Approaches to Assessing Learning

Evaluating learning based solely on how students perform on exams, tests, quizzes, and assignments doesn’t always allow a line of communication to open up between instructors and students.

At CTE, we encourage you to consider alternative modes of assessment that provide more continuous and meaningful indicators of how students are learning. Receiving feedback from students throughout the semester, particularly at the conclusion of important units, is another helpful strategy. Let your students talk to you about how and what they’re learning. Relying on grades alone doesn’t provide a comprehensive sense of how students are learning the course material. Without student feedback, it’s difficult to fully assess the learning process. Finally, consider using assignments, projects or papers to assess student achievement of course learning outcomes; well-designed assignments can produce more robust learning than timed exams.  

Assessing learning

Teachers need continuous, accurate information about student learning. Asking students for their input and responding to it can reduce gaps between teaching and learning. Here are several techniques to help you assess and get feedback from your students throughout the semester.

First, periodic low-stakes assignments such as reading reflections, quizzes, problem sets or other homeworks enable you to gauge and respond to your students' learning in an ongoing way. They help scaffold the learning you want to happen by providing students practice and feedback on critical skills or content. They also provide structure to students' time of the course and create multiple checkpoints to keep students on track.  

Second, the one-minute paper is a brief, anonymous feedback instrument you can use more than once during the semester. At the end of a class, ask these two questions: “What is the most important thing you learned today in this class?” and “What important question remains unanswered?” Then, allow students 5-10 minutes to respond to those questions in writing. At the beginning of the following class, discuss the results with students. Let them know that you’ve read the papers, and respond to their feedback.

Third, try using brief in-class learning checks ("time-outs") that enable students to monitor, deepen, or apply their learning. Think about it: when we read, we often stop to read something a second time, to weigh a thought or to verify a detail. You can do this during class by prompting students to reflect and briefly write about an idea just explored during class, or respond to a clicker or poll question. You can also establish a signal for students to use if they want to call a time-out when they need a moment to consider a point.The goal is to encourage students and teachers to think about material, to interact, to integrate, and to assimilate. 

Fourth, the “muddiest point” technique is simple yet remarkably efficient; it provides a high return of information for a very low investment of time and energy.  Ask students to jot down a quick response to one question: What was the muddiest point in ________? In the blank, ask students to respond to a lecture, discussion, homework assignment, or instructional method.

This technique helps you know what students find least clear or most confusing about a topic. You can use that feedback to discover which points are most difficult for students to learn and to guide them about which topics to focus on. At the same time, this technique requires students to quickly identify what they don’t understand and articulate muddy points, which engages them in higher-order thinking about their individual learning processes.

Many instructors find it useful to get feedback from students at mid-semester, rather than only at the end. This allows you to make mid-course corrections that can benefit both you and your students. For example, if your PowerPoint slides have too much text for students to read, finding this out by midterm — rather than at the end of the semester — gives you an opportunity to change your slide format.

If you decide to get midterm feedback, we encourage you to follow these principles:

  • Don’t ask if you don’t want to know. If you don’t intend to make changes to a course or an assignment that students are having difficulty with, it’s best to not ask for their input.
  • Let students know that you’ve read their comments and will respond to them appropriately. Follow through and make changes that are feasible for the course. If students suggest changes that you can’t make, explain why not.

Here are some sample questions you can include in your midterm survey to assess student learning: "How have you worked toward your learning goals this semester? Where have you succeeded? Where do you still need to improve? What components of the class are going well? Which are not going as well as you would like? Please provide an update of your project: What progress have you made? Are you comfortable with the direction? Are you finding the types of resources you need? Is there anything you need help with?" 

There are innumerable ways to create assignments, projects, or papers that align with course or module learning outcomes. Here are some advantages of using major assignments over exams:

  • Assignments are a great way to engage students and to help them see the value of what they are learning
  • Students tend to distribute their time more effectively when working on papers and projects than on studying for exams
  • Assignments are associated with longer-lasting learning than exams
  • Projects and assignments are less stressful for most students than proctored, timed exams
  • There are fewer concerns about academic integrity than with exams

The assessments you choose can shape the rest of your course, so think about assignments that promote engagement and excitement about the material and that give students a sense of ownership, a chance to connect their learning to things that matter to them. Think, too, about ways to leverage audio, video, photography, visual presentation, social media and other online platforms in interesting ways.

For ideas about developing engaging and innovative assignments, search our Gallery of Course Portfolios