Assessment in the Classroom – Part 1

July 4th, 2016

Assessing student work, i.e. “grading”, remains one of the toughest aspects to get right as a teacher. This is part 1 in a series of posts, the purpose of which, is to explain my system for assessment in the classroom. It is a system that continues to evolve, but at this point, after more than 20 years as a professional educator, I feel that I have come to a place (finally) that is comfortable, in terms of how to assess students. I have techniques that work well for me, and I believe, more importantly, for students as well.

When I entered the teaching profession, in the early 1990’s, I was very uncomfortable with the authority role that came with the label “teacher.” Giving students grades felt judgmental, and in some cases, inappropriately personal, or even somewhat random.

Now I recognize that assessment is most effective when approached as a continual conversation with students about their progress, and grades are simply milestones along the way. When communication is open and honest between the instructor and students, the grading process becomes a whole lot less fraught with misgivings.

In my role as Director of Design at the college level, I’ve had the added benefit of observing many other instructors as a job requirement, and I have witnessed many different styles and methods. Like a thief, I steal everything I can. Like a minesweeper I watch out for anything explosive. And, as if that doesn’t provide me with enough opportunities to learn, I’ve had a steady stream of students in my office with both positive and negative experiences to relate about their various classes.

Quality assessment is a constant balancing act, and I continue to strive to improve and experiment with new techniques and ideas. Over the next several posts in this series, I will attempt to describe some specific techniques and the systems I have found to be effective, along with the reasoning behind them. I hope other educators will find this useful. I strongly recommend becoming a thief.

Setting the Stage

I am not going to go into detail here about my philosophy of education, but it can be summarized as simply: students get out of any given class exactly what they put into it. It is part of my job to convince, cajole, encourage and inspire students to put into the class as much effort and enthusiasm as possible. I embrace the concept of progressive enhancement in the development of curriculum. This means, among other things, that I want to provide many pathways into the content of the course, as well as lots of opportunities for students to enhance their experience through additional auxiliary content or exercises.

…a great many students live in a constant state of fear that they will fail. Students are fragile creatures, and are easily crushed.

I have learned through practical experience in the classroom, that few students are motivated by the opportunity to achieve a high grade in any given course. Many students do care about grades, but most are motivated AFTER they receive the grade. At that point it is too late. Threatening students with a low grade, or egging them on to get a higher grade is usually ineffective.

I have also learned that a great many students live in a constant state of fear that they will fail. They are frequently paralyzed by this, and are certain that their teachers “hate” them. Students are fragile creatures, and are easily crushed.

As teachers, we employ many techniques to address these very human challenges, but I want to focus specifically on how these realities frame the process of assessment.

Most importantly, my goal is to create an assessment system that has been sanded smooth and provides as little resistance as possible. There shouldn’t be any surprises for students, or any unexpected twists or turns. It should be clear, simple and easy to follow. At the same time, it also needs to be flexible, forgiving where necessary, strict when required, and most of all, honest and accurate.

Furthermore, I wish to avoid uncomfortable confrontations with students that make both of us feel bad about how any given class has gone. I want the assessment process to be a positive experience that encourages students want to take the next step in their learning process.

And finally, assessment needs to be efficient. I want to give students the feedback they need to improve, without spending and inordinate amount of time doing it. Interested? I hope so! Please check out the other posts in this series for specifics. Please feel free to leave comments, either as a teacher or as a student.

Check out the other posts in this series

Part 1 < You are here
Introduction and Setting the Stage

Part 2
The 3 F’s of Assessment & Meeting Students Where They Are

Part 3
The Tools for Assessment

Part 4
Micro and Macro Approaches
The Heart of My Assessment System

Part 5
Gaming the System and Fair != Same

Part 6
Real Deadlines & Extra Credit

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