Creating fair, rigorous and aligned assessments can be difficult. We want intentionally designed assessments that are true reflections of the skills, knowledge and abilities acquired by our students. However, our goals for assessments and our students’ understanding of assessment purposes are often misaligned.
“Will this be on the test?” is a common question that can frustrate faculty, creating the perception that students only care about grades. We can mitigate misaligned expectations when we’re thoughtful and purposeful in our assessment plans, and we can align our assessments to our courses using the “backward design” approach described by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their 1998 book Understanding by Design.
Inside the Backward Design Approach
In a nutshell, the backward design approach reimagines the idea of “teaching to the test” to remove the negative connotation. In this approach, we first look to our learning outcomes/objectives (terminology varies among educational institutions). The learning outcomes articulate what we want our students to know (or be able to do) by the end of the course, unit or lesson. After creating, revising or revisiting our outcomes/objectives, we consider how our students can prove to us that they met them.
This process shapes our assessments, and our assessments in turn shape our learning environment, class time and lectures. In essence, we design our teaching around the skills and knowledge necessary for successful assessment attempts.
The key to achieving effective backward design lies in creating assessments that enable students to show us what they know or can do, while also making the process of learning more intentionally experiential. By providing ample opportunities to offer feedback, encourage growth and enhance knowledge transfer, the design of our assessment plan facilitates this.
Scaffolding Formative Assessments
For many students, assessments equal exams, and exams equal grades. These learners don’t see them as learning opportunities or important components of their courses. Assessments are potentially punitive hurdles they need to overcome by the path of least resistance.
Those negative expectations about assessments often come about when students receive limited, narrow feedback about their performance, such as in the form of a grade or short comments. True formative assessments include feedback that not only helps students learn and grow but also requires them to interact with the feedback in order to improve their performance on future assessments. Conversely, summative assessments, while they may include comments, don’t require the student to read or take feedback into account for future work.
To ensure that students learn from their assessments—and don’t only value them simply for their grades (for grades always do matter)—consider scaffolding assessments such that students build the skills they need for increasingly complex tasks. Properly scaffolded assessments require students to learn from past performance before attempting the next assignment.
What Is Scaffolding?
In construction, scaffolds are temporary structures put in place to support the building as it’s being built or repaired. The scaffold can be gradually adjusted or removed as the building becomes more and more stable. In much the same way, instructional scaffolds provide additional support to help students build skills necessary to “stand alone” in more complex tasks. Much of this scaffolding can take place in the instructional space, but it can also be created through formative assessments.
Cumulative, large-scale assessments are often complex and require students to attain multiple skills or layers of understanding. Smaller, less complex tasks can be created to help students master the different skills they need before they attempt the larger assignment, with feedback on the scaffold assessments allowing students and faculty to identify what additional skills or knowledge the student needs in order to succeed in meeting the course goals.
Scaffolded assignments not only help students build skills, but they also reduce the anxiety that larger-scale assignments can produce. If a course culminates in a large-scale, high-stakes assessment, scaffolding breaks down the heavy weight of that grade into multiple, lower-stakes assessments that build up to the synthesized whole. The final product is of higher quality, with lower risk and minimized stress for students.
Scaffolding a Research Paper Assignment: An Example
Total of 250 points/60% of overall course grade
Students write a research paper exploring a question of interest related to the course content.
(250 points, 100% of project grade)
Instructor identifies relevant skills as:
Information literacy, critical thinking and development of ideas related to the field of study
New scaffolded assessment components:
- Students develop a topic and research question (5 points, 2% of project grade).
- Students utilize library databases and research skills to locate relevant articles and develop a works cited page (10 points, 4% of project grade).
- Students write an annotated bibliography summarizing and analyzing each source in the context of their research question (50 points, 20% of research project).
- Students write a literature review that consolidates the information in their annotated bibliography (60 points, 24% of research project).
- Students complete the research paper in its entirety (125 points, 50% of research project).
The Real Impact of Intentionally Designed Assessments
When we have opportunities to be creative and mindful about the assessments used in our work, the design process itself works its way into how we lead our students through the intentional experiences that empower their learning. By allowing grading to be aligned well with scaffolded feedback loops, we ensure that the grades tied to assessments also shape student motivation and perceptions, moving us all beyond the negative connotations behind “teaching to the test.”
Intentionally designed assessments provide students an opportunity to try, fail, adjust and try again, resulting in richer and deeper learning. And that’s something that we all want, isn’t it?
A special guest to the Teaching and Learning Studio, Dr. Amy Simolo is a senior customer success manager at D2L who works with higher education clients. Previously, Amy spent over 10 years as a faculty development professional, training faculty teaching within both face-to-face and online environments.