How Can Alternative Assignments Effectively Assess Student Learning?...

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

How Can Alternative Assignments Effectively Assess Student Learning? #DLNchat

By Michael Sano     Apr 26, 2018

How Can Alternative Assignments Effectively Assess Student Learning? #DLNchat

Do exams still serve a purpose? Could tests be replaced by project-based work? How do we move beyond grades to more meaningful demonstrations of learning? On Tuesday, April 24 the #DLNchat community got together to discuss and debate: How Can Alternative Assignments Effectively Assess Student Learning?

Where there’s an alternative there must be a standard, so we started our chat creating a list of what those standard assignment are: exams, quizzes, essays, reports, lab manuals and the like. Bethany Bovard defined the difference in her own words. “I often think of standard assessments as ‘show me what you know’ and alternative assessments as ‘demonstrate what you can do with that knowledge.’” Throughout #DLNchat there was widespread agreement that alternative assignments that allow students to demonstrate their learning in and outside the classroom were better than standard assignments within course confinements. But why, then, do so many courses still rely on exams?

The short answer: they’re easy. As many #DLNchat-ters pointed out, they are efficient and thus attractive assessment tools for instructors of large courses. One longer answer was provided by Lloyd Dean: “Ongoing diagnostic and formative assessments are a critical part of the feedback process. They enable learners to objectively underage [sic] their own progress. Further analysis can let all know common areas of struggle so focus can be applied.” In other words, exams do serve a purpose. Erin Crisp put it this way, “Exams can be great formative tools to help me as a learner understand what I should be paying attention to from the learning resources and instruction.” Ideally, exams should be used more as a learning tool than an assessment tool.

So then, how to best assess learning and what digital tools can improve assessment? #DLNchat-ters had a lot of ideas. There was some discussion about how to use social media to bring learning into the wider virtual world as described in How a Flipped Syllabus, Twitter and YouTube Made This Professor Teacher of the Year. Digital tools used for assessment can also increase access and support collaborative assignments. “The opportunity to engage is greater,” Nori Barajas-Murphy said, but “it's the instructor who needs to create the parameters of the assignment that will result in ‘meaning’ ‘collaboration.’” The community also noted digital portfolios as an example of assignments whose life extends beyond the course. Similarly, Clark Quinn suggested to have learners “Create products. Carefully constrained to require applying understanding, but ‘real world’ enough to reflect their abilities.”

For the #DLNchat community, however, the specific assignment is not as important as the intention behind it. Assignments need to serve as assessment tools and as expressive tools that can be carried forward by learners. As Cali Morrison articulated, “The opportunity to demonstrate your mastery by applying the concepts to an authentic (or ‘real world’) problem is key to internalizing learning in a way you'll be able to apply it out in different situations.”

Alternative assignments can create more meaningful opportunities to demonstrate learning, but how do we move beyond the grades associated with them? The challenge is huge. Alex Kluge spoke for many when he said, “Grades are horrible, but they are a universally expected standard. They are a single result to a complex question that is highly dependent on perspective. This is especially true with our more complex society.” Grades are easily understood markers when students wish to transfer institutions or share their transcripts in application processes.

The #DLNchat community also concurred that feedback is an important part of the learning process. Barjas-Murphy said, “Feedback may be one of the most critical elements of a course that motivates students and maintains engagement - so the course design needs to have SOMETHING that demonstrates the degree of progress - think game theory.” #DLNchat-ters shared ideas for alternatives to grades relating to the culmination of the projects and products posited earlier in the chat. Emma Zone shared this succinct opinion: “I like to think about interactive rubrics or outputs that focus on skills. Something fluid that grows with a student over time.”

Static grades aren’t something that grow with a student over time. Learners benefit most from assignments and assessments they can bring into the real world to demonstrate their competencies and experiences in meaningful ways. Ryan Straight wrapped things up a bit more poetically. "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

Wanna dive in with your thoughts? Tweet us and don’t forget the hashtag #DLNchat. RSVP for our next chat: How Can We Improve Accessibility Through Instructional Design? on Tuesday, May 8 at 1pm PT/ 4pm ET to get reminders beforehand.For other topics, check out our index of past chats. #DLNchat is co-hosted by the Online Learning Consortium, WCET and Tyton Partners.

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