Rethinking Assessments of Student Learning — Donna Ellis

student collaborationAs I write this article, a number of you will have just finished marking your final exams.  Did your students learn what you wanted them to learn?  Did your exam and your other course assessments enable them to demonstrate and perhaps even further extend their learning?

Assessments of student learning are a critical part of courses.  Overall, they are the major driver of what students choose to do and focus on in a course.  But do our assessments require students to learn?  In his recent talk at uWaterloo, Eric Mazur from Harvard University would suggest that the answer is often no.  In his talk, “Assessment: The Silent Killer of Learning,” he outlined various problems with our current approaches to assessment and some suggestions about how to make improvements.

He began by asking the audience to discuss the purposes of assessment.  We were to turn to a partner; mine was an undergraduate student.  Her initial response to his question was:  to pass our courses, get a degree, and get a job.  Upon further reflection, she also added: “to parrot back what the teacher says.”  Are any of these responses clearly about learning?  No, and that is one of the biggest problems from my perspective.  Conceiving of assessments as “obstacles along the road” to get to a desired end goal makes it hard to recognize that they can and should be part of the journey of learning.  Traditional, regurgitation-based tests do not tend to contribute to this journey.  However, many other types of assessments do contribute, such as assignments that enable students to practice skills learned in class with new applications, or group exams that require students to explain and defend their answers to their peers, or final projects that focus on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  How can we reinforce the role of assessments in the learning process?

One way that Mazur outlined is to use authentic assessments.  He indicated that a lack of authenticity is a major problem in physics education.  He explained that when a physicist has a problem, they typically know the desired outcome but not the process needed to reach a solution.  However, in textbooks, the problem and the process are made apparent, with the outcome being the unknown.  This situation results in the students being given information that they would not automatically have in a real-world setting as well as miss many critical learning opportunities.  The call for authentic assessments also came from our 2014 Opportunities and New Directions (OND) conference speaker, John Bean, who connected this approach to writing assignments (see my May 2014 newsletter article for more details).  When we make our assessments more authentic, we make it more difficult for students to believe they can just parrot back what we said in class.  We also push them to continue learning.

Authenticity, though, can come with a price for students. Such tasks are often less predictable and can sometimes lead to failure.  But whether or not something is a “failure” depends on what is being assessed, which ties back to the intended learning outcomes connected to the assessment. For example, if your goal is to have students learn about team processes, then the assessment scheme would give credit for the development of those process skills at least as much as the actual end product.

If rethinking assessments of student learning is on your 2015 “to do” list, I have 3 concrete suggestions:

  1. Watch Mazur’s talk for more ideas (see URL below).
  2. Submit a proposal and attend our annual OND teaching and learning conference on April 30. This year’s theme is “Making Teaching and Learning Visible”, and assessments of learning play a large role in providing such clarity.
  3. Participate in this year’s Teaching Excellence Academy (TEA). This intensive course redesign event occurs April 22, 23, 24, and 27, and supports you in rethinking all elements of a course design, including the assessments of student learning. Contact your department chair or director for more information or let me know if you have questions; the call for nominations will go out in early February.

And, as always, let us know how we can help!


Mazur, E. (Dec 11, 2014) Assessment: The silent killer of learning. Presentation delivered at the Department of Physics & Astronomy Teaching Retreat, University of Waterloo. Downloadable here.

Donna Ellis

Published by

Donna Ellis

Donna Ellis has supported the teaching development of Waterloo faculty members and graduate students since 1994. In her role as Director, she oversees the development and delivery of all the Centre for Teaching Excellence programming and services, which include individual faculty consultations; events directed at graduate students, new faculty, and established faculty regarding face-to-face teaching, blended learning, and emerging technologies; online resources; curriculum and program review consultations; and research support services. Donna has a PhD from Waterloo’s Management Sciences program and completed her dissertation research on instructional innovations. She also has an MA in Language and Professional Writing from Waterloo, and has taught in the Speech Communication program. Donna, along with her husband, spends time away from work raising three fine boys.

Leave a Reply