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Educational Assessment —
Not Just an Afterthought

By Frances K. Stage

Most of us, as instructors, are in the habit of thinking about assessment as something that happens at the end of a course or a workshop or other educational process. By changing our thinking, we can better meet our audience’s needs, modify aspects of our instruction, and finally, at the end, evaluate the process. Here I suggest ways of thinking that expand the notions of assessment in terms of who is assessed and when.

We can think of assessment along two continua — one based on the subject and the other on time. Most often we assess educational experiences in terms of content (whether the relevant topics were covered adequately) and processes (whether the activities promoted learning). Ideally, assessment should also include whether or not participants learned what was intended, not just whether they think they learned what was intended. On a time continuum, while we most often assess at the end of a course, assessment can happen before or at the beginning of a course or workshop, continue throughout or at least once during the process, and then end with typical kinds of summative assessments.

Discussions of assessment of student learning and of course evaluation could fill books — and have. So here I concentrate primarily on assessments before and during a course or workshop and how to use those assessments to influence our learning in positive ways.

Research shows us that adjusting a learning experience according to the students who are in it can promote learning. Classes that incorporate the following elements promote student learning:

  • Social learning experiences that include peer teaching and group learning,
  • Varying instructional models from lecture and seminar formats,
  • Providing expectations that allow students to capitalize on personal strengths and interests, and
  • Capitalizing on authentic contexts and situations.1

By including assessments early and during a class or workshop, we might identify which of the above elements can be most useful in our learning situation.

Beginning. If your professional life is like mine, sufficient time never exists to completely prepare for a class or workshop. Nevertheless, for most of my professional life I expected to do just that. I envisioned nearly every minute of the event, and tried to ensure that I had sufficient material to fill the time with imparted wisdom. More recently, however, I have learned, from those who study college students, that some give and take in terms of educational events can promote learning. And one way of ensuring that give and take is through assessment.

Sources informing me at the beginning of the process can begin with assessments from a previous course or workshop. The most useful of these provide reactions to specific information and activities, and sometimes make suggestions for new topics that I had overlooked or that hold a particular relevance for participants. These are particularly useful if the upcoming audience is similar to a past audience. Occasionally, as an instructor, you are afforded the luxury of communicating with future participants, which is another way of informally assessing whether proposed aspects of the course might be useful or need modification.

In relatively small courses or workshops, class time or outside assignments can be scheduled in a way that provides an opportunity to take advantage of students’ particular skills or expertise. An assessment on the first day can solicit student experiences relevant to the course topic, expectations for the class, and even relevant expertise. Through assignments and sharing of projects, special needs or skills can be used to adapt the course to the students involved.

Throughout. During a course or workshop, I sometimes use one of two techniques to gauge how things are going. One is the “Comment Card,” and the other I will call the “Midcourse Correction.” The Comment Card is exactly what it sounds. At the end of class each student receives an index card on which they are to write a comment, question, or “no comment.” An envelope is passed around and each card is deposited in the envelope. The instructor peruses the comments and questions and begins the next class by addressing remaining issues. This technique is particularly useful for classes covering political, social or religious topics where some students might feel intimidated by majority opinion. Comment Cards can be useful for workshops, as comments written at each break can be used to clarify and summarize in the final workshop session.

A Midcourse Correction is useful to assess a new course or major changes to an old course. A handful of open-ended questions can assess opinions on the text, class exercises, the most difficult element about the class, the most helpful, and so forth. This is especially useful for an instructor who senses that things are not quite right. But the user must be willing to modify some aspects of the course, or it will be a useless exercise for the participants.

At the end. While most of us are used to conducting evaluations at the end of our courses, often students are stressed, or rushed and do not provide the most useful feedback. Web based technologies provide us with the ability to seek end of the course feedback that is better timed. In the past few years, I have used two different Web-based techniques for feedback. One is posting my evaluation form, as an assignment on Blackboard. On the syllabus, near the end of the course, students are assigned to complete the form, print it, and mail it to my staff member. She collects the completed forms and delivers them to me at the end of the semester.

A second Web based technique I have used is a free site available on the web at: http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/salgains/instructor/ . This site allows instructors to create an evaluation form, provide students with an address, login, and password to evaluate a class. Use of both of these technological approaches to evaluation have improved the responsiveness of my students and the usefulness of the feedback I have received.

By thinking of assessment as a tool for planning, for on-going feedback and change and by constructing it to be completed at a more leisurely pace in a relaxed atmosphere, I have been able to capitalize on feedback from my best critics, my students.

Notes:
1 Stage, F.K., Muller, P., Kinzie, A. & Simmons, A. (1998). Creating Learning Centered Classrooms: What does learning theory have to say? ASHE-ERIC Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University.