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How to Engage Your Students With Effective Assessments

Increasingly, students see their higher education less as a period of learning and personal evolution and more as a transaction in which high tuition and sleepless nights are exchanged for good transcripts and high-paying jobs. In this context, grades are the ultimate currency and a constant source of anxiety for even the highest achieving students.

Assessments that happen over time

All assessments come with a deadline, which creates the illusion that learning happens in episodic chunks — study for the midterm, then write the paper, then study for the final. But learning, and particularly improvement, are best cultivated through inter-related and long-term activities that allow for growth. For this reason, the best assessments happen over time and create opportunities for students to build upon previous work.

One popular method is incorporating “scaffolding” into assessments. Instead of a paper worth a large proportion of the final grade, students submit several smaller assignments throughout the course of writing their paper, each worth a fraction of the overall grade and building towards the final product. For instance, they might first submit a topic and thesis statement, followed by their outline, then a rough draft, and then the final paper. This method provides students with feedback at various points, prioritizes the process of writing, and lowers the stakes for each graded piece of work.

Another option is to allow students to resubmit assignments. In doing so, instructors put student focus on progress and reduce stress over grades. The value of an assessment to the learning process multiplies several times when it gives students the opportunity to correct past mistakes and emphasize their own improvement.

Assessments as learning opportunities

Too often, student assessments take the form of passive data collection. But the best assessments are educational opportunities in which students can practice different methods of synthesizing, analyzing, and communicating what they have learned. There are so many ways students can demonstrate mastery of the course content that go beyond traditional papers, quizzes, and examinations.

Recently, the “unessay” has become a favorite among humanities instructors. Rather than a standard paper, students submit an assignment in the form of their choosing — an emergent filmmaker might write a screenplay, for instance, while those interested in media might record a podcast. Often, students also submit a piece of writing that explains how their project relates to the course content. Cameron Blevins, Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University, took to Twitter to extol this form of assessment: “Post-graduation, most people aren’t going to have the luxury of communicating ideas via a 2,000 word essay. An #unessay gives them practice conveying research, analysis, [and] interpretation using a different medium.”

Instructors are also increasingly turning to digital and public projects to have students experiment with presenting information to a non-academic audience. Having students contribute to a class blog or collaborate on a museum exhibit provides them with the opportunity to communicate their ideas and findings outside of the academy. These alternative modes of assessment also enable students to build their personal portfolios and resumes.

Assessments that are self-reflective

Assessments should be an opportunity for students to reflect on their intellectual journeys — to take stock of what they have mastered and what is still unclear. Instructors can assist in this process by providing students with a graph of their assessment results to visualize their progress. Instructors can also design assessments that focus on reflection. For instance, having students keep a journal throughout the class is a great way to create a record of their semester-long evolution.

In addition, asking for student feedback on grading assessments can create opportunities for self-reflection. Students have especial authority over their own participation and group work. By asking students to evaluate themselves, and perhaps their groupmates, instructors empower students to take ownership of the assessment process. This technique also makes grading seem less arbitrary and creates a collaborative relationship between instructor and student in evaluating performance.

Higher education must break out of its current bind in which expectations for job-training clash with arcane assignments and competitive transcripts are privileged over intellectual growth. To help our students unlock their potential, we must use assessments as opportunities for development, improvement, and self-reflection. Well-designed assessments can refocus students on the importance of learning, ease the pressure of grades, and help them sharpen useful skills.