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Assessment: Focused, Simple, Aligned Ideas

20 Fair, Clear and Simple IDeas for Assessing Learning

Twenty pedagogically-sound ideas for the assessment of student learning in both online (asynchronous, synchronous and blended) and face-to-face classes with the intent to foster a more flexible, accessible, inclusive and supportive learning environment for all students. Choose one or two and learn more.


Assessment Idea 1 Aim for 3-5 Formal Assessments with No One Item Worth More than 40%
Aim for 3-5 formal assessments with no one assessment worth more than 40% (as per North Island College Policy 3-33) unless you have a program with external adjudication or regulatory requirements that indicates otherwise. In most courses, 3-5 well-designed and aligned assessments are often sufficient for students to appropriately demonstrate core learning outcomes. Include many informal assessments to help provide feedback to students and give you a broader picture of student learning. A larger number of assessments doesn’t mean you have more data to determine a grade. Too many assessments can create increased student stress/anxiety and most likely will not give students the best experiences to demonstrate their learning. Too many assessments causes more work for instructors to mark and manage.
•  Online Assessment in Higher Education Guide (University of Calgary)
Assessment Idea 2 Link All Formal Assessments to Learning Outcomes
Ensure all formal assessments are directly linked to course learning outcomes. Note: Not all learning outcomes require a formal assessment. Once you have linked the outcomes to your assessments, consider the instructional activities for your course. This is called constructive alignment of a course. Students should see a direct linkage from the learning outcome to the course activities and the formal assessments. Consider listing your learning outcomes on your assignment instructions and marking tools.
•  Design & Teach a Course – Align Assessments with Objectives (Carnegie Mellon University)
•  Assessment – Following Through on Learning Outcomes (University of Toronto)
•  Using Biggs’ Model of Constructive Alignment in Curriculum Design (University College Dublin)
Assessment Idea 3 Provide Clear Criteria for Demonstrating Learning
Ensure students are 100% clear on what is expected of them. If possible, provide an example or two so students know what to do. Consider making a video describing the assessment, the criteria, and the expectations. Students with all abilities will be able to download the video, stop it at any point, take notes, replay the video, and have your words to refer to when they are doing the assessment.
•  Clear Criteria: A Good Way to Improve Participation (Faculty Focus Article)
•  Making Assessment Criteria Clear to Students (Queen’s University)
Assessment Idea 4 Offer Choice in Format, Within and Between Assessments
Consider giving students choice around the media formats for demonstrating learning (e.g., computer vs. paper, in-class exam vs. take home, presenting on video or live), choice within an assessment (e.g., 3 out of 4 essay questions, 10 out of 15 math questions) or choice between assessments (e.g., writing a paper, or doing an oral presentation, or creating a video, or building a concept map, or teaching classmates). Choice builds engagement in the learning experience. Choice is a core principle of Universal Design for Learning.
•  Student Choice in Assessment (University of Calgary)
•  UDL and Assessment (Center for Applied and Special Technology – CAST)
Assessment Idea 5 Consider Non-Disposable Assignments and Authentic Assessments
Non-disposable assignments are activities that add value to the local or global communities, professions, or disciplines. They are assignments rooted in current and relevant issues, topics, or challenges. They are assignments not likely to be tossed out after a course is complete. Students appreciate non-disposable assignments because they are more engaging and fun to do. These types of assignments are often publicly shared (e.g., a website, blog post, publication etc.) Also consider assessments that are authentic – meaning they are focused on messy, complex real-world situations.
•  Non-Disposable Assignments (NIC Curated Resources)
•  Authentic Assessment (Indiana University)
Assessment Idea 6 Aim for Simplicity with Single Point Rubrics
Keep your marking tools, especially rubrics, simple and easy to use. Single point rubrics are one example of uncomplicating assessment. A single point rubric is a collection of statements about what is expected written in the middle of a 3-column chart. A blank column to the right is for comments about work exceeding learning expectations. A blank column to the left for work not yet meeting the learning expectations. Single point rubrics focus on what is expected and give space for instructor comments and student self-reflections.
