserved students (Winkelmes et al., 2016).

To increase assignment transparency:

  • Explain how the assignment links to one or more course learning outcomes. Understanding why the assignment matters and how it supports their learning can increase student motivation and investment in the work.

  • Outline steps of the task in the assignment prompt. Clear directions help students structure their time and effort. This is also a chance to call out disciplinary standards with which students are not yet familiar or guide them to focus on steps of the process they often neglect, such as initial research.

  • Provide a rubric with straightforward evaluation criteria. Rubrics make transparent which parts of an assignment you care most about. Sharing clear criteria sets students up for success by giving them the tools to self-evaluate and revise their work before submitting it. Be sure to explain your rubric, and particularly to unpack new or vague terms; for example, language like "argue," “close reading,” "list significant findings," and "document" can mean different things in different disciplines. It is helpful to show exemplars and non-exemplars along with your rubric to highlight differences in unacceptable, acceptable, and exceptional work.

Engage students in reflection or discussion to increase assignment transparency. Have them consider how the assessed outcomes connect to their personal lives or future careers. In-class activities that ask them to grade sample assignments and discuss the criteria they used, compare exemplars and non-exemplars, engage in self- or peer-evaluation, or complete steps of the assignment when you are present to give feedback can all support student success.

UX Tip

Technology Tip  

Enter all assignments and due dates in your Carmen course to increase transparency. When assignments are entered in Carmen, they also populate to Calendar, Syllabus, and Grades areas so students can easily track their upcoming work. Carmen also allows you to develop rubrics for every assignment in your course. 

Examples

Sample Bloom’s Verbs

Consult this table for measurable verbs to use when identifying outcomes and planning assessments.

Summary

Include frequent low-stakes assignments and assessments throughout your course to provide the opportunities for practice and feedback that are essential to learning. Consider a variety of formative and summative assessment types so students can demonstrate learning in multiple ways. Use Bloom’s Taxonomy to determine—and communicate—the specific skills you want to assess.

Remember that effective assessments of student learning are:

  • Aligned to course learning outcomes
  • Authentic, or resembling real-world tasks
  • Achievable and realistic
  • Scaffolded so students can develop knowledge and skills over time
  • Transparent in purpose, tasks, and criteria for evaluation

References

  • Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., Lovett, M.C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons. 
  • Barnett, S.M., & Ceci, S.J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128(4). 612–637. doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.128.4.612 
  • Bransford, J.D, & Schwartz, D.L. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. Review of Research in Education, 24. 61–100. doi.org/10.3102/0091732X024001061 
  • Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons. 
  • Karpicke, J.D., & Roediger, H.L., III. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science319. 966–968. doi.org/10.1126/science.1152408 
  • Rayner, K., Schotter, E. R., Masson, M. E., Potter, M. C., & Treiman, R. (2016). So much to read, so little time: How do we read, and can speed reading help?. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(1), 4-34. doi.org/10.1177/1529100615623267    
  • Salden, R.J.C.M., Paas, F., van Merriënboer, J.J.G. (2006). A comparison of approaches to learning task selection in the training of complex cognitive skills. Computers in Human Behavior, 22(3). 321–333. doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2004.06.003 
  • Walvoord, B. E., & Anderson, V. J. (2010). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in college. John Wiley & Sons. 
  • Wang, X., Su, Y., Cheung, S., Wong, E., & Kwong, T. (2013). An exploration of Biggs’ constructive alignment in course design and its impact on students’ learning approaches. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38(4). 477–491. doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2004.06.003 
  • Winkelmes, M., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K.H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2). 31–36. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2016/winter-spring/Winkelmes