Assessment: Knowing How Students Learn


Assessment: Knowing How Students Learn

Throughout this guide, a learner-centered approach has been stressed in the sections about the top qualities of a good teacher, effective ways of leading a discussion, and assignment design. Nowhere is this more important, because it can make the most difference, than in assessments.

Every class is different, and each student has his or her own learning style and prior knowledge. So how can you know whether you are effectively conveying the important knowledge of the course and skills of your discipline? To really understand whether you are teaching effectively and your students are learning successfully, it is crucial that you actively and regularly conduct assessments of what your students have learned through the teaching styles you have chosen. Assessments can involve as little or as much preparation as you have time for, and can give you valuable insight into your class. CNDLS has several resources on Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) that are organized by level of preparation time and involvement. Staff members can also conduct a Small Group Diagnostic (SGD) for you, which consists of a half hour to an hour process where groups of four students discuss what they think is going well in the class what they think could be improved, what they would like to see changed, and one question of the professor's choosing. The advantage of the SGD is that it normalizes feedback, so that you see only what the class agrees is the most important feedback that they could give. Conducting assessments not only makes you a more effective teacher, but will give you make you stand out as a job candidate because it shows your dedication to student learning.

The following question prompts are from the CNDLS website. When beginning an assessment, you might want to consider these issues of student learning and time involvement. I want to:

  • Assess what knowledge, skills and prior understandings students bring to my class
  • Understand students' abilities at solving problems when I'm not around to help them
  • Understand what changes would help them learn more in the second half of the course
  • Get deeper feedback than course evaluations provide about what aspects of the course (such as the use of technology or group work) students think worked well I would like feedback: early, anytime, in the middle, and/or at the end of the semester.

Formative vs. Summative Assessments

Most people are familiar with summative assessments: usually they are the standard evaluation form handed out as a Scantron at the end of a class. Formative assessments describe another type of gathering feedback that can happen at any point during the semester. These can help you determine the effectiveness of a pedagogical method, or determine what makes the most difference in student understanding. Many would contend formative assessments are much more helpful than their summative counterparts.


Case Study of a Mid-Semester Assessment

In Spring 2002, a Teaching Fellow (TF) conducted a mid-semester assessment for his two discussion sections of a required course for first-year School of Foreign Service (SFS) students. He was mainly hoping to explain why one discussion section was more engaged than the other. But he also wanted to begin de-centering the course from his own discussion leadership by pausing in the middle of the semester and challenging the students to think about how the section could better help them to reach the primary course objective: becoming more articulate about politics. The assessment was also a way to find out how written comments on student papers were being received.

The TF, after explaining that he would like anonymous feedback on how the course discussions might be improved, asked the students to fill out a short questionnaire during the first fifteen minutes of the sections. When he tabulated the results, he was surprised to find that the group which was less engaged assigned themselves slightly higher grades in both participation questions (see below) than the other section. Although the self-assessed participation grades did not help him understand the different levels of engagement, the question of what could be done to create a better learning environment proved more revealing. A significant number of students wanted the TF to improve in two areas: including more people in the conversation and encouraging those who did speak to develop their ideas. The responses to the question about comments on written work were encouraging. The students appreciated having the flaws in their interpretations or arguments pinpointed and explained in the margins. They liked summary remarks aimed at improving the paper as a whole. The TF was reminded that students also want affirmation and encouragement, not just critique.

In response to the assessment, the TF made a couple of adjustments in practices, mainly in an effort to approach the de-centering goal. First, he occasionally wove small-group activities into section meetings, asking groups of four to discuss a cluster of interpretive questions and then present their findings to the entire section. This change succeeded in creating spaces for more voices and also enabled more students to talk to one another.

Second, the TF stopped sending reading questions to the students, asking them to send him questions about the readings (either critical or clarificatory) instead. These questions provided him with a better sense of what the students were interested in and/or confused by. They also enabled him to draw particular individuals into the conversation in a less threatening manner. The more reticent student often welcomes a chance to speak when it is prefaced by the instructor saying, "Khalil, you were wondering about..." or "This is precisely where you think the author gets confused, isn't it Lily?"

At the beginning of the course, the TF knew it was important to model good interpretive and critical questions. The mid-semester evaluation, however, gave him and the students the chance to pause and re-assess their roles in the discussion sections. The changes in practices that followed the assessment allowed the students to become more active learners. Informal feedback at the end of the course suggested that the students appreciated the changes that were made. The students' written work indicated that better interpretive and critical skills were gained at the same time.

The TF used the following questions for his mid-semester evaluation:

  • What participation grade do you think you have earned to this point in the semester? Assuming you assigned participation grades to everyone in this section, what would the average participation grade be?
  • What could I do to ensure a better learning environment?
  • What sort of comments on your written work are most helpful?
  • What is one thing you have learned in this class that you will carry into your life?
  • Why should SFS students read some of the classics of political theory? In other words, what is the point of this class?

What other changes might you have made in a similar situation? CNDLS has several resources on assessment techniques and teaching methods for you to use in Car Barn Suite 314. Feel free to stop by anytime and browse our collection or consult with one of our staff members.

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