Feedback and Assessment

A very engaged instructor working with a group of students in an active learning classroom

We now know that the one midterm and final assessment, or the total of 2-3 papers per semester you probably experienced as an undergraduate, is not an optimal assessment plan for student success. Frequent formative assessments and low-stakes assignments increase student performance on higher stakes exams; they inform both instructors and students on the extent to which students are mastering the objectives. More frequent assessments also allow instructors to adjust their teaching to meet students where they are. Timely feedback to students provides them with guidance on corrective actions to take to increase learning. Integrating a variety of assessment strategies provides students multiple opportunities to succeed.

Assessments

An instructor's responsibility to students is to provide structure to the course so that assessments are directly linked to course objectives and instruction, and these assessments should support student learning. Assessments can be classified by frequency and by format. Typically, formative assessments are either ungraded or are low stakes and are used when the purpose is to inform instructors and students about student learning. An outcome of formative assessments is providing students with feedback; it also allows for corrective actions (on the part of the instructor and the student). Summative assessments are less frequent (mid-term papers, unit tests, or end of course exams) and are higher stakes.

  • Consider: What should your students know and be able to do when they finish your course? Which assessments will best demonstrate these competencies?
  • Convey learning objectives with verbs that can be measured.
  • Provide your proficiency expectations through assignment descriptions and rubrics.
  • Vary the cognitive complexity of your assessments.
  • As possible, provide students with choices on how to demonstrate mastery.
  • Formative assessment techniques provide instructors with information about whether to move on in a lesson or not.
  • Use a variety of classroom assessment techniques.
  • Formative assessments, when used with spaced practice, promote mental retrieval and learning.Formative assessments give students information on whether they are learning the content.
  • Keep your assessments manageable; variety and low time commitment are key.
  • If you have TAs, work with them so they are consistent in grading.
  • Provide structure and guidelines for student group work and assessments.
  • Teach group skills if your students need those to be successful in a group project.
  • Summative assessments should be linked to course/unit objectives, homework, and class lessons.

The First Four Weeks

It is well documented that the first four weeks are directly linked to student success in the course, and in many cases, to retention and graduation. In those first weeks, it is important to provide students with information via assessments that let them know if they are studying correctly and if they are learning the material expected. There are a variety of supports, particularly important in these early weeks.

  • Use low stakes assessments during the First Four Weeks
  • In the first weeks of the semester, share rubrics and assignment descriptions so students know what will be expected.
  • Convey learning objectives with verbs that can be measured.
  • Assess your students' group process skills if they will be working in groups or on group projects.
  • Identify other fundamental skills and resources necessary for students to demonstrate mastery (access, technology, etc.)
  • Consider CSU's Early Performance Feedback program which sends automated notices to students and advisors so students can receive the support they might need before it's too late in the semester.
  • Resource: The Chronicle of Higher Education, "How to Teach a Good First Day of Class"

The First Four Weeks in an Online Course

While your primary teaching focus here at Colorado State University (CSU) may be in residential-instruction (RI) classrooms, there is a growing number of us who teach online, as well, or who will be expected to teach online at some point during our careers. While most of the information on teaching effectiveness pertains to both RI and online classrooms, following are a few key points for online courses.

For the first day in your online class, ensure you do the following:

  • Set up a home page in your course that includes the course number and name, the term, the section numbers, and an image. See Set up your Home Page for more information.
  • Include clear instructions on where to go first and how to get started in the course.
  • Provide a personal introduction about yourself within your course! While such an introduction can be in the form of text, consider a video or audio recording so that students have a voice and face to put with your name. See the Meet Randall Swaim, Ph.D., video [2:54] as an example.
  • Start your course with an icebreaker discussion so that students have an opportunity to get to know you and their classmates.
  • Send students an announcement via the learning management system a few days before the course begins, letting them know the course is open and to feel free to explore.
  • Set high expectations from the beginning. An instructor who holds high expectations will encourage high expectations from students.
  • Let students know when they can expect responses and feedback from you. Will you respond to emails in 24 hours? Will you return graded assignments within 48 hours?
  • Consider incorporating a syllabus quiz or course scavenger hunt in the first module to ensure that students grasped the most important points regarding course policies, assignments and objectives.
  • Be enthusiastic, friendly and motivated!

