Research and Resources
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 provides students with guidance on corrective actions to take to increase learning. Integrating a variety of assessment strategies provides students multiple opportunities to succeed.
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.
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; however, it is important 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.
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 reintroduce group skills that your students have learned 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.
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”).
Angelo, T., & Cross, K. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques : a handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 5-31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11092-008-9068-5
Darby, F. (2019). Small Teaching Online. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Ladyshewsky, R. K. (2013). Instructor presence in online courses and student satisfaction. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.240429/ijsotl.2013.070113
Lehman, R. M., & Conceicao, S. C. (2010). Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching: How to “Be There” for Distance Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lipnevich, A. A and Smith, J. K. (2008). Response to Assessment Feedback: The Effects of Grades, Praise, and Source of Information. ETS Research Report ETS RR-08-30. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-08-30.pdf
McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, J. L., Derbish, M. H., & Morrisette, N. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19(4-5), 494-513.
Meer, N. M., Chapman, A. (2014). Assessment for confidence: Exploring the impact that low stakes assessment design has on student retention. The International Journal of Management Education, 12, 186-192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijme.2014.01.003
Myers, C.B. & Myers, S.M. (2007). Innovation in High Education 31: 227. https://doi-org.ezproxy2.library.colostate.edu/10.1007/s10755-006-9020-x
Pennebaker JW, Gosling SD, Ferrell JD (2013). Daily Online Testing in Large Classes: Boosting College Performance while Reducing Achievement Gaps. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79774. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0079774
Rhodes, M., Cleary, A., & DeLosh, E. (2020). A guide to effective studying and learning : practical strategies from the science of learning. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Roediger, H. L. (2013). Applying cognitive psychology to education: Translational educational science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 1-3.
Stevens, D. D. & Levi, A. J. (2012) Introduction to rubrics: An assessment tool to save grading time, convey effective feedback and promote student learning (2nd ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Walvoord, B. E., & Anderson, V. J. (2010). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in college (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.