Assessment to align teaching, learning and decision-making
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! If you look back through the archive you will notice that one very important educational topic is not well represented: assessment. So I’m delighted to have as guests this week two experts in assessment and feedback: my colleague Dr. Laurie Delnoij and Dr. Dominique Sluijsmans. Without further ado, I am going to hand over to them to provide you with some inspiration and curated resources on the topic. As usual, we are looking forward to hearing your comments and experiences!
Feedback has become a magic word in Higher Education. Programmes want to create a feedback culture in which students develop agency in their learning process. Assessment processes changed in this regard as well. For example, students working on portfolios, a shift to programmatic assessment and time spent on making and implementing rubrics. Simone, who is teaching a business course at university level, notices that this costs her a lot of energy. Not only the implementation of these processes, but also understanding what is necessary at which point in students’ learning processes and for what purposes. She notices that students experience this ambiguity too. They ask when exactly they have to show what knowledge and skills and in which way they have to do so. All of this brings Simone out of balance. It is time to restore this balance.
An important aim of Higher Education is to deliver professionals with a certain level of independency, mastering domain-specific knowledge and relevant skills. Students need a learning environment that challenges and guides them towards this professional independence and enables them to achieve educational goals. In such a learning environment, assessment is necessary to determine whether students adequately master the learning goals, whether they are well on their way in doing so and what guidance they need in their learning process. Assessment involves the process of gathering information on students’ progress. It is not so much about the measurements or instruments, but more about what information is collected at what time and by whom in relation to a specific decision. The type of decision guides the assessment purpose and design. We distinguish three assessment purposes:
Assessment as a learning strategy
Assessment as learning helps students to accurately assess and regulate themselves. In this process, effective learning strategies such as diagnostic and practice testing (retrieval practice) are key. Such practices provide the necessary insight into how students are on their way in mastering the learning goals and where additional self-study or guidance would be beneficial. Although effective learning strategies are consistent determinants of students’ success, students often lack the knowledge and skills to apply them adequately during self-study (Kirk-Johnson et al., 2019). Instead of studying the material again or repeat instruction, it is more effective to ask diagnostic questions that stimulate active retrieval from memory (so-called testing effect; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). In addition, regular use of assessment as a learning enhancer encourages distributed learning- as opposed to cramming (Sodestrom & Bjork, 2015). This assessment purpose involves, for example, repeated self-assessment and self-testing, by using flash cards or exit tickets.
Assessment as a feedback process
Repeated retrieval, however, is not sufficient for independent mastery of (complex) learning goals. Equally important is a feedback process in which students receive focused guidance and – if necessary – additional instruction during the learning process. Feedback is especially effective when it informs students before they need to do something and it challenges students to seek feedback themselves (De Kleijn, 2021). Classroom feedback combined with peer and self-generated feedback helps students move towards independence (Nicol, 2021). An important prerequisite for effective feedback is that it is separated from assessment as an evaluation process (see below), but primarily contributes to a student's better understanding of their own thinking and actions (Winstone & Boud, 2020). De Kleijn (2021) proposed an instructional model and feedback prompts, to stimulate students’ feedback seeking, sense-making, usage and responding to feedback.
Assessment as an evaluation process
The first two purposes are embedded in daily educational practice and can be considered didactic tools, given the developmental function. Information is exclusively used to determine what is needed for the student to achieve the learning goals. A third function is to determine whether a student demonstrates sufficient independence to award credits or a certificate, for example. In such an assessment process, students – sometimes literally – go on stage, to show that they master the intended knowledge or skills. Such assessment procedures (e.g. performance assessments) require a different design than assessment as a learning strategy or feedback process.
As the different purposes show, assessment is no longer separated from education or didactics. Whereas assessment used to be a more technical issue, focusing on psychometric quality of specific instruments, institutions now approach it more as an educational design and curriculum issue with attention for educational quality. Assessment is increasingly fulfilling a developmental function, aimed at activating students towards professional independence.
