By Cynthia Rutz, Director of Faculty Development, VITAL

Do you ever wonder whether your tests, exams, and assignments are really developing the skills you want your students to learn?  What would you like them to retain five minutes after your class ends? Five months later? How about five years later?  Your colleagues Salena Anderson (English) and Mandy Brobst-Renaud (Theology) radically altered the way they assess student learning once they realized what they truly wanted their students to know and be able to do. 


Mandy Brobst-Renaud: Fostering Lifelong Learners

Mandy Brobst-Renaud began to rethink exams when she realized that they were not measuring any student learning that she cared about. Does it really matter if they can name all the patriarchs in chronological order? She also noticed that her students were taking notes as if they were dictation. Rather than synthesizing knowledge, they were merely repeating what she had said.

What Mandy does care about is transformative education. She wants students to strengthen their curiosity and generosity to people who think very differently from them. In other words, she wants to cultivate lifelong learners.

Therefore, although she still offers a traditional final exam, Mandy has completely transformed other ways of measuring student learning. First, early in the semester, she polls students on how they learn best. Then she gives them options, so they can choose assignments that match their preferred mode of learning. Some choose to go into depth and detail on one large unit assignment, others prefer daily assignments. The rubric is the same for all assignments, demanding but not punitive. 100:above and beyond, 90:well done, 80:on the right track, 70: meets expectations, 60:needs attention.

Mandy also offers students a wide variety of options for their assignments. They can either hone their current skills or try a new mode of learning by writing newspaper articles, blogs, songs, or poems, by creating a dance or knitting a figurine. Each assignment, however creative, must exhibit depth of engagement with the class materials and/or secondary sources.  

For example, she had one student who was injured during the semester and could not easily use his computer. So she encouraged him to podcast his assignments. She found that this student, whose performance was satisfactory, was quite skilled at narrative logic in the podcast environment.  

Because they can choose their own media, Mandy sees her students digging deeper, getting to a higher level of sophistication and application. She even has students apologize to her: “I’m sorry this is so long, but I really got into it.” She finds these assignments a delight to grade, as opposed to reading 15-20 academic papers on roughly the same topic. 

Faculty sometimes say students are not what they used to be. But Mandy has found  that by giving them choices and letting them discover their best mode of learning, she has come to trust her students to demonstrate just how smart they really are.


Cynthia Rutz: Exams that Promote Conversational Skills

Like Mandy, I had become doubtful that my exams for Core were really cultivating good intellectual habits. I realized that what I really wanted for my students was for them to have significant conversations about the important issues raised by our texts.  

Thus, this past fall I used an oral exam for both my midterm and final exam for Core. This seemed like a particularly appropriate assessment, since the Core theme for fall was Empathy and Dialogue.  Students came to my office in groups of four, prepared to discuss ideas from our texts. Beforehand, each student had to turn in a sheet giving two quotations and their context from three different texts, as well as two questions about each quotation for the group to discuss. For fifty minutes, I was a fly on the wall, just taking notes to ensure that each student met the grading criteria.  

These conversations were some of the best that took place all semester. For the final exam, among the texts they chose were Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In one group, students of different races talked about applications of King’s ideas to Black Lives Matter, whether BLM protestors could feel safe, the racism of their grandparents (both Black and white), and whether racism is getting better or worse in this country. It was one of the most honest conversations about racism that I have heard in Core. It was also the perfect way to end the semester: with students actually exhibiting dialogue and empathy, not just writing about it.


Salena Anderson: Using Formative Assessment to Improve Student Learning

Salena Anderson thought a lot about assessment as she prepared students to teach English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).  As a trainer of teachers, she became used to thinking of her courses via “backward design,” that is, considering the ends you want to achieve and designing the course to achieve those goals. In this model, assessment is not so much a measure of results, but rather a way to improve student understanding through constant feedback loops, what is called formative assessment.  

Of course, many teachers already do this in their classes, but Salena thinks there is a power in calling it formative assessment so that she is more conscious and deliberate about using it to improve student understanding.

One example she gave is using the “I do/we do/you do” model: When starting a new unit she may first give examples on the board, then have students work in groups, and finally assign individual practice either during class or as homework.  When she reviews the group and individual work, if she realizes students are struggling with an important concept, she will spend five minutes at the beginning or end of the next class going over it again.

Another low-stakes formative assessment she uses is reading questions, given as a “quiz” in Blackboard with set answers.  Students need only score 3 out of 5 questions to get 100%.  This gives students immediate feedback on their reading and also allows her to see what concepts from a text need more time in class.

Salena also builds in a “student choice day” near the end of the semester.  On that day she asks students to let her know what concepts need to be addressed more fully, or even what issues have not been covered that they think are important. Overall, Salena believes that formative assessment gives her students more confidence, since they can see their progress throughout the semester.  

Finally, Salena wanted to emphasize that using the backward design model has caused her to take more seriously the student learning objectives (SLOs) for her courses. She makes sure that each activity she assigns maps onto at least one of her SLOs for the course. Another way to think about it is to first consider what you want your students to be able to do or know after the class is over and then design your formative assessments with that goal in mind. 


For Further Reading

1. Here is a good explanation of the differences between summative and formative assessment: Formative and Summative Assessments | Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning

2. Here is a short account of Backward Design, including a brief (11 minutes) video by Grant Wiggins, who literally wrote the book on the subject: Backward Design | Derek Bok Center, Harvard University

3. From Indiana University here are some specific examples of alternative forms of assessment: Alternatives to Traditional Exams and Papers: Assessing Student Learning