Course Design: Aligning Learning Expectations, Instruction, and Assessment

Student takes test assessment in class

I found the article, “Testing and Assessment: Looking in the Wrong Places” by Dr. Caristi (Faculty Focus, 11 Sept. 2019) interesting.  But, if I am interpreting his arguments correctly, I must kindly disagree with his conclusion that we must do away with testing as one form of assessment.  The second part of his title is correct, “Looking in the Wrong Places,” in that we are only examining one component of the process of instructional (or course) design, and that is the end piece.

If the testing is being used only for producing grades for the students, as implied, then the problem is how the tests are being used, rather than the testing process itself.  So, the first place to start is to understand what is meant by the purpose of classroom instruction, and why we are assessing the students.  What we want to know is what our students know as a result of spending their time in class.  What are the skills and knowledge that the students have acquired as a result of the instruction provided by the professor?  As an assessment tool, tests should be able to demonstrate and document whether students have acquired those skills and knowledge specified by the learning objectives for the course.  To quote Shirley A. Freed, “How do I know that I know what I need to know to know what I am expected to know in order to know what I am supposed to know from having participated in this learning environment…”

In addition to demonstrating and documenting student achievement, tests should also serve as a feedback to the students to know their achievements and weaknesses.  While Dr. Caristi may be correct that “…. nothing they will be asked to do on the job resembles taking a test,” being able to deal with feedback is a competency that students should acquire as part of their education, whether feedback is from a test in a course or from performance reviews during their careers.

Determining whether students have acquired expected skills and knowledge requires that faculty provide specification of expectations (skills and knowledge to be acquired by students) and assessment of achievement of expectations (usually within the course syllabus).  Setting expectations for learning requires faculty to decide:

  • What knowledge and skills will students be learning (criteria)?
  • What experiences will be used to ensure that students learn (instruction)?
  • What evidence will be gathered and used to ensure that students learn (assessment)?

Assessments can include several different methodologies, including testing, and must be able to provide written feedback for students.  The use of learning objectives (or outcomes) can demonstrate whether students are acquiring those skills and knowledge specified by the expectations.

Thus, the key elements of course design require the alignment of:

  • Specification of learning objectives.
  • Instruction
  • Assessment

Course design should be a cyclical process that starts with performance expectations, which are then aligned with assessments and content.  Designing courses should start and end with student learning and experience in mind and assessments that demonstrate student achievement to both the instructor and the students.  A good resource for course design is a publication by Richard M. Felder and Rebecca Brent, (“Designing and Teaching Courses to Satisfy the ABET Engineering Criteria”, Journal of Engineering Education, 92:1, pp. 7-25,.2003).

As a final note, college faculty should realize that there could be much to learn about course design from their K-12 colleagues.  State and national content standards has existed for the K-12 sector for almost 30 years, which specify student performance expectations at different levels of the education ladder.  At NJIT, the engineering and computer science faculty have been dealing with student performance expectations, and the assessment and evaluation process as part of meeting the accreditation criteria of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) for almost 20 years. Here, they have recognized the parallel for achieving standards and accreditation criteria across all grade levels.

Bio: Howard Kimmel is Professor Emeritus Chemical Engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology, retired from the faculty after 46 years of service.  He is also retired Executive Director of the Center for Pre-College Programs, a department established by him and a colleague in 1979.  Dr. Kimmel is the author of over 100 peer-reviewed papers and chapters in four books.  He is also the author of, “A History and Legacy of STEM Education at NJIT, as told by Howard Kimmel,” published by New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, New Jersey, 2018.

Reference: Freed, Shirley A. “Metaphors and Reflective Dialogue Online.” New Horizons in Adult Education, 17:3. pp. 4–19, 2003.