Evaluating What Students Do

Many of our outstanding teachers commented on the importance of how they evaluate students. As they pointed out, the evaluation defines much of the course for students. We may say that we want students to learn how to think critically, but if we grade them on other matters (punctuality of their work, neatness, liveliness of their writing, etc.), we have re-defined the learning objectives in the minds of students.

Examination questions can be most troublesome, often testing for something (rote memory, for example) that we have de-emphasized. Most of our outstanding teachers construct their examinations with great care. Some use Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive skills to measure each question. Does it test recall, comprehension, application of knowledge, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation. These categories may not, of course, tell all. Sometimes, professors really seek changes in students' attitudes or values, not just cognitive growth. They talk about wanting students to cultivate an appreciation for this or that. Thus, affective categories are
significant.

The following exercise should help focus on learning objectives in designing evaluations of student learning:

Choose an assignment or examination that is designed to promote and/or elicit an important aspect of the learning you intend for students in one of your courses. Write a brief reflective memo in which you comment on what the assignment/student-work samples reveal about students' learning in your course; think of the audience for your memo as a committee that is conducting a departmental program review and wishes to construct a map of what and how students' learn about your field as they move through various departmental courses.

As you write your reflective memo, use any of the following prompts that you find provocative:

1. How is the assignment or exam important to your overall intentions, course design, conception of your field and the way you want students to understand it? Are there distinctly different formats or focuses you could have chosen for this assignment/exam that would have highlighted different dimensions of the idea or the field?

2. Why did you structure the assignment/exam in the way that you did? How does its particular questions, problems, or application reveal differences in student understandings or interpretations of a critical concept you are teaching? What patterns emerge as you study your students' work?

3. What, in particular, do you hope your students will demonstrate in their work in this assignment/exam? What kinds of questions will they learn to answer? What reasoning or other abilities will they develop? Drawing on a scientific research metaphor, what was your hypothesis about what students might learn from this class, unit, or course? What evidence does the assignment provide that would serve to confirm or disconfirm this hypothesis? Where else do you look for such evidence?

4. What does your assignment and the students' responses to it tell you about how students are constructing the ideas that are central to the course and to your teaching goals? What misconceptions do they have about these ideas? How do you identify and address student errors and misinterpretations?

5. On what standards do you judge student work on this assignment? How do these standards compare with those you would use in a more introductory/advanced class? How are your standards related to the standards you would use to evaluate a piece of scholarship that a colleague has asked you to critique?

6. What thoughts do you have about improving your assignment, your course, or your teaching as a consequence of completing this reflective exercise?

There are other ways besides individual assignments or exam to allow students to demonstrate their learning. For example, one might probe students' thinking more deeply through individual or small group interviews. Can you think of other ways that you can collect evidence about student learning?