Progress report: Alternative assessment

As a ThinqStudio fellow, I’ve been exploring assessment. When I attended DPL this summer, I discovered a new interest that has become the focus of my work as a fellow this year: rethinking assessment.

I’ve long been dissatisfied with the process and effects of assigning and justifying grades. And I’m not the only one; people have been finding that grades can be ineffective, arbitrary, and demotivating to students for many years. With the ThinqStudio fellowship, I’ve finally had the space and resources to think deeply about how I could do things differently in my courses. The questions I’m focusing on this year as a fellow are:

How can assessments help increase students’ motivation for learning and encourage them attend to and act on feedback?

How can we “teach more by grading less?”

Fall 2017

This fall, I implemented experiments with self-assessment in both of my courses: one upper-level online undergraduate and one in-person graduate seminar.  I presented preliminary findings from this experiment at the CFD Spotlight on Teaching event in October.

In these two Fall courses, I was pleased to find that many students were really engaged with the self-assessment process and wrote impressive, thoughtful reflections on their work. However, others did the bare minimum–or less. I also found that it was much easier to involve students in setting the criteria for assignments and self-assessments in my in-person grad seminar than in my online undergrad course.

I also organized a book club on Hacking Assessment, which included faculty from across CU Denver and even one from Boulder. Members of the book club have also joined a Slack channel to share resources, and anyone interested is welcome to join us as well.

One of the things I’ve taken away from our book club is that grading less or using self-assessment doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t ever grade or that we don’t ever use points. What matters, of course, are the goals for our assignments. For example, more assignments–especially the ones that scaffold to larger things, like a paper outline–can be graded as complete/incomplete.

Spring 2018

Members of the book club will continue to meet regularly through Spring 2018 to offer each other feedback and support on developing alternative assessments. Our plan is that in each meeting, one person will briefly present something they’re working on, such as a new assignment or course design, and then the group will provide feedback. If you are interested in joining us, please contact me.

I am planning a workshop this Spring on alternative assessment, on a Friday in February or March. Stay tuned for more details!

I’ll continue to iterate and develop self-assessment in my Spring 2018 online course, based on feedback from students and faculty this semester. In particular, I want to think about how students in online courses can be more involved in setting assignment criteria.

I want to figure out how I can help students set their own goals for the course at the beginning of the semester and reflect on their progress at midterm and at the end of the course. I want to explore how this could work in a large lecture course. This Spring, I’m going to start developing an alternative-assessment framework for a 75-person first-year intro course I’ll be teaching in Fall 2018.

Broader Questions

Though the book club and in my work with assessment this semester, a number of more general questions have come up that we are planning to contemplate further:

  • We have to accept that not every student can be motivated and engaged, but how can we help more of them get there, especially in the task of self-assessment? How can we help them see the value of self-assessment?
  • How do we ensure equity in self-assessment, given that students from privileged groups may have a tendency to overestimate their own performance?
  • Many students benefit from more attempts at mastery (eg. allowing them to revise and resubmit once or even as many times as they need), but how can instructors manage or reduce the added labor?
  • When the gate-keeping function of grades is necessary in pre-requisite courses,  how do we achieve that without reducing student motivation?
  • Will too much freedom and self-direction leave students adrift and unmotivated, especially in online or large intro courses? What is the right balance between the instructor’s rules and structures and the students’ agency?

Future plans

Research project

In the Hacking Assessment book club, we looked at some of the research on grades and saw that they are pretty effective at motivating A students to get more A’s, but that poor grades can have particularly demotivating effects on students who are struggling. And we know that first-generation students and those who are members of under-represented groups drop out of college at higher rates than their more privileged peers.

This has led a group of ThinqStudio affiliates to ask:

Is the traditional grading system particularly demotivating for first-generation and under-represented students?

One of our tasks for Spring 2018 is to design a study to pursue that question and ideally to begin collecting data. Once we publish our initial findings, we will be well-positioned to apply for national grants to further explore these issues.

Building an alternative assessment network

There are a lot of resources aimed at K12 teachers. There’s even a new podcast, a Twitter hashtag, and a Facebook group with nearly 8,000 members. While these are all very useful for those of us in higher ed, we might need our own networks too.

If anyone knows of one, please contact me! If I can’t find one, I’d like to build it.  I am imagining a national network of people in higher ed who want to rethink grades. To start, if you are interested in this, please join our Slack channel.

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