In the first few weeks and beyond:

  • Continue to send announcements to motivate students, introduce content and get them excited about what they will learn.
  • Consider using brief videos to introduce each module, or create short, recorded lectures on module topics. (See NSCI 619: Wave Machine Demo video [5:37] as an example.)
  • Use your students' names when you interact with them in the online environment.
  • Just as in traditional classes, short writing assignments, reading quizzes or practice tests and activities (for low point values) are ways to monitor student progress and provide feedback in the first four weeks of your online course. However, you can also use online discussion forums to do this.
    • Each module in an online course typically includes a discussion forum—an opportunity for the instructor or students to pose questions and share insights about the module content. This allows you, the instructor, to see if students are grasping content in each module and where you need to provide more information or steer them back on course. It also allows your students to earn points and receive feedback on where they need to improve before moving on to larger assessments worth greater numbers of points.
  • Whether you teach a fully online course or an RI course, we can't stress enough the importance of using the gradebook in the LMS Canvas. Your students expect to be able to review their grades at all times to see how they are doing in your course. See Create Assignments to set up your Gradebook for more information.

Assignments and Rubrics

Assignments will form the majority of your students' work during your course. It is important that you convey your expectations for assignments and their completion in a clear but supportive way. Adopting the stance of "no secrets teaching" will allow you and your students to have the most successful learning and you, the most rewarding teaching experience possible. Begin with identifying the course learning objectives (using measurable verbs) and how you will assess competencies. Design the final assessment and the interim higher-stakes assessments to engage students and support mastery. These, along with the individual unit and lesson designs allow you to sequence learning that leads toward mastery. Conveying your expectations for assignments via assignment descriptions and rubrics will give your students a clear picture of the learning progression. Consider adaptive learning technologies to help track your students' homework and quiz completion. Talk to your course lead or department chair about these options.

  • Assess your students' prerequisite knowledge and skills.
  • Strive to align your assignment rigor within the Zone of Proximal Development of your student population.
  • Consider using adaptive technologies and dashboards to assist in tracking student progress.
  • Provide clear, concise prompts for assignments.
  • Outline what is expected of your students; use measurable verbs in your objectives.
  • Strive to leave room for student self-expression.
  • Prescribe outcomes, but not so closely that you stifle creativity.
  • Where possible, provide prompts that allow for more than one way of expressing mastery.
  • Create rubrics for assignments: Building a rubric handout
  • Create rubrics for assignments: Video tutorial (8 minutes)

Assignments and Rubrics in an Online Course

While your primary teaching focus here at Colorado State University (CSU) may be in residential-instruction (RI) classrooms, there is a growing number of us who teach online, as well, or who will be expected to teach online at some point during our careers. While most of the information on teaching effectiveness pertains to both RI and online classrooms, following are a few key points for online courses.

  • Clear and explicit assignment instructions are crucial in online courses. Make sure that you outline everything students need to complete an assignment-including due dates and links to other resources, as well as anticipating and answering their questions in your assignment instructions.
  • Along those same lines, state your grading policy somewhere at the beginning of the online course. On your syllabus or a page at the start of the course, you should clearly detail:
    • Points, percentages and weights for all course-grade components
    • Relationship among points, percentages, weights and letter grades
    • Late-submission policy
    • Your turnaround time for grading assignments
  • Rubrics you would create and include in your RI course should be built into the learning management system (LMS) so that students have them handy for each assignment they need to complete and can clearly see how the points for each assignment are allocated.
  • Another special consideration for an online course is including information about how discussion forums will be graded. How many times do students need to post per forum? When are these posts due? What criteria will be used to evaluate their responses? Following is a sample discussion rubric for an online course. How would you modify it to meet the needs of your online class? Discussion Grading Rubric

Feedback

Often instructors conflate evaluation, praise, and feedback. They are, however, distinctly different and they serve different purposes.