•  Single-Point Rubric (Cambrian College)
•  6 Reasons to Try a Single-Point Rubric (Edutopia)
Assessment Idea 7 Assign Learning Wrappers for Improved Metacognition in Quizzes, Tests and Assignments
Ask students to assess themselves before handing in their assignments or after doing a test – by answering a specific set of questions about how they undertook the assignment, what went well, what they learned etc. This is called a learning wrapper and it can be used for an assignment, lesson, or exam. Give students marks for completing the learning wrapper. Learning wrappers build metacognition and self-regulated learning in students by forcing them to think about not just the outcome but the process of learning.
•  Cognitive Wrappers (Blog Post – Teaching Naked and Word handout)
•  Exam Wrappers (Carnegie Mellon University)
•  Assignment Wrapper Template – Full (Word Doc) and Assignment Wrapper Template – Short (Word Doc)
Assessment Idea 8 Use a Professionalism Rubric to Capture Student Preparedness and Engagement
A professionalism (or academic behaviour) rubric outlines a collection of actions and activities of an academically honest and engaged student. It is like a checklist with descriptive phrases. Build with students. Discuss as a class. 1/3 through course have students self-reflect on the components. 2/3 through course have them self-reflect again on their first comments and provide updated thoughts. Near end of course have students review previous two reflections and assign themselves a grade or level or some final assessment about their work throughout the term in being prepared and engaged in the learning. Instructor reviews and gives a final mark or assessment.
•  Professional Assessment Rubric (Northern Arizona University)
•  Professionalism & Social Consciousness Rubric (Pueblo Community College)
Assessment Idea 9 Provide Frequent but Balanced Amount of Low Stakes Assessments
Assessment is best when there are many opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning and receive immediate feedback. This could be a short quiz, a written paragraph, a post in a discussion forum, an outline for a project, a 2-minute video summary – with both self-reflective feedback, along with peer or teacher feedback. These assessments do not have to be for marks or if they are for marks, they are low-stakes values (5%, 10% etc.) Consider a balance of low stakes assessments to formal assessments along with course workload – aim for a good combination for optimal student learning.
•  Frequent, Low-Stakes Grading: Assessment for Communication, Confidence (Faculty Focus Article)
•  Concrete Strategies for Frequent, Low-Stakes Assessments/Practice (Carnegie Mellon University)
•  Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) (Vanderbilt University)
Assessment Idea 10 Avoid Grading Discussion Posts with Complex Rubrics
Counting the number of posts or the number of replies to a post will drive you nuts when trying to assess – and is not a true indication of learning. This is an outdated practice. How about having students self-assess their contributions and provide a summary of what they learned from an online discussion? Asking students to contribute to discussions every week is not always good learning and results in overload and stress. Try doing discussions every other week or only 4-5X throughout a course.
•  Strategies for Managing Online Discussions (Faculty Focus Article)
•  Discussion Boards: Valuable? Overused? Discuss. (Inside Higher Education Article)
Assessment Idea 11 Provide Options for Online Group Presentations
Think about how you manage group presentations in the online format. Students frequently rate the experience as less than ideal and live class times might be better used. Construct a worthy project for online groups and ensure presentations have a component of digital engagement or peer assessment. Maybe have students summarize their learning via a short video, share the link and submit a self-reflective summary instead of live presentations.
•  Managing Student Presentations When Teaching Remotely (University of Calgary)
•  Online Student Presentations (Duke University)
Assessment Idea 12 Group Assignments May Need Better Planning
Most students do not like group assignments mostly because they are not with the skills and abilities to manage group work or they have had poor experiences in the past. They especially dislike group assignments in the online learning environment. They are hard to schedule and find time for all group members to work together. If you want to have a group assignment, create one that has both individual accountability pieces worth 70-80% of the mark and a small (10% or so) mark for something truly collaborative they only do as a group. Provide space and suggestions for coming together to work effectively in a digital format.