A topical question here is how to balance the three purposes optimally in courses and, especially, on a curriculum level. The following three principles might be crucial in balancing the three assessment functions on a curriculum level:
Students’ expertise development
A beginning student entering from high school or secondary education might have different needs compared to students who are already further along the learning process. For example, the need to implement assessment as an evaluation process might be higher for beginning students, as they will not yet oversee the overall and abstract learning goals – due to a lack of prior knowledge, perspective and a greater need for external motivators (Persky & Robinson, 2017).
Backward design and constructive alignment
Designing a curriculum requires decent alignment between educational goals, learning activities and assessment (so-called constructive alignment, see Biggs, 1996). Clear goals are necessary to set a good idea of what students should be able to do independently in the context of a specific course. The clearer these goals, the more direction it gives to the interpretation and implementation of various assessment purposes. As a vehicle to reflect on constructive alignment, Bloom’s revised taxonomy provides insight on the link between required levels of thinking (e.g. understanding or application), assessment methods and suitable instructional strategies. This overview also gives some key recommendations for using different assessment methods effectively.
Feasibility for students, teachers and organisation
Assessment should be balanced in such a way that it a) helps students to achieve educational goals and receive required/desired certification of value within a specific timeframe and with sufficient pleasure, b) helps teachers to teach the intended goals with sufficient pleasure within a set of conditions and 3) fits within applicable legal and organisational frameworks. These principles are key for adopting an end-to-end approach in securing quality standards and promoting student success in higher education (e.g. Cecilio-Fernandes et al., 2017).
To conclude, we challenge you to reflect on the following two questions:
How do you balance the three assessment purposes in a course and curriculum?
How do you take into account the three principles for optimally balancing different assessment purposes, in order to guide students towards professional independence?
Kirk-Johnson et al. (2019) – On how students may misinterpret the effort it costs to apply effective learning strategies as poor learning;
Biwer et al. (2020) – On how we can teach students in Higher Education to use effective study strategies;
Roediger & Karpicke (2006) – On the power of testing memory and the implications for educational practice;
Sodestrom & Bjork (2015) – On learning versus performance;
Cornell University on the why and how of using different assessment tools;
Maastricht University Library’s Tool Wheel assists teaching staff in choosing an appropriate tool for their given purpose. After selecting the purpose and choosing a tool, information is provided on what the tool is and how to use it;
Surrey Assessment & Learning Lab on feedback opportunities in online learning;
De Kleijn (2021) – An instructional model for student feedback processes;
Nicol (2021) – On the power of internal feedback;
Winstone & Boud (2020) – On the need to disentangle assessment and feedback in Higher Education;
Persky & Robinson (2017) – On expertise development and implications for instruction;
Biggs (1996) – On constructive alignment;
Cecilio-Fernandes et al. (2017) – On requirements for assessment programs to enhance learning;
University of Warwick Principles of Assessment Design (including feasibility for students & staff);
Let’s talk about feedback - a curated compilation of ideas and resources on feedback.
Dr. Laurie Delnoij is an Assistant Professor at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics in the Netherlands. She supports staff in designing assessment within their courses and on a programme level, bearing in mind different assessment purposes, constructive alignment and student motivation. Her research interests involve assessment, evaluation and measurement in the context of Higher Education and the workplace. Next to her position at Maastricht University, she is co-coordinator of EARLI’s Special Interest Group on Assessment and Evaluation. You can find her on Twitter @lauriedelnoij.
Dr. Dominique Sluijsmans is an expert in the field of curriculum design, assessment and feedback. She leads a research group (‘lectoraat’) on integral curriculum development at Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and is a lecturer in the master programme on Curriculum Development in Pedagogical and Educational Sciences at Radboud University in the Netherlands. As part of the Dutch group Toetsrevolutie, she provides consultancy, training and keynotes on assessment and formative evaluation for all layers of education. Find Dominique on Twitter @dmasluijsmans.