Contemporary research indicates that praise may hinder student progress, or may lessen motivation. That is not to say we should not praise students; it's just a cautionary point to highlight the importance of feedback. Feedback is direct information provided to students that lets them know how their current performance measures up in relation to a standard. Feedback should offer specific guidance on steps that can be taken to improve.

  • Don't presume that telling students "good job" will motivate them.
  • Telling students "this needs work" does not provide guidance on errors or necessary corrections. Be specific..
  • Feedback should be timely. Although this can be difficult, evidence shows that long time lags between student performance and getting feedback limits the utility of the feedback
  • It takes practice to give valuable feedback; if you want students to give feedback to each other, they will need guidelines, practice, and support.
  • Time is always the limiting factor; think about how to be strategic in your use of feedback. Consider selecting a manageable sample of student work for individual feedback if that fits your class size and availability. Alternately, TAs may be effective in this role.
  • Consider using resources for giving feedback on student writing and for making that feedback meaningful and time-efficient for you as the instructor.

Feedback for Online Students

While your primary teaching focus here at Colorado State University (CSU) may be in residential-instruction (RI) classrooms, there is a growing number of us who teach online, as well, or who will be expected to teach online at some point during our careers. While most of the information on teaching effectiveness pertains to both RI and online classrooms, following are a few key points for online courses.

Provide online learners with multiple opportunities to track their learning progress with timely feedback.

  • For larger assignments, such as papers, presentations and projects, require students to submit drafts so that you can offer feedback.
  • Peer reviews and examples of good and poor assignments give students a chance to see how the work they are doing compares to others and to your expectations.
  • Ensure the feedback that you provide is substantive so that students can clearly understand your expectations and use your comments to improve their work.

Research and Resources

One of an instructor's responsibilities to students is to provide structure to the course so that assessments are directly linked to course objectives and instruction, and these assessments are designed to support student learning and improvement. Assessments can be classified by frequency and by format. Typically, formative assessments are either ungraded or are low stakes and are used when the purpose is to inform instructors and students about student learning. An outcome of formative assessments is providing feedback and the opportunity for corrective actions (on the part of the instructor and the student). Summative assessments are less frequent (mid-term papers, unit tests, or end of course exams) and are higher stakes. All learners can benefit from specific and timely feedback. Instructors convey learning objectives and proficiency expectations through assignment descriptions and rubrics.

Formative Assessment

In addition to the high stakes tests which we commonly use, it is advantageous to assess student learning throughout the semester with frequent low stakes quizzes and non-graded check-ins. Low stakes assessments, spaced throughout the term, will allow your students to get a feel for what to expect on high stakes exams, will increase comprehension, and give students a clearer view of what they actually understand (Rhodes, M., Cleary, A., & DeLosh, E. 2020). The importance of regular formative assessment in your course cannot be over emphasized. Formative assessments are myriad and varied, but generally are used to provide periodic student feedback on their learning. Importantly, formative assessment data inform you as the instructor, so that you may then adjust your teaching if necessary. The concept of formative assessment is well documented and a deep research base supports its use in the undergraduate classroom (Black, P., & Wiliam, D., 2009). Quick, low stakes assessments can provide you with the knowledge to decide if you should continue with a topic or move on.

Checking for student understanding is an important component to student success and allows instructors to adjust teaching strategies on the fly. No extra grading needs to be done to understand how well students are comprehending content in your lessons. Formative assessment techniques help you gauge the collective student understanding of the material. Students can use the same formative assessment techniques to self-monitor their understanding and identify gaps in their learning. Using clickers to check student comprehension of a topic before moving on (or spending time reviewing) is one common formative assessment strategy.

It is helpful to incorporate a variety of formative assessments so that you offer students different ways to express their comprehension and you maintain an appropriate balance between familiarity and novelty of assessments. These variations require students to recall or synthesize information in multiple ways. This combination of spaced practice and testing is "simply dynamite for learning (Rhodes, M., Cleary, A., & DeLosh, E. 2020, p. 183)". Some assessments might require students to write about what they understand; others simply ask students to rate their level of understanding. Ultimately, checking in with students on what you're teaching and asking them to think about their learning creates a student-centered classroom where students take more ownership of their progress.

