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Creating assessments

Assessment is central to an evidence-based, reflective teaching practice. Without it, we can’t say with any degree of confidence that learning has occurred. But the goal of assessment transcends simply determining whether learning has happened – it helps instructors collect and analyze information that they can use to improve their teaching.

Formative and summative assessments

There are two basic types of assessment – formative and summative. Each provides instructors with different insight into students’ learning. An assessment strategy that includes both formative and summative assignments, tests, and quizzes is more likely to provide instructors with the information they need to help students progress toward the course learning goals.

Formative assessment

Formative assessment is a developmental approach to assessment. It helps students learn by identifying knowledge gaps. With that information students and instructors can start the process of addressing those gaps. Formative assessment should occur throughout a course and can take many different forms, including quizzes, entry/exit slips, one-minute papers, and concept maps.

Summative assessment

Summative assessment is an evaluative approach to assessment. It evaluates the student’s performance and knowledge at the end of a unit or course. Because they happen at the end of a unit, summative assessments are typically less valuable to students and of more use to instructors. They can provide the instructor with some indication of how well they have taught a concept or skill and whether or not students have met the course’s learning outcomes.

High-stakes vs. low-/no-stakes assessments

High-stakes assessment

High-stakes assessments are often summative in nature and can significantly impact a learner’s final grade. Examples of high-stakes assessments include final exams, term papers, standardized tests, and doctoral qualifying exams.

Many of us were trained in environments defined by high-stakes tests, so we might assume that high-stakes testing is a natural part of the college experience or a required part of college-level assessment. Yet a wealth of research indicates that high-stakes testing often:

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

Low-/no-stakes assessment

Low-/no-stakes assessments, on the other hand, are designed to have little negative impact on a student’s grades, as they are often formative in nature. Examples of low-stakes/no-stakes assessments include simple poll questions, 1-minute reflections, and journaling.

Low-/no-stakes assessments generally:

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

Frequent low-/no-stakes activities give students 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).

Authentic assessment

Authentic assessment can take any number of forms and is possible in any discipline. Assigning portfolios, project-based learning activities, or community engagement/service learning are just a few of the ways you can make your assessments more authentic. To begin brainstorming other potential ideas for authentic assessment, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What sorts of deliverables/artifacts do people in my field produce (e.g., policy briefs, strategic plans, financial forecasts, communication plans, data analyses, etc.)? What assessments can I develop that might mimic the work of people in professions associated with my field?
  • Beyond highly specialized skills, what other skills (e.g., collaboration, public speaking, visual analysis, etc.) are important for success in the professions associated with my field?
  • How might I scaffold learning activities so that my students have the skills and knowledge they need to successfully complete these assessments? This approach to creating assignments is known as backward design and is important when developing authentic assessments because work outside the university is usually complex and process-based. Rather than a single, “one-and-done” deliverable, a truly authentic assessment might be designed as a group of smaller assignments that scaffold to produce a larger deliverable.

The table below demonstrates how authentic assessments compared to traditional assessments.

Traditional Assessment Authentic Assessment
Mostly found only in educational settings Simulates activities done work situations outside the university
Focused on information recall and recognition Focused on construction and application of knowledge
Instructor focused: one-and-done approach designed for efficient grading Student structured: scaffolded, process-oriented approach with opportunities for self-assessment and metacognitive exploration
Provides indirect evidence of learning Provides direct evidence of learning

Communicating expectations and providing feedback

Regardless of what type of assessment you design, you will want to spend some time thinking about how you will communicate your expectations, what you want students to be able to demonstrate, and how you will provide feedback. These links can help you begin that process:

  • Rubrics are a great tool for helping you articulate assessment criteria and provide feedback to students.
  • UW-supported technology tools can play a key role in assessing student learning. Canvas quizzes can be particularly helpful for designing and administering formative and low-/no-stakes assessment.