Making Student Assessment Work For You & Your Students

Students have an understanding that when they attend a class they will be expected to perform some type of work to receive a grade. Classroom performance often encompasses written assignments, exams, involvement in the class discussions, and an ability to demonstrate that progress has been made towards meeting the learning goals and objectives. An instructor’s evaluation of this performance has a potential to build relationships and influence engagement, motivation, and performance—depending upon the quality of feedback provided. Evaluation can also discourage students if it does not clearly address their developmental needs.
The type of assessment used to measure student performance sets the stage for effective evaluation. An assessment should not be given just for the sake of having a classroom activity. Amy Brualdi has found that you must begin with a “clearly defined purpose,” and one of the questions to ask is “what concept, skill, or knowledge am I trying to assess?” When an assessment is purposely developed the instructor has an opportunity to accurately gauge how well the student’s performance has met the overall criteria.
Materials from the Ohio State University Center for Advancement of Teaching indicate that “unfortunately, assessment is more often used only to justify the assignment of letter grades than to serve as a diagnostic tool.” The basis for evaluating student performance should not be focused on how a letter grade is given if the instructor is concerned with addressing the student’s developmental needs. A grade should be the result of points earned. An effective method of evaluating performance and showing students how the points were earned or lost is through the use of a rubric. The use of a rubric also encourages instructors to provide detailed comments and elaborate upon criteria used to assess performance.
With feedback there may be a tendency to focus on compliance, from due dates to specific criteria that can include content development, mechanics, and word count. The feedback provided may also highlight deficits in the assignment or the student’s abilities. Feedback that is focused only on negative aspects can discourage a student, especially if the instructor is not physically present to address his or her concerns. Officials at the UCLA Office of Instructional Development suggest that “it is best to think of grading as a way to praise strengths and point out weaknesses,” and that “grading should not just be a catalogue of what the student failed to do.” Instructors can overcome this challenge by starting the feedback on a positive note and finding ways to encourage the student. This can be accomplished by pointing out the student’s strengths, even if the only good thing that can be said is that the student put in their best effort and they are making progress.
Some instructors save a bank of comments that can be tailored to other students; however, this approach should be used with caution. If a student believes that his or her feedback is nothing more than a canned response or if a grade was provided without any explanation that supports his or her development, the student may not feel encouraged to continue putting forth his or her best effort and it is possible that they can experience a feeling of disappointment.
An instructor can overcome these potential feedback challenges and enhance adult learner performance by preparing a feedback strategy. Possible techniques include:
1. Start with the purpose of the class assignments or assessments. What should students accomplish through their performance?
2. Make a decision to evaluate performance through points earned, rather than assigning a letter grade.
3. With the evaluation provided consider both strengths and areas of development.
4. Take time to explain what resources are available to meet the student’s developmental needs.
5. Consider the depth of feedback provided and avoid generalizations, brief comments, or canned statements.
6. Encourage students to improve their performance and offer support, guidance, and responsiveness.
A focused approach to evaluating student performance is likely to encourage students’ development, which in turn can enhance their motivation and engagement in the class.

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