Early Performance Feedback and the First Four Weeks

The first four weeks of any class will impact students' final grades; success during this critical period can also be predictive of students' overall retention and graduation rates. There are small changes to instruction you can adopt and use during the first four weeks that can influence students' academic success. CSU encourages instructors to use low stakes assessments during this time period of the semester.

The retrieval practice associated with low stakes assignments is a proven method of increasing student learning. "If students practice retrieving information, they can keep it in an accessible state (at their mental fingertips, as it were) and can then retrieve and use the information both for answering direct questions and for transferring the knowledge to related situations (Roediger, H. L. 2013, p. 3)." Throughout the semester, and particularly during the first four weeks of a semester, students benefit from low-stakes and no-stakes assignments - ones that allow students to engage with material, test themselves, figure out what they know and what they still need to study. It has been shown that periodic, low stakes assignments followed by quizzes with feedback improve student performance on higher stakes midterms and finals (McDaniel, et. al., 2007). Low stakes assignments can take the form of frequent quizzes, in-class or online discussion, or formative assessments completed inside or outside of class.

Summative Assessments

Research has shown that frequent testing is one way to keep students engaged in learning course material, leading to better overall course performance, and it may reduce achievement gaps found among under represented social groups (Pennebaker, J.W., Gosling, S.D., & Ferrell, J.D., 2013). Science of learning research strongly indicates that the mid-term/final exam, or infrequent testing approach does not align with the way people learn best. Providing students with a variety of assessment opportunities (quizzes, exams, assignments, papers, projects, simulations, presentations) or at least more frequent quizzes and exams, gives them numerous opportunities to study, practice, obtain feedback, fill in learning gaps, and ultimately master the material (Myers, C. B. & Myers, S. M., 2007). Inevitable as summative assessments are, it is important that they are the outcome of your ongoing linkage of course or unit objectives, your teaching, and your feedback in order to prepare students for these high stakes events. As possible, take the stance of "no secrets teaching" and provide clarity, structure, and feedback along the way so students are more prepared for high stakes assessments.

Please remember that assessment does not always have to be an individual activity. It is important to prepare students for the collaboration they will probably encounter in their future careers. Giving students opportunities to work and be assessed in a group setting provides students with important experiences and provides instructors with new assessment opportunities. However, to best serve students, you must either teach group skills or be confident that your students have learned these in prerequisite courses. For group work that culminate in assessments, either guide students in collaboration strategies outside of class or allow time in class for group meetings. Support success by providing students with group work guidelines and group work assessments. A wide variety of options for group work include, but are not limited to, collaborative projects, group quizzes or tests, and presentations.

Feedback

Often instructors conflate feedback, evaluation and praise. They are, however, distinctly different and they serve different purposes. Assessment, described above, becomes evaluation when the instructor ascribes a value (grade, numerical score) to the assessment. Assessments that are entirely formative and do not count toward a grade, are not considered evaluations.

Praise is an enjoyable part of the instructor's work. We all like to acknowledge exemplary performance and noticeable improvements, no matter how slight, for students who have been struggling. Praise, however, is not feedback. Saying "great job" may be appreciated by your student but it does not convey why you consider their work as praiseworthy. In fact, there is growing evidence that praise can impede student progress toward mastery (Lipnevich, A. A. and Smith, J. K., 2008)

Feedback provides evidence to students on their current accomplishments in relation to an expected mastery outcome. Feedback also provides useable guidance on actions that the student can take to move toward mastery (e.g., "the volume of your solution was more than was necessary for the experiment. You will get a more accurate reading from your graduated cylinder if you align your eye with the liquid level", or "your argument advocating a change in current tax laws needs more supporting evidence, it did not account for changing demographics in our society").

The more guidance we can provide students on what are their perceived growth areas and how to work toward those, the more fair our classes will feel and the more motivated our students will be to use feedback to gain knowledge and skills. Their time on task will be effective and purposeful.


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