Assessing assessments – Learning outcomes and student’s experience is important while designing assessments"
A quintessential academic year observes the linear fashion: delivery of course content interspersed with some short assessments, a brief—often insignificant—period of revision and finally, the annual exams. Years roll by in keeping with this trend and students keep scaling the academic ladder, moving higher up in their grades. The implicit assumption is that with each subsequent move, students acquire more knowledge, thereby expanding their breadth of information and increasing the depth of their understanding. However, the case is not rare when encountered by a question directed at or based on previously gained knowledge, students tend to falter; gaps in their education are exposed. Such instances, though not of much consequence, point at a serious lack in the process of learning. And while much is being talked about improving the quality of content and the manner in which it is imparted, the need to assess the assessments never seems to be addressed.
The need for assessing assessments
The main goal of assessment is to improve learning, emphasises Norman E. Gronlund in his book Assessment of Student Achievement. Assessments can be an important tool to help both students and teachers to gauge the learning process, identify the gaps in understanding and work—both individually and also through collaboration—to bridge those gaps to ensure an effective and complete learning experience.
Deploying assessments as effective teaching–learning tool, therefore, entails re-examining the principles that go into designing the assessments. With thoughtful consideration, the nature of these tests should be made such that their potential does not remain restricted to positing individual students in a certain spot in regard to some pre-determined standards. Rather, they could be used to facilitate and improve the learning process.
Alignment to learning outcomes
To define it in the most simplistic terms, learning outcomes are what students are expected to learn from a particular course. Successful learning implies that students not just understand the concepts learnt and are able to reproduce them when demanded, but also that they are able to analyse them on their own and apply them to come up with new ideas. Hence, learning outcomes enlist all such expectancies of an ideal learning experience; elements which pertain to the various levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives.
Assessments which gauge if the learning outcomes are met is crucial as they serve as a litmus test for the efficacy of the course and the teaching-learning process. Assessments aligned to learning outcomes and catering to all levels of Bloom’s taxonomy then become a yardstick to achieve the desire of bridging the gap between expected learning goals and outcomes. However, if there is a disconnect between the learning outcomes and the assessments, students’ focus might deviate from the learning process to the assessments. Consequently, they might tend to focus only on the parts or nature of the question they might be required to answer in their exams.
Therefore, there should be an assortment of questions including those centred on complex skills. While questions should indeed be framed with the aim of exercising students’ memory, weightage should also be given to questions which serve to develop their Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS), requiring them to apply their critical thinking skills. Further, importance also needs to be given to the experiential dimension of learning with questions requiring students to explore their creativity and put the concepts learnt to practical use.
Involving students in improving assessments
Just as bringing students to the centre of the learning process through active learning methods engages their attention and guarantees efficiency, involving students in the assessment process can also augment their overall performance. Gathering feedback from students about the methods of assessment can help teachers better understand why a particular student has fared in a particular manner. Students should be given some amount of discretion in deciding alternative modes—visual, written, hands-on, etc. and they should also be encouraged to share their opinions on matters such as unclear instructions or questions, time constraint, rubrics, etc. Involving students in the assessment process can serve as an important way of improving their overall performance.
Scope for differentiated evaluation
“No one-size-fits-all” is reiterated while preparing learning materials. The same maxim should be kept in mind while framing assessments. The assessments should provide scope for differentiated evaluation of students. Teachers might be concerned that such a mode makes meeting grading requirements difficult and awarding grades, a tedious and complicated process. However, it is here that teachers and also school authorities, should perceive the assessments as something more than a tool for grading and judging students’ capabilities. Participation-based activities can be one way by which differentiated assessment is possible. By creating multiple channels through which students could gather ideas and information and can express, explore and expand their understandings and ideas, teachers can learn about individual preferences and interests. Assessments could then be prepared based on these insights. While responsibilities of teachers might increase in such a mode of assessment, it provides the promise of a more fulfilling teaching-learning experience.
Depending on the nature of the assessments, they might have positive or negative bearings on students’ learning. Hence, to ensure that the students have access to the best, it would be ideal for teachers to abide by the advice given by Gronlund and ask themselves a few questions before setting the assessments such as: Would the assessments improve students’ motivation and performance, develop independent thinking and research skills in them, contribute to a positive attitude and expand their horizon of thinking?