One of the challenges of online learning is finding ways to assess students. 

I think it’s important to reconsider what the real purpose of assessment is. When I first started teaching, I thought it was all about instilling work ethic and responsibility in my students. But at the same time, I wanted to make sure that I gave them every opportunity to pass the class. So I have many assignments, had grades for class participation and attendance, offered extra credit assignments, and probably some other things I’ve long forgotten. 

Now, I had always paid lip service to the concept of student-centered learning, but eventually, I came to the realization that what I was doing wasn’t student-centered at all. When you really think about it, it made passing the class the goal, rather than actually learning the material and the motivation to complete all the requirements wasn’t learning, but compliance. Students did the assignments because they were required to. And with that came all of the problems we have with assessment, late papers, cheating, excuses, and some just not doing it. This should cause alarm bells to go off. 

I started reducing the number of summative assessments in my classes. My classes are generally of a manageable size, under 30. I started using project-based learning that incorporated formative assessments, peer review, and self-evaluation. Assessment is continuous and varied. Students write blogs, take quizzes, and provide examples of work throughout the project. They work in small groups, which reduces the amount of assessments I have to deal with a little.

Each class is divided into four or five groups and are assigned to a day when I will review their work. It’s much less daunting to look at a few blogs each day rather than having to look at all at once. It also improves the quality of my feedback. I’m sure everyone understands that the last paper graded rarely got the attention to detail that the first one did when I viewed them all at once. 

Assessment in the classes is continuous. I’m always observing what they do. In a small class, I get to know them fairly well (though I still have close to 100 students each term) and I assess the whole student. I’m looking for growth as much as achievement, which accommodates differentiation. If you think of assessment as a 10-story building, some students start climbing the stair on the ground floor, while others hop on the elevator on the 8th floor. The student who started on the ground and climbs to the sixth floor should be rewarded and encouraged, too.

Formative quizzes that are auto-graded are a great way to monitor student progress. Since they aren’t graded, students don’t have an incentive to cheat. I look at the scores they get and make note of the students who might need some help. But they also don’t have an incentive to complete them and keep track of those who don’t. This group usually falls into two categories, those at the top and those at the bottom. I really don’t want students wasting their time doing things that won’t help them learn, but it also warns me about a student who might be disengaged. 

The summative assessment is based on my observations of their work throughout the term and the evidence they have provided in their journals. There are four categories: content, technical skills, learning process, and reflection and documentation, all of equal weight. The last two categories ensure that the focus is on learning and growth, while the first two are about achievements. 

In the end, what I’ve come to realize is that the true purpose of assessment is to help students learn. Our current system is designed to create winners and losers and to punish students who don’t perform as we want them to. That’s being teacher-centered. I want them all to learn and all to win.. As Benjamin Zander, the famous conductor asked “Who am I being that my players’ eyes aren’t shining?” The motivation to learn comes from within. We can make students perform, but we cannot make them learn. I want my students’ eyes to shine and to learn because they want to. 

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