Assessing Student Learning

Class evaluations and observations of teaching provide excellent feedback about student satisfaction and teaching style, but they don’t always show how much a student is learning. Changing the way an instructor assesses student learning can dramatically improve teaching effectiveness, as it provides immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t.



Assessment is not the same as grading

Traditionally, instructors evaluate their students’ knowledge by exams or papers, often only at the middle or end of a term. As a result, an instructor lecturing to a group of students might not recognize until the final exam if students are consistently confused.

Other instructors who track their students’ work more regularly might assume such written homework is helping achieve a major goal of the course. Yet students who do well on homework might not be able to apply their knowledge to new situations created in exams - they’ve followed what they learned from the textbook without understanding the larger principles.

This is all to say the grades students achieve on assignments, exams, or papers do not necessarily demonstrate student learning. It’s necessary to receive useful and timely feedback on student learning from the students themselves.



How to implement student assessment of learning

In order to get a sense of the effectiveness of teaching and quality of learning taking place, provide students an opportunity to offer anonymous assessment. Instructors might formulate questions to help students to focus on the following:

  • Students’ academic skills and intellectual development in the course to a point and if they feel confident moving onto the next topic
  • Students’ assessments of their own learning skills and if they feel prepared to learn new material without classroom review.
  • Students’ reactions to various teaching methods, materials, and assignments and if they feel the assignments/exams fairly cover the material stressed in class.

Based on the feedback instructors receive, they can adjust their teaching to help students learn. The following questions might be approached in one of the following ways:

  • Documented Problem Solution: Rather than simply requiring students to do an assignment, the instructor asks students to solve a singular problem and 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 time should focus on improvement.
  • 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. From this, the instructor can determine how well students are using their time and how their skills are developing.
  • One-Minute Papers: The teacher ends class a few minutes early and asks one or two questions students answer, on index cards or notebook paper, and hand in. Questions are often something like, “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?” From this, instructors can address direct concerns in the next class period.



Assessment of Teaching

Just as important as assessing student learning throughout the term is assessing one’s own teaching. This can be achieved through self-reflection, teacher observations, or student evaluations. Consider giving students an opportunity throughout the term to provide anonymous feedback on teaching within the class.

Typically, simple questions are the best method to gather feedback from students. Remember the phrasing on questions is everything. By tailoring questions to address students and their learning (such as “What is hindering your success in this class?” rather than “What do you not like about your instructor?”) this can avoid personal attacks or unhelpful feedback.