When Setbacks Are Opportunities For Change: Best Assessment Practices

Every time we are faced with a challenge or setback, it involves making a change—and change includes the acts of reevaluation and innovation. In education, we were faced with an abrupt disruption and ensuing reevaluation as educators were forced to throw lesson plans (some of them decades-old) out the window, adapt new lesson plans, and adopt new tools (Zoom, anyone?).

The one thing that grounded educators throughout were best practices in pedagogy—which were more important than ever as they became the guiding principles in innovation. And these principles became more critical in practice as students and teachers learned and taught outside of the classroom under great pressure. Feedback loops, for instance, became the primary mode of communication, in the absence of in-person interaction. Assessment, too, transformed when instructors and students engaged in assignments and assessments asynchronously.

This intersection—where educators learn what it is students have learned, and where students receive feedback on next steps—was a big design challenge in remote learning. But it was also a transformative junction that now informs the future of assessment.

So what were the challenges, what are the ideal principles behind assessment, and how can educators fulfill authentic assessment?

1. Provide Timely, Actionable, And Specific Feedback

Formative feedback that is timely, actionable, and specific, according to John Hattie (Visible Learning), guides students toward increased learning outcomes. High-quality feedback can accelerate and increase student learning outcomes. And feedback is more critical in online learning environments, where teachers aren’t there to see if a student is struggling or losing interest. According to research, online learning “removes some of the channels of information that are available in a traditional classroom, so the teacher needs to rely more on channels like assessment of learning (Timms, 2017, p. 327).”

We rarely question the principle of timely, actionable, and specific feedback personalized to students. Of course, we should do it, just as we ought to eat a meal of whole foods rather than reach for a box of processed food. But the reality of formative feedback—whether in-person or online—can feel impossible when an instructor has a stack of essays or hundreds of exams to grade in a large-scale introductory course.

Enter assessment and grading software, which enabled educators to provide feedback and mark assignments more quickly in the past year. Moving to online grading, too, removes the variable of hard copies and allows students to receive feedback more quickly, as opposed to waiting for the next class meeting.

2. Offer A Variety Of Assessment Formats

Class sizes and instructor workloads (not to mention the logistics of testing online) also have a huge impact on the assessment formats instructors choose to offer. Multiple-choice exams have become popular as a result. “Given class sizes, teaching loads, and a host of other academic responsibilities, many teachers feel as though multiple-choice tests are the only viable option,” according to Maryellen Weimer, who examines the pros and cons of multiple-choice assessments for Faculty Focus.

Multiple-choice is a time-efficient way to assess a larger swatch of concepts in a shorter amount of time and has its upsides (e.g., lack of bias, quicker to grade, greater breadth of evaluation). But when it is offered alongside a variety of assessment formats, educators can gain insights into different components of student learning. For example, short and long answer questions as well as essays, test higher-order thinking and a deeper understanding of concepts. A variety of assessment formats, too, is inclusive of different learning styles and can more accurately measure student learning.

Consider offering a supplementary short answer question on assessments or engage an assessment tool to more easily offer different assessment options and quicker grading. Educators recently pivoted to online assessment tools and became creative with Zoom presentations that accommodated different learning styles while evaluating different levels of learning.

3. Provide Frequent, Low-Stakes Assessments

Frequent, low-stakes assessments provide multiple points of teacher intervention and scaffolding for students on their educational journey. According to Scott Warnock, frequent, low-stakes assessments create a dialogue between teacher and student, builds confidence with more chances to succeed, and increases student motivation (2013). By gaining insights into student learning well before summative assessments, educators and students are able to accurately measure their progress and increase learning outcomes.

These low-stakes assessments include class discussion, short quizzes, and journals. It may be tempting to make a student’s course grade dependent on unit tests or final exams, but it’s important to support the entire student learning journey and engender trust along the way.

One of the things that occurred during remote learning was that many instructors dropped high-stakes assessments, understanding that added stress was not productive, let alone the logistics involved in accurate summative assessment. According to Government Technology [1], which reported on colleges dropping the SAT and ACT requirements, “the question must be asked if educators at all levels should reconsider their assessment strategies entirely. Moving from traditional, easily scored multiple-choice tests to those that demonstrate their content mastery in more nuanced ways is not an easy transition,” adding, “it’s [the pandemic] presenting educators with unprecedented opportunities to rethink our old ways of doing things, which may lead to significant changes in student assessments. And that could be a very good thing.”

4. Uphold Integrity

While academic misconduct affects accurate assessment, so can factors like exam design and grading bias. Designing exams that test what it is that students were supposed to have learned, and designing exams that aren’t too difficult or too easy promotes assessment that is authentic, accurate, and fair.

Reducing bias, too, is critical; name-blind grading and consistent rubrics also help uphold equity and consistency in assessment.

Remote learning has increased student opportunity for short-cut solutions—the proximity online to additional resources like test banks and electronic devices makes misconduct more tempting for stressed students. According to the Wall Street Journal [2], “A year of remote learning has spurred an eruption of cheating among students, from grade school to college. With many students isolated at home over the past year—and with a mass of online services at their disposal—academic dishonesty has never been so easy,” adding that “Some educators fear the new generation of cheaters will be loath to stop even after the pandemic recedes.” While many solutions involve better assessment design to deter misconduct, other solutions involve proctoring and plagiarism detection software.

5. Conduct Item Analysis To Gain Student Learning Insights

And finally, just as feedback from teacher to student is important, “when teachers receive feedback about their impact then the students are the biggest beneficiaries,” according to John Hattie (Visible Learning Interview). In other words, when teachers gain student perspective, it makes learning visible and provides teachers with action items.

While assessments evaluate student learning, they also provide insights into student learning gaps and provide action items for educators. What do students know and don’t know, and what can educators do about it? Was there a question everyone got wrong and why? It’s important to conduct item analysis and take a close look at the pattern of student responses on assessments to inform future instruction and assessments. Doing so upholds many of the above points, including assessment with integrity.

Setbacks are an opportunity—and 2020’s COVID disruption compelled educators everywhere to reassess and reinvent traditional assessment and grading practices. As education moves forward, it’s gratifying to see that assessment is becoming a more enriching interchange of knowledge for educators and students.


[1] COVID-19, Student Assessments and Remote Learning

[2] Cheating at School Is Easier Than Ever—and It’s Rampant

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