Faculty Focus


formative assessment

Assessment as an Opportunity for Developing Independent Thinking Skills in Students

The liberal arts college where I teach recently underwent review for accreditation. Like many other colleges and universities, we were criticized for our lack of assessment. Faculty resistance, it seems, may be the biggest barrier to implementing institutional assessment measures (Katz, 2010; Weimer, 2013). Both Weimer and Katz accredited faculty resistance to fears that assessment data could be used for “comparison shopping” and “educational consumerism.” While these fears are justified, at my college another fear prevails; the fear that assessment will lead to hand-holding strategies that will discourage independent thought in our students and result in failure to adequately prepare them for professional life.

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An Approach that Decreases Failure Rates in Introductory Courses

This study begins with some pretty bleak facts. It lists other research documenting the failure rates for introductory courses in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Some are as high as 85 percent; only two are less than 30 percent. “Failure has grave consequences. In addition to the emotional and financial toll that failing students bear, they may take longer to graduate, leave the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines or drop out of school entirely.” (p. 175) The question is whether there might be approaches to teaching these courses (and others at the introductory level) that reduce failure rates without decreasing course rigor.

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Students as Formative Assessment Partners

“Creating a climate that maximizes student accomplishment in any discipline focuses on student learning instead of assigning grades. This requires students to be involved as partners in the assessment of learning and to use assessment results to change their own learning tactics.” (p. 136) The authors of this comment continue by pointing out that this assessment involves the use of formative feedback and that feedback has the greatest benefit when it addresses multiple aspects of learning. This kind of assessment should contain feedback on the product (the completed task) and feedback on progress (the extent to which the student is improving over time). The article then describes a number of formative feedback activities that illustrate how students can be involved as partners in the assessment process. Their involvement means that formative feedback can be given more frequently.

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