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I Love Assessment--And You Can, Too!

by Melissa Wehler, PhD

When you talk to someone in higher ed about assessment, you need to prepare for a number of reactions. Everything from disgusted eye rolling to a rant about the corporatizing of academics. Assessment, while nothing new to the college classroom, has become the academic equivalent of a cuss word. Which is why I what I’m about to say could be seen as shocking in some circles, but—I love assessment.

Yes, this humanities-lover, liberal arts major, and interdisciplinary teaching enthusiast loves assessment. Perhaps that makes me an outlier in the bellicose world of higher education circles, but I can’t help it. I fell in love with assessment over ten years ago when I received my first student observation surveys. They were your typical student survey comments. A mix of “I loved it!” and “I hated it!” But somewhere in between were real observations about my teaching that were poignant, thoughtful, and yes, critical. Going into the next semester, I wore those comments like a shiny new suit of armor, ready to tackle a new class, new students, and new teaching techniques. The best part was: it worked. The comments from that semester were completely different. Still a mix of “love” and “hate,” but now, I also received comments on the aspects that I fixed and how much more effectively I had delivered the lessons. What I know now is that the assessment cycle worked. I was able to take feedback, implement changes, improve learning, and see results. Actual results. Who couldn’t be excited by that?

And I’m still excited by it. As an online professor, I’ve found a myriad of ways of incorporating these small assessment feedback loops into my courses. Here are some of my favorites:

Tell me your takeaway. In an informal discussion board, I have students tell me what their “takeaway” was from a particular lesson or unit. The discussion board is set-up as one thread, so that students can easily jump on to another student’s takeaway and add on. This informal feedback loop allows me to take the temperature of the lesson. I can see what they caught, what they found important and interesting, and what they missed. For the students, it emphasizes their place in the community of learners.

Give me a grade! During midterms, I will usually ask students to complete an anonymous survey where they “grade” me. They have to justify their grade with specific examples. This feedback method helps to level the proverbial playing field in the class, especially at a time where they might be feeling some pressure and frustration. It also functions as a sneaky review because they have to recall specific examples from the course. Just note: this technique is not for the faint of heart!

Check-in time. This feedback is a formal, graded assignment where students are asked to “check-in” with the course work. While “check-ins” can take on a number of formats, I have preferred using a reflection essay with questions keyed to course objectives. Students are asked to synthesize various parts of the course to provide an overall snapshot of where they are with the material. In addition to helping with information recall, the assignment helps students to see their progress and can serve as a self-confidence booster.

While I may not get you to share my love for assessment, I hope that these technique bring you ever closer to the dark side of academia.

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