June 21st, 2011

A Role for Student Choice in Assessment?


Giving students some choice about which assignments they will complete or letting them decide how much the assignments will count in a grading scheme are learner-centered strategies that help develop student responsibility for learning. The ideas are simple: rather than a teacher mandated sequence of assignments, students are presented with assignment options and they decide which ones they will complete. Or, students do all the teacher selected assignments but determined what percentage of the grade each assignment is worth. Lots of variations are possible. In my graduate course on college teaching, students completed all five assignments, with each being worth 10 percent of their grade. I gave students the other 50% of their grade and let them divvy up that amount between the assignments.

Several elements are key to the success of this approach. First, letting students select which assignments they will complete means the teacher must be sure that any combination of assignments will accomplish the course goals and objectives.

Most teachers who give students assignment choices use an absolute grading standard. The number of points needed for each grade level is determined upfront. Every assignment has a designated point value. Most teachers grade student selected assignments with the same rigor as teacher selected assignments. In other words, it’s not a matter of doing the assignment at some marginally acceptable level and getting all the points. Here too there are options, including contract grading systems and credible mastery approaches.

The biggest challenge involves getting students to examine the criteria they use to select assignments. Most tend to select those assignments that look easy, although in my experience students never agreed as to which assignments those were. If students select their assignments at the beginning of the course, I recommend having them write responses to a series of prompts like these:

  • Look at the collection of assignments you’ve decided to complete and explain what those choices say about how you prefer to learn.
  • Look at one assignment you did not choose and explain why you did not choose that assignment.
  • Does being able to select assignments impact your motivation to learn? Explain if it does or doesn’t.
  • Do you think students learn more and do better when they select assignments or is it preferable to have teacher just make the assignments?
  • Why would a teacher let students select assignments and/or give them a role in determining how much those assignments will count?

Having students reflect on their choices or their weighting of assignments midway through the course can encourage more thinking about their decisions. Here prompts could include: Comment on your selection of assignments (or weighting of assignments) at this point in the course. Or, are there any assignments you didn’t select that you would choose now?

I know one teacher who at this point lets students complete an assignment they didn’t select as bonus option. She adjusts the amount of work point value of assignments. Reflection at the end of the course might include a set of recommendations offered future students taking this course.

Some teachers are motivated to give students this kind of role in assessment because students are less likely to complain if they do poorly. They can’t blame the teacher for making them do assignments they never do well on or having those assignment count too much in the grading scheme. Most of us who’ve used this approach have found that it does decrease students complaints, but that’s not the most important reason for using it.

If students are encouraged to examine their choices and to reflect on their performance, there’s a good chance they will make some important discoveries about themselves as learners. They may discover being able to make choices increases their motivation and willingness to work on assignments. They may be able to identify those learning skills they have that enable them to do well on certain kinds of assignments. And they may just realize those skills they don’t have can be developed thereby increasing the chance they will learn and do well on other kinds of assignments.

I’m interested in hearing what you think. Please take our poll, or share your experiences with allowing students to have a say in what assignments they complete in the comment box below.