Assessing Student Learning

A student listens intently.

Assessment Overview

How do you know if your students are achieving your specific learning goals for a course? Class evaluations and observations provide excellent feedback about student satisfaction and teaching style, but they don’t provide the important detail of how much your students are learning. Changing the way you assess student learning can dramatically improve your teaching effectiveness, as it provides immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

Grading Is Not the Same as Assessing

Traditionally, many teachers have evaluated their students’ knowledge by giving examinations and papers, often only at the middle and end of the quarter. As a result, a professor lecturing to a large introductory class might not recognize until final exams are finished that students consistently confused two important and closely related ideas.

Other professors, who track their students’ work more regularly—through problem sets, for example— might assume that such written homework is helping achieve a major goal of the course, such as to develop students’ general problem-solving ability. Yet students who do well on homework might be unable to apply their knowledge to the novel situations created for exams; they’ve learned how to follow the textbook examples without understanding larger principles of problem solving.

In-course assessment techniques systematize the process of getting useful and timely feedback on student learning.

Assess Learning Anonymously

Because in-course assessment techniques are designed to gauge the effectiveness of the teaching and the quality of the learning taking place (and not simply to see who is or isn’t studying), they are usually anonymous. These anonymous assignments typically can be completed quickly, and focus on three areas:

  1. students’ academic skills and intellectual development (e.g., do students have sufficient background knowledge or academic skills to move onto the next topic?)
  2. students’ assessments of their own learning skills (e.g., do students feel prepared to learn new material from the textbook, without classroom review?)
  3. students' reactions to various teaching methods, materials, and assignments (e.g., do students believe the exams fairly cover the material stressed in class?).

Based on this feedback, faculty can adjust their teaching to help students learn. The following are some examples of assessment techniques you might consider using:

Documented Problem Solution

Rather than simply requiring students to do a number of problems for homework, the instructor asks students to solve a problem and also to write down step-by-step what they were thinking at each stage of the problem-solving process. Reading through these solutions gives an instructor a sense of how well the students are developing their problem-solving skills and can help the instructor determine how much class or section time should focus on improving this academic skill.

Studies of Time Spent Learning

This technique asks students to estimate, check, document, and reflect on how well they use study time. Using one assignment or activity, students estimate how much time it should take to finish the task and then monitor themselves as they complete the assignment. Afterward they write a brief account of the process and the results. In reading these accounts, teachers can gain a sense of how well students use their time and whether students’ learning skills are developed sufficiently to handle the course load. Students become much more aware of their habits regarding study time and this awareness usually encourages them to use their study time more effectively.

One-minute Papers

The teacher ends class a few minutes early and asks one or two questions that students answer, on index cards or notebook paper, and hand in. Questions often asked are, “What were the main points of today’s class?” or “What point or example in today’s lecture would you like to see reviewed or clarified?” Even in a large class, reading through student responses takes relatively little time. At the next class session, teachers can address questions or problems students have raised.

In short, good assessment techniques both assess and teach; the time spent doing these assignments helps students learn more effectively and efficiently. When students are encouraged to take the time to gauge what they know and how well developed their learning and academic skills are, they begin to recognize the importance of learning how to learn, as well as the importance of course content.

VPTL sponsors workshops and provides individual consultation on in-course assessment techniques. You can also consult Angelo, T. & Cross, P. (1993) Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass) for an excellent and comprehensive treatment of assessment techniques. This page has drawn heavily on their work.

Resources for Assessing Student Learning