Shifting the Design of Your Assessments

Maha Bali and Azzah Awwad

By Azzah Awwad and Maha Bali of the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching

This patch originally appeared as two articles in February 2017 in Al-Fanar Media: News and Opinion about Higher Education. Here is a link to Part One and a link to Part Two.

Designing Assessments that Promote Learning 

Part 1: Intrinsic Motivation

The only real way to promote deep learning is to motivate students intrinsically.

Last semester, we gave a workshop to faculty members at the American University in Cairo entitled “Are My Assessments Really Promoting Learning?” The goal of the workshop was to encourage those faculty members to question the purpose of assessment, and to explore ways of modifying existing assessments in ways that would enhance student learning. Here we are talking about classroom assessments that are usually within the remit of the individual faculty member, things like assignments, quizzes, projects, exams, presentations, or whatever else you use in your classes to assess student learning (graded or ungraded). Our workshop was partly inspired by an article by Kris Shaffer and this particular quote: “No system of academic assessment is intrinsically good, only good for a purpose. That purpose must be established first.”

Before making suggestions, we recognized that students at our institution (as with other institutions) tend to be grade-oriented, and that institutions often perpetuate this attitude. We recognized, also, that Arab students in particular often enter university after years of high school exposure to assessments that are designed to measure memorization or, at best, measure learning rather than promote it; systems that promote competition, where assessment is intended to differentiate between good and poor students, rather than help all students learn. Even Arab students who are exposed to international systems of education will probably have experienced standardized testing, for example, which assumes benchmarks across diverse students, so much of what we say here applies internationally. Students who are less exposed to what we propose here may resist at first, simply because it is unfamiliar, but it is our experience that, overall, students will embrace and appreciate these modifications to the way assessments are conducted.

We hoped that our workshop would encourage faculty members to rethink their own agency within these constraints, and find ways to redesign their assessments with student learning in mind. Even though what we propose below is a set of practical approaches that can be used, one faculty member recognized during the workshop that it was more of a “shift in mindset” that we were trying to achieve, and that once you as a teacher make that shift, imagining new forms of assessment will follow naturally. In practice, readers may find it easier to take small steps, or they may be willing to go further—let us know what you’re thinking, and how it goes if you try it, in the comments below.

We can all, at least, agree with this sentiment from Starr Sackstein (a teacher at Long Island City High School and author of “Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School”): “Any good test will not ask for rote memorization. Life isn’t a test with predetermined questions and answers; we need to teach [students] to attack and solve problems using their knowledge and skills.”

So if you want to focus your assessments on promoting learning, here are some of our suggestions.

Focus on intrinsic motivation

Even though we know that our institutions are often grade-oriented and that our students come from educational systems that make them focused on extrinsic rewards like grades, the only real way to promote deep learning is to motivate students intrinsically. How would you ensure that students are learning for the sake of learning itself and not for some external reward? Here are some ways:

  • Give students choices. Ask yourself what are the key things all students need to learn, and what are the areas where I can give them choice. For example, if you’re not teaching a course whose core learning outcome is writing, you may give students choices to present their work in other forms like video. In contrast, if your core learning outcomes are writing or reading, but not tied to particular content, consider letting students choose their own topics for their reading or writing. Even though this may seem like it is unfair to students, think about how one student may generally be more skilled in writing than others, and how you are privileging that student if all of your assessments involve writing; also consider how some students can probably read and write well on topics they care deeply about, but not practice those skills on topics they do not care about.

Sackstein wrote: “…There is seldom only one right way to do anything. We need to provide opportunities for creativity while students synthesize learning, encouraging them to do things in a way that is intuitive. All learning is subjective, and when we only offer one chance or route for learning, we greatly limit the possibility that every student will achieve mastery.”

  • Make learning relevant. One of the things we hear constantly when we conduct in-class assessments of courses is that students seek to find relevance between their courses and their daily lives. Occasionally, the instructor can make those ties explicit, such as by making parallels between historical and current events, or by making analogies that students can understand more easily. This is easier for some courses than others. Another way of doing it is to encourage students themselves to actively seek those connections and bring them back to the class to share with their colleagues. When possible, consider allowing students to focus their projects on authentic, real-life topics and problems they personally care about.
  • Nurture student agency and empowerment. Consider giving your students more control over their learning. Give them more control over what they do, how they do it, whom they work with, and let them know they will then be responsible for managing that. Invite your teaching and learning center to get feedback from your students that would give you insight into how to improve your teaching to better promote student learning, and respond to their feedback when you can. “The more we include students in the process of creating learning experiences, the better the outcomes will be,” said Sackstein.

Next we will share more ideas from our workshop, focusing on how to use feedback to promote learning, how to use assessment as an opportunity for growth, and how our attitude towards failure can enhance learning.

Part 2: Feedback

To promote learning, assessments should provide opportunities for students to grow

Providing useful, actionable feedback; keeping in mind differences in students’ pace and style of learning; and transforming setbacks into opportunities for growth are three key ways that teachers can empower students and promote real learning.

According to Stephen Brookfield, a teaching expert at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota,  there are several attributes that characterize helpful feedback to students: clear communication of criteria, immediacy, regularity, accessibility, affirmation, future-orientedness, justifiability and usefulness to students’ development.

