February 3, 2017 mgoudz

Building Better Assessment

Photo credit: Danny Munnerley CC-BY-NC

By Erin DeSilva and Mike Goudzwaard

Does your university have an assessment center? We’re not just talking about a place to take standardized tests and final exams, but a space that supports both students and faculty in the pursuit of designing and completing better ways to measure student learning.

The recent AC&U report on assessment in higher education  finds consensus among its members that there is an increase in the use of learning outcomes in courses, a shift away from standardized tests, and new efforts to build assessments of learning that measure beyond the grade. This is an important development in advancing learning design, however this critical work needs an organizational and physical home on our campuses.

Many faculty identify a need for a place where students can take tests that provide privacy, a test reader, screen readers, and just a place to take rescheduled exams. The pinch is felt each time a test is given in class, but the classroom is only scheduled for the length of the class period, not allowing for 1.5x or 2x test time, which some students need and the institution has the responsibility to provide. Many universities have testing centers for this purpose and these student-focused centers are an important resource. However, how might we build or adapt an assessment center to support both students taking assessments and faculty designing them?

Anyone who has ever written a multiple choice question knows that this is difficult work. It has the advantage of being quite scalable (auto-graded), but is it the best measure of learning? What if instead of faculty spending hours on end writing exams in their offices or asking students to pay hundreds of dollars for a commercial test bank, faculty could come to the assessment center to –

1) learn multiple assessment techniques
2) design assessments that support their learning objectives
3) develop and improve rubrics
4) receive feedback and consultation on authentic assessment methods

Rather than the assessment center staff serving as just exam proctors, they would be collaborators, providing research-driven assessment techniques to faculty and collect feedback on the effectiveness of those assessments from students. This type of learning laboratory would allow faculty to design assessments that apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning such as multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement that have been shown to improve learning for all students. (CAST).

Many universities have an assessment officer (or office), with a focus on aligning program objectives with school objectives and gathering evidence of learning. The problem is that these experts often operate in an “accreditation bubble,” fully immersed in collecting data for institutional reporting, but not having access or bandwidth to build better assessment at the program or course level. What is needed is a space where assessment experts can use their expertise to collaborate with faculty and connect institutional efforts with courses. An assessment center could hire both pedagogical experts and student scholars to work side by side with faculty to design authentic assessments, rubrics, project-based evidence of learning, and experiential assessments. This might just shift the perception of assessment in the minds of faculty and students, moving from a mandated interruption into something deeply connected to the learning process.

It’s time for students and faculty to come out of their dorm rooms and offices and connect with assessment experts, have a cup of coffee and together build better assessments for and of learning.
Assess early, often, better, and among friends.