•  Online Students Don’t Have to Work Solo (Inside Higher Education Article)
•  Tips for Participating in Group Work & Projects Online (Drexel University)
Assessment Idea 13 Provide Flexibility in Scheduling Asynchronous Online Quizzes
Asynchronous classes need flexibility in test and quiz scheduling. Pre-scheduled and limited-time quizzes create more stress and anxiety for students and do not align with the intent of the format. Give students a day or two or three to take the quiz so they can work around their schedules. Once they start the quiz you can constrain the time.
•  Asynchronous or Synchronous – Academic Integrity Considerations (Emory College)
Assessment Idea 14 Reduce Cheating on Online Exams and Tests
Cheating often happens when questions or components of an assignment are easily “Googled” or found on websites like Course Hero or Chegg. Academic surveillance software is not the solution and is harmful to students in terms of privacy, stress, anxiety, and monitoring activities. Create questions that require higher order thinking, use varied question types, have students sign an honesty contract, refrain from using publisher test banks etc.
•  Fourteen Simple Strategies to Reduce Cheating on Online Examinations (Faculty Focus Article)
•  How Teachers Are Sacrificing Student Privacy to Stop Cheating (Vox Article)
Assessment Idea 15 Align Due Dates with Other Instructors and Courses
If you teach in a cohort program, check in with other instructors of courses your students will most likely be taking. Find out their due dates and times when students might be busiest and work collaboratively to find dates that will not result in too many items due at the same time. Even if you do not teach in a cohort-based program, ask your students when other assessments are due and possibly adjust your course due dates. Students will appreciate you working collaboratively to build a balanced schedule of assessment dates.
•  Managing Workload in Online Classes (University of Virginia)
Assessment Idea 16 Avoid Making Assignments and Tests due on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday Nights
If students are submitting assignments or taking tests in the evenings or on the weekends, Student Technical Services is not available to help – and, most likely you also are not available for help. Have assignments and tests due/be submitted during times when NIC support staff are available to help them with uploading issues, technical problems etc. Remind them of the hours and contact details for NIC’s Student Technical Services.
• North Island College Student Technical Services:
Assessment Idea 17 Is an Exam Necessary for Consolidation of Learning?
Exams are often given to assess memory of key concepts and components, along with student abilities to apply learning to new situations. Whether online or in person, exams also create significant stress and anxiety in students and may not produce accurate results of student learning. If you are not with articulation or regulatory body expectations, consider ditching the exam for another way of allowing students to consolidate and apply their learning.
•  Alternatives to Traditional Testing (University of California Berkley)
•  Alternatives to Traditional Exams and Papers (Indiana University)
Assessment Idea 18 Feedback: The Giving, The Receiving, The Interpretation and The Application of Feedback
Giving feedback that is properly received and acted upon is how students learn best. Focus your efforts on giving timely and rich feedback, but also on how students receive, interpret and act upon the feedback. Provide audio feedback, written feedback, peer feedback, expert feedback, self-reflective feedback etc. – and then follow up with their interpretation, understanding and application of that feedback.
•  Feedback That Improves Student Performance (University of New Brunswick)
•  Getting Feedback Right: a Q&A With John Hattie (Education Week Article)
Assessment Idea 19 The Merits of Ungrading Your Course
Separating grades (values, numbers, percentages, levels, letters) from feedback (verbal or written comments, directions on where to improve, outlining strengths, suggestions for next steps) is the first step in ‘ungrading’ a course. Once students see how grades (putting a value on learning) does not aid in the learning process, ungrading practices and pedagogies will become clearer. The ungrading movement is gaining momentum in creating a more compassionate learning environment for all.
•  Ungrading (NIC Curated Resource Page)
•  Ungrading: an FAQ (Jesse Stommel Blog Post)
•  Ungrading (Inside Higher Education Article)
Assessment Idea 20 Ask Your Students to Co-Construct Assessment Experiences
Consider asking your students to help design the formal and informal assessment components. Often called ‘co-constructing learning’ or ‘students as partners’, involve students in the design and development of a courses’ assessment (or pieces of it). Working together will build greater student engagement and their understanding of the learning process.
•  Co-Constructing Your Course Curriculum (Oakland University)
•  Students as Partners (UBC)
•  Students as Partners (University of Queensland, Australia)