Helpful Feedback

  • You can communicate criteria clearly by using a rubric that is shared with students early on, preferably when you first assign the assessment activity. This will likely help students direct and align their efforts with the assessment’s intended learning outcomes. Brookfield reminds us that rubrics can be useful as long as they do “not become reified and unchallengeable” and are instead focused on helping students understand your expectations and address them.
  • Rubrics also serve as useful feedback vehicles as students become aware of specific areas they need to improve upon and how they can go about that. If you’re willing to try a more inclusive approach, you can try involving students in creating the rubric. That can promote student growth and empowerment as their participation enhances their ownership of the learning experience as well as their understanding of task requirements. It can also develop a lifelong learning skill of becoming more aware of how a particular activity connects with its goals.
  • Provide timely and regular feedback. Doing so offers scaffolding and skill development opportunities for students as they incorporate the instructor’s feedback in future course requirements.
  • Make feedback accessible to students, both in terms of language (avoid words and sentences that are vague or difficult to understand) and by being accessible yourself as the instructor whenever possible to discuss the feedback with students, to hear their viewpoints and to clarify points of confusion.
  • Give affirming feedback, where you highlight what the student has done well. This can be a powerful means of building student confidence and engagement, and can directly reinforce good performance. Maha remembers a time when she gave students feedback on how to improve upon a project without also emphasizing what the students were doing well. The next draft of their project had lost some of its strengths! We don’t want students to lose track of what they are already doing well.
  • Self-assess or peer-assess. Peer assessment can be done in pairs or in large groups, anonymously or not, and often requires you to structure the process and the assessment criteria for students (again, you can develop these collaboratively with the students) and to discuss how to offer constructive feedback to peers.
  • Whole-class feedback activities. In some contexts, whole-class feedback can be helpful. This can be done by showcasing samples of old or current students’ work, usually anonymously, and asking students to provide affirming as well as critical feedback according to a rubric.

Opportunities for Differentiated Growth

If the goal of assessments is to promote learning, then we need to provide opportunities for students to grow, keeping in mind individual differences in their starting points, goals, paces and approaches. Some strategies for this include:

  • Divide large tasks and projects into stages or phases in which students can receive regular feedback that informs their work on subsequent milestones.
  • Scaffold differentiated growth allowing each student to follow their own pace to account for different student preparedness, abilities and life circumstances.
  • Encourage reflection on the learning process at every stage. This may also help students figure out areas of strength and weakness, which can enable you to provide each student with individual and targeted feedback and support early on.

Attitudes Towards Failure

“It is essential that we develop a learning space where failure is positive, as it is a catalyst for growth and change. Students need to recognize that taking a risk and not succeeding does not mean they are failing: it means they need to try another way.”
– Starr Sackstein, Teacher, Long Island City High School, and author of “Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School”

In their professional and social lives, people will often make mistakes and even fail before they succeed. There is a lot of talk in academia these days about having and promoting positive attitudes toward failure, and viewing failure as a learning opportunity. Some strategies to use in assessment include:

  • Reduce impact of mistakes on the final grade. Offer many small low-stakes opportunities to develop a skill before it culminates in a larger assessment that will affect the student’s grade.
  • Grade process (improvement) not just product. This offers opportunities for students to show their thinking and ways of working on a project, and gives them a chance to talk about how they would have made the product better if they had had more time. The development of student skills and knowledge while working on your course is important especially when students come in at different levels in skills-based courses; whereas focusing just on the product privileges the students who are already well prepared and hides the process of learning and improvement for others. Executing good ideas does not always come easy for students in the end-of-semester rush, and it’s important to recognize whether students are aware of the shortcomings of their own work. That in itself is a useful skill to nurture.
  • Focus grades on what’s important. We need to constantly remind ourselves of what our learning goals are, to ensure we are not placing too much weight on secondary learning outcomes. For example, if we want our students to give a presentation and we care most about their oral communication and not on their multimedia skills, then students need to know they need to focus on how well they speak and not how flashy their presentation slides are. Putting more weight on what is most important will help students shift their priorities and be more willing to make mistakes safely in the less important areas.
  • Share your own stories. This is a tricky one, but sharing with students your own stories of learning from failure can help them see the value of such learning, and recognize you, the instructor, as vulnerable and fallible in your own right. If you aren’t comfortable doing this yourself, check out this podcast where several educators share their stories of failure.

Do you have other strategies or tips for making assessments more conducive to learning? Do you have concerns about the practicality of some of these ideas? Tell us in the comments section.

Maha Bali is associate professor of practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, where she also teaches educational game design. She is also the co-founder of VirtuallyConnecting.org. She blogs at http://blog.mahabali.me and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Prof Hacker blog. She tweets at @bali_maha.

Azzah Awwad is the manager of pedagogy and assessment at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching. She has been in the field of faculty development since 2006.

Featured image credit: “Shift” flickr photo by Slack pics https://flickr.com/photos/slackpics/4261060942 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

1st in body image credit: “Exam Week” flickr photo by euphoria https://flickr.com/photos/greenem/144585922 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

2nd in body image credit: “Exam” flickr photo by albertogp123 https://flickr.com/photos/albertogp123/5843577306 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license


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The Open Faculty Patchbook Copyright © 2017 by Maha Bali and Azzah Awwad is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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