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Assessment Primer

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An Introduction to Assessment - the Basics

    What is assessment?

    Why do it?

    Why do it in a particular way?

This document addresses these important questions and provides an introduction to the basic concepts surrounding assessment. The discussion builds toward a generalized model of course development. Central to this discussion is the following key precept: Assessment drives student learning.

What Is Assessment?

Assessment is more than grades
To many, the word "assessment" simply means the process by which we assign students grades. Assessment is much more than this, however. Assessment is a mechanism for providing instructors with data for improving their teaching methods and for guiding and motivating students to be actively involved in their own learning. As such, assessment provides important feedback to both instructors and students.

Assessment is Feedback for Both Instructors and Students
Assessment gives us essential information about what our students are learning and about the extent to which we are meeting our teaching goals. But the true power of assessment comes in also using it to give feedback to our students. Improving the quality of learning in our courses involves not just determining to what extent students have mastered course content at the end of the course; improving the quality of learning also involves determining to what extent students are mastering content throughout the course.

Thus, in addition to providing us with valuable information about our students' learning, assessment should assist our students in diagnosing their own learning. That is, assessment should help students "become more effective, self-assessing, self-directed learners."1 Various classroom assessment techniques (CATs) have been developed with this in mind. The CATs provided in the FLAG site have been field-tested and shown to be effective at both measuring student mastery of content and at providing students with the feedback they need to become active participants in the learning process. Indeed, such feedback can positively influence what our students learn because assessment drives student learning.

Assessment Drives Student Learning
The types of assessment usually performed in first-year science, math, engineering, and technology (SMET) courses--giving students tests--merely inform students about their grade, or ranking, after they have received instruction. In addition, these common testing techniques--which typically test for fact-based knowledge and algorithmic problem solving--tell our students that this is the type of knowledge we think is most important. That is, we appear to value the understanding of concepts at a relatively low level.

Given that this is the type of assessment our students most frequently encounter, and that it will eventually lead to their final course grades, students learn to study the content in our courses in an expeditious way that allows them to succeed in passing many first-year SMET courses without necessarily developing deep understanding of concepts. It is our assessment that drives students learning.

In fact, assessment drives student learning whether we want it to or not. The consequences of relying upon our "tried and true" assessment methods are profound; these assessment methods may actively promote superficial learning. If we wish to actively steer what our students learn, and how well they learn it, we must (1) actually decide what we want our students to take away from the course, and (2) choose our classroom assessment techniques appropriately (Anderson & Sosniak, 1994; National Research Council, 1996; Tobias & Raphael, 1997; Wiggins, 1998). The importance of setting course goals--articulating them and writing them down--cannot be overstated. Evaluating the extent to which we have attained our stated course goals is the primary motivation for why we "do assessment". Furthermore, ensuring that our assessment techniques can measure our stated goals is the reason for why we "do assessment in a particular way".

Why do assessment?

To evaluate attainment of course goals
For every course we teach, we make decisions about what we want our students to know and be able to do by the end of the semester. Though we might not always formalize these goals by writing them down, we still make decisions about the curriculum, the instructional methods, and the assessment techniques we will employ. In terms of curriculum, we decide which topics to cover, and how they connect with previous and forthcoming topics. We also decide which instructional methods we will use to deliver the curriculum, be they lectures, group activities, readings, homework assignments, etc. Similarly, we decide what assessment techniques we will use (e.g., multiple-choice tests). Thus, the decisions we make reflect our goals for the course whether we state them or not. It is important, therefore, to formalize course goals while the course is still in its planning stage. The FLAG site includes a section on Aligning Goals CATs to assist with identifying course goals.

Formalizing our goals is only the first step, however. We must also measure the extent to which we are attaining these goals. This is why we do assessment. Logically, we must choose classroom assessment techniques that are appropriately suited to measuring our particular goals. That is, we must align our assessment techniques with our stated goals.

Why do assessment in a particular way?

To align assessment with stated goals
The most commonly employed CAT in first-year SMET courses is the multiple-choice test. Such tests are usually most effective at measuring fact-based knowledge and ability to perform algorithmic problem-solving. If our stated goals are that students be able to recite facts and to solve simple algorithmic problems, then in fact the chosen assessment technique is well aligned with the stated goals. However, if our goals include different student outcomes than these (e.g. an understanding of the scientific "process", a lifelong interest in the subject, the ability to critically analyze science in popular media, etc.), then this assessment technique will not provide useful feedback about attainment of these goals.

Furthermore, misaligned assessment techniques convey to our students the wrong message about what we want them to take from the course. As suggested previously, our choice of assessment technique drives student learning.2

These are the basics of assessment--the fundamental principles behind why we do it and why we do it in a particular way. At this point, if you are ready to stop reading about assessment and are ready to start implementing some of what you've just learned, the FLAG site provides a facility for formalizing course goals and a suite of field-tested classroom assessment techniques that are well suited for a variety of course goals.

But you may also wish to go beyond the basics of assessment. Concerns about assessment are not the only ones faced in the development and refinement of SMET courses; decisions about curriculum and instructional methods are equally important, and assessment plays a vital role in guiding these decisions. A more in-depth discussion of how curriculum, instructional methods, and assessment fit together is provided in "Assessment Within the Broader Context of Course Development," where we describe a generalized model for course development that builds upon the precepts that assessment drives student learning and that assessment provides feedback for both instructors and students. You will then find the FLAG site's facility for formalizing course goals and its suite of field-tested classroom assessment techniques to be of even greater value.

1. Angelo & Cross, 1993, p. 4

2. Anderson & Sosniak, 1994; National Research Council, 1996; Tobias & Raphael, 1997; Wiggins, 1998

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