learning assessment techniques

Three Learning Assessment Techniques to Gauge Student Learning

A learning assessment technique (LAT) is a three-part integrated structure that helps teachers to first identify significant learning goals, then to implement effectively the kinds of learning activities that help achieve those goals, and finally—and perhaps most importantly—to analyze and report
on the learning outcomes that have been achieved from those learning activities.

LATs are correlated to Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, such that there are about 6–10 techniques for each of the learning dimensions, including techniques to help students learn the foundational knowledge of the subject and help students apply that foundational knowledge to real situations so that it becomes useful and much more meaningful to them.

There are techniques that help students integrate ideas—different realms of knowledge—so that the learning is more powerful. There are techniques to help students recognize the personal and social implications of what they are learning, which is what Dee Fink calls the human dimension. There are techniques to help students care about what they are learning so that they’re willing to put the effort into what they need to learn. And finally, there are techniques to help students become better and more self-directing learners (learning how to learn).

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Group Exams and Quizzes: Design Options to Consider

Although still not at all that widely used, there’s long-standing interest in letting students work together on quizzes or exams. Upon first hearing about the approach, teachers’ initial response is almost always negative. Here are the most common objections.

  • Grades are measures of individual mastery of material. With a group exam or quiz, some students may get a better grade than they’ve earned. Group grades do not measure individual learning.
  • A group can settle on wrong answers and thereby lower the score of the single bright student in the group who knows the right answer.
  • Group exams and quizzes make it too easy for students. They don’t have to think for themselves but can rely on others in the group to do the thinking for them.
  • It’s cheating. Students are getting answers they don’t know from other students. They’re consulting another source rather than putting in the work and developing their own knowledge.
  • Certifying exams (various professional exams such as those in nursing, accounting, the MCAT and GRE, for example) are not group exams. Group quizzes and exams do not prepare students for these all-important assessments.

On the other hand, those who do allow group collaboration on exams and quizzes may respond to the objections with a corresponding set of set of advantages associated with their use.

  • Group exams and quizzes reduce test anxiety. Pretty much across the board, students report that anticipating and participating in group exams and quizzes makes them feel less anxious. And for students with exam anxiety, that can be a significant benefit.
  • Collaborative quizzes and exams show students that they can learn from each other. Many students arrive in courses believing the only person they can learn from is the teacher. But as they talk about test questions, share answer justifications, discuss what content the answer requires, they get to experience what it’s like to learn from peers.
  • Group quizzes and exams provