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Assessing student learning

Assessment is a word that almost no one loves. It’s often associated with prescriptive testing regimes and a heavy-handed culture of accountability. But assessment is actually central to the entire educational mission because, without it, we can’t say with any degree of confidence that learning has occurred. Ultimately, the goal of assessment transcends simply determining whether learning has happened. Effective assessment aims to collect and analyze information in the service of improving teaching and learning. Effective assessments provide instructors feedback they can use to improve their own teaching practice.

High-stakes vs. low-stakes assessment

Since so many of us were trained in environments defined by high-stakes tests, such as doctoral qualifying exams, we often associate the word assessment with test. Yet a wealth of research indicates that high-stakes testing often:

  • Reduces learners’ motivation to learn
  • Convinces learners that intelligence is innate and fixed
  • Narrows curricula (as educators resort to “teaching to the test”)
  • Makes academic malfeasance (among learners and instructors) more attractive
  • Reduces time for learners and instructors to adapt or improve

The value of low-stakes formative assessment

High-stakes assessments are often summative in nature (meaning they occur at the end of a unit or course) and can significantly impact a learner’s final grade. Low-/no-stakes assessments, on the other hand, are designed to have little negative impact on a learner’s grades. Often, low-/no-stakes assessments are formative in nature, meaning they are designed to help the learner or the instructor identify gaps in the learner’s knowledge and start the process of addressing those gaps. Low-/no-stakes assessments generally:

  • Make learning more active
  • Boost confidence (which positively influences learning and academic persistence)
  • Foster inclusiveness
  • Increase feelings of belonging/reduce isolation
  • Help learners who suffer from test anxiety

Frequent low- or no-stakes activities give learners multiple opportunities to demonstrate knowledge, reflect on and leverage their own experiences, and engage with others, practices that align nicely with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Designing assessments

Assessment practices vary widely across disciplines, course levels, departments, institutions, and instructors. However, there are several strategies that can contribute to assessment success. Here are a few:

Create and communicate clear assessment criteria

Let students know what you’ll be looking for in their work. Rubrics can be a terrific way to help students understand what excellence means to you. A clear grading policy also lets students understand what point values or percentages mean. Most students use assessment criteria to determine what they should concentrate on in a course. Making your criteria clear can focus students’ attention on what you consider most important. If you are a TA, work with your supervising instructor and TA colleagues to make sure you understand the assessment criteria.

Provide constructive feedback

Let students know what they are doing well and what they might do to improve their performance. There are lots of ways to provide feedback, including through the Canvas gradebook, well-crafted rubric criteria, or even through one-on-one meetings.

Use Canvas to facilitate assessment

The Canvas learning management system is a wonderful tool for creating formative and summative assessments. The “Quizzes” function in Canvas allows instructors to create:

  • Conventional graded quizzes that reward points
  • Ungraded practice quizzes that allow students to test their own understanding as they move through course material.
  • Graded surveys that reward points for completing a questionnaire.
  • Ungraded surveys that gathers students’ opinions or other information.

Canvas Guides provide detailed instructions for how to use Canvas to create learning experiences. Check out all the resources they have for creating quizzes and exams.

Information for TAs

The role that TAs play in assessment may vary from department to department or even course to course. In addition to the strategies articulated above, the following guidance may help TAs meaningfully contribute to a course’s assessment processes:

  • Be consistent. If you are working with other TAs, talk with them about the assessment criteria. Consider co-grading a handful assignments to ensure that you are all interpreting the criteria consistently.
  • Identify who in your department is responsible for making decisions about grade changes. Consult with your supervising instructor or TA coordinator.
  • In cases of cheating or plagiarism, consult with your TA coordinator and/or supervising instructor. TAs do not have the authority to take formal disciplinary action (See University of Washington Student Conduct Code).

UW resources