Assessing Student Learning

Chapter 38 - Educational Concepts and Models for the Field of Instrumentation - Advice for Teachers

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As a general rule, high achievement only takes place in an atmosphere of high expectations. Sometimes these expectations come from within: a self-motivated individual pushes himself or herself to achieve the extraordinary. Most often, the expectations are externally imposed: someone else demands extraordinary performance. One of your responsibilities as a teacher is to hold the standard of student performance high (but reasonable!), and this is done through valid, rigorous assessment.

When the time comes to assess your students’ learning, prioritize performance assessment over written or verbal response. In other words, require that your students demonstrate their competence rather than merely explain it. Performance assessment takes more time than written exams, but the results are well worth it. Not only will you achieve a more valid measurement of your students’ learning, but they will experience greater motivation to learn because they know they must put their learning into action.

Make liberal use of mastery assessments in essential knowledge and skill domains, where students must repeat a demonstration of competence as many times as necessary to achieve perfect performance. Not only does this absolutely guarantee students will learn what they should, but the prospect of receiving multiple opportunities to demonstrate knowledge or skill has the beneficial effect of relieving psychological stress for the student. Mastery assessment lends itself very well to the measurement of diagnostic ability.

An idea I picked up through a discussion on an online forum with someone from England regarding engineering education is the idea of breaking written exams into two parts: a mastery exam and a proportional exam. Students must pass the mastery exam(s) with 100% accuracy in order to receive a passing grade for each course, while the proportional exam is graded like any regular exam (with a score between 0% and 100%) and contributes to their letter grade1127. Students are given multiple opportunities to pass each mastery exam, with different versions of the mastery exam given at each re-take. Mastery exams cover all the basic concepts, with very straight-forward questions (no tricks or ambiguous wording). The proportional exam, by contrast, is a single-effort test filled with challenging problems requiring high-level thinking. By dividing exams into two parts, it is possible to guarantee the entire class has mastered basic concepts while challenging even the most capable students.

Another unconventional assessment strategy is to create multi-stage exams, where the grade or score received for the exam depends on the highest level passed. I have applied this to the subject of PLC programming: a large number of programming projects are provided as examples, each one fitting into one of four categories of increasing difficulty. The first level is the minimum required to pass the course, while the fourth level is so challenging that only a few students will be able to pass it in the time given. For each of these levels, the student is given the design parameters (e.g. “program a motor start-stop system with a timed lockout preventing a re-start until at least 15 seconds has elapsed”); a micro-PLC; a laptop computer with the PLC programming software; the necessary switches, relays, motors, and other necessary hardware; and 1 hour of time to build and program a working system. There are too many example projects provided for any student to memorize solutions to them all, especially when no notes are allowed during the assessment (only manufacturer’s documentation for the PLC and other hardware). This means the student must demonstrate both mastery of the basic PLC programming and wiring elements, as well as creative design skills to arrive at their own solution to the programming problem. There is no limit to the number of attempts a student may take to pass a given level, and no penalty for failed efforts. Best of all, this assessment method demands little of the instructor, as the working project “grades” itself.

My philosophy on assessment is that good assessment is actually more important than good instruction. If the assessments are valid and rigorous, student learning (and instructor teaching!) will rise to meet the challenge. However, even the best instruction will fail to produce consistently high levels of student achievement if students know their learning will never be rigorously assessed. In a phrase, assessment drives learning.

For those who might worry about an emphasis on assessment encouraging teachers to “teach to the test,” I offer this advice: there is nothing wrong with teaching to the test so long as the test is valid! Educators usually avoid teaching to the test out of a fear students might pass the test(s) without actually learning what they are supposed to gain from taking the course. If this is even possible, it reveals a fundamental problem with the test: it does not actually measure what you want students to know. A valid test is one that cannot be “foiled” by teaching in any particular way. Valid tests challenge students to think, and cannot be passed through memorization. Valid tests avoid asking for simple responses, demanding students articulate reasoning in their answers. Valid tests are passable only by competence.

Another important element of assessment is long-term review. You should design the courses in such a way that important knowledge and skill areas are assessed on an ongoing basis up through graduation. Frequent review of foundational concepts is a best practice for attaining mastery in any domain.