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Together While Apart: Assessment

Patti West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
20-year education veteran; Senior Director of Customer Engagement






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As a 20-year, public education veteran, most of my friends have been or are educators, which means I spend most of my time with teachers. Recently, as this pandemic has upended the world, I have talked to scores of educators, from Kindergarten all the way up to the graduate level, and I have also watched my own teenage children struggle to adapt to a new learning environment. If there is one takeaway from all of this, it is that remote learning challenges the norms of education across the spectrum. Obviously, that underlying fact presents obstacles for all aspects of learning, but perhaps most impacted is the area of assessment. At its core, assessment is about understanding what students know, understand, and can do. Whether it’s informal, formative assessments or more summative exams, tests, and quizzes, when that assessment takes place in a remote context, even (perhaps) asynchronously, unique challenges can arise.

In our previous posts in the Together While Apart series, we focused on communication and instruction respectively; in this post, we want to explore the area of assessment in a remote and potentially asynchronous learning environment. Here are several strategies to approach the three main challenges of remote assessment: student mindset, content/structure, and logistics/technology.

Instructor Challenge: How can I help students establish the right mindset to take the assessment seriously? Strategies:
  • Discuss assessment scenarios explicitly, stating expectations and providing helpful strategies. When students are away from the school building, it can be easy to forget the norms and expectations of an academic setting. With assessments, in particular, you need them to treat the situation as if it’s taking place in a school setting, but they may need concrete reminders of that, especially younger students and/or students with no prior experience in remote learning. An upfront discussion with concrete examples that students can revisit will help to build the proper mindset. You might consider using a This, Not That structure.

    Pro Tip: Consider creating this guidance in advance and with student input. Doing so will push them to reflect and think critically about their conduct, and it also helps to build their buy-in. After all, if the class constructs the rules together, they’re no longer YOUR rules; the students themselves have developed and adopted them. When teachers use this kind of process, they often see students policing themselves and each other, and that can be more powerful than anything the instructor might say.
  • Review the honor code. Many experts recommend this step before formal, summative assessments in any environment, but in remote learning, it is even more critical. With students in their childhood bedrooms or at the kitchen table, they might adopt the relaxed demeanor of those environments; therefore, they need reminders that they are still engaged in academic work and must adhere to those standards, including academic integrity expectations. Reviewing the honor code and highlighting its applicability reasserts the expectations of the classroom, regardless of time and space.
Instructor Challenge: How can I design assessments so that I can trust that students’ work is authentic? Strategies:
  • Consider using performance assessments where students demonstrate their new learning in a product, such as a research paper, portfolio, project, experiment, prototype, or even an actual performance. Since performance assessments often have multiple pieces and generally take a more real-world format, teachers report feeling a higher degree of confidence that products are genuine. When performance assessments are completed in stages with smaller pieces of the product due along the way, it also helps the teacher to see the learning and the work progress naturally.

    Pro Tip: You can even personalize many performance assessments! Depending on the discipline or content area, you may be able to tie assessments to individual student interests and passions. Personalized assessments help to engage students more meaningfully, but they also contextualize assessment products in a way that minimizes chances for collusion.
  • Minimize the use of easily searchable answers. One way to overcome this challenge is to avoid literal or recall questions in favor of more complex higher-order thinking skills. (Strive for the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge!)

    For example, a middle school Language Arts teacher might ask students to identify a metaphor in a passage and explain how the author uses it to achieve a specific effect rather than simply asking “What is a metaphor?” Take a look at more examples from various domains and levels here. For more information about exam design, check out this post on exam design principles.
  • Consider using a portfolio system with multiple ways for students to demonstrate mastery. Like other performance assessments, these are often individualized in a way that helps to guarantee that the work is authentic to the student. Additionally, portfolios are built over time and reflect a variety of assessment types, increasing opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding and receive feedback on their work.
Instructor Challenge: How can I use technology to minimize issues with academic integrity? Strategies:
  • Require reading and agreeing to the honor code as part of your assessment procedure. For example, use a form with a required action/field such as a signature or even a document signature software that requires students to read and agree to the terms. (There are even a few free versions available!) While simply having this in place doesn’t guarantee that students will not violate academic integrity principles, it can be a powerful reminder of the expectations. Signing it formalizes the “contract” between institution/teacher and student, helping to build accountability.
  • Establish a process for checking originality/authenticity and make that transparent to students. Make sure to use it consistently! For Turnitin Feedback Studio users, this is probably the easiest of all the suggestions. If you are not yet a user, check out this demo. Once you have your tool in place, you might even allow students to practice with a low-stakes assignment first so that they can understand how it works, what it means, and what your expectations are. This will allow you to give them the right kind of feedback to guide them BEFORE they get into a formalized assessment task.
  • Set specific parameters for test administration (time, date, platform, etc.) To allow for flexibility in the asynchronous environment, try offering more than one time slot, but then you will want more than one version of the assessment. Have students sign up for specific slots in advance to make management, organization, and record-keeping easier.
  • Consider using testing or proctoring software that will allow you to take steps such as randomizing questions, blocking access to social media or web browsers, and even prohibiting printing, downloading, or taking screenshots of the exam content.

While these strategies are important, the circumstances of the moment can be incredibly overwhelming, especially if remote learning is brand new to some. For instructors, please remember that you do not need to be perfect right now, and you do not need to address every concern right away. You are, after all, only human, and it will take time to learn all that you need to know and to practice these new skills. Try picking ONE strategy to address a particular problem and focus on perfecting that before you layer on the next option. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “All of life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”

As you embrace the experiments of remote learning, be sure to check out our Remote Learning Resources page, where we have brought together our best resources and will be adding brand new ones, specifically designed for today’s challenges. In particular, check out the VidBITS (Videos of Best Instructional Tips), a rapidly expanding collection of short video clips about the pedagogy and product features that best support our users.