Assessment is a crucial part of any course; you need to know whether your students are learning what you set out for them to learn. Learning happens differently for each student; a traditional or narrow set of assessment practice may not capture demonstrations of learning. Inclusive assessment includes considerations of purpose and intent of the practice; clear criteria; motivation and retention; and formative, low-stakes opportunities that allow students to monitor their own progress. Inclusive assessment is about accuracy—being thoughtful about student differences so that you can really see what they’re learning.
Being explicit about your goals and assessment criteria forces you to become clear on those things yourself, discourages bias and promotes equal treatment, reduces student anxiety, and it also allows students to track their own progress (Balloo et al., 2017, Bloxham and West, 2004). Furthermore, evidence suggests that more transparent assignments boost students’ “academic confidence, sense of belonging, and mastery of the skills that employers value most when hiring,” particularly when those students are from underrepresented populations (Winkelmes et al, 2016). On the other hand, keeping assessment opaque prevents students from making helpful connections between ideas (Ambrose et al, 2010), and is especially likely to favor students who have had more experience with higher education, either through family relationships, high school experiences, and other pre-college opportunities to familiarize themselves with academia (Winkelmes et al, 2016).
New forms of expression invite new kinds of learning (Pedelty, 2001). At the same time, “students learn in dynamic, multifaceted, and diverse ways” (Kelly and Sihite, 2018), and will need to express that learning in equally diverse ways. And it has been found that students respond positively to the opportunity to express their knowledge in diverse ways, including an experience of lowered stress and increased success (Wideman & Kumar, 2014). Some scholars and teachers in fact argue for moving away from grades altogether, as grades can interfere with student motivation and learning (Amabile, 2018; Hennessey, 2018; Blum, 2020; Inoue, 2019).
One of Georgetown’s core values is “People for Others”; if we’re going to affirm that value, we need to extend it into the classroom. Competition has been shown to decrease academic creativity and intrinsic motivation to learn (cf. Hennessey, 2018), whereas a felt sense of connectedness between students predicts more student participation, greater investment in the course, and even increased learning (MacLeod et al., 2019)—and sharing work between students increases a sense of belonging in the class (Waycott et al., 2013). Further, being involved in assessing one another’s work (e.g., through peer review) can leave students feeling more knowledgeable and confident about the assessment process and can give them ideas for how to take on the assignment themselves (Bloxham and West, 2004).
It’s obvious enough that practice helps people perform more effectively, particularly given that any group of students is likely to have widely varying experience and levels of comfort with the skills they’ll need, as well as the possible influence of learning disabilities. Low-stakes assessment, as opposed to only high-stakes, heavily-weighted assignments/assessments, may be a helpful way to implement practice opportunities in a course. Many studies show that the expectations of rewards/punishments can actually inhibit a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn (cf. Hennessey, 2018). On the other hand, efforts to retrieve learned information in varying, low-stress environments has been shown to significantly increase both student learning and retention (Bjork and Bjork, 2011). Consequently, assessment can itself be a form of learning; a well-constructed low-stakes assignment reinforces the concepts and connections that you’re hoping students will internalize, and allows them to demonstrate to themselves what they know and what they don’t. Similarly, this kind of assessment allows instructors to gauge where students are struggling and any disconnects between their teaching and what students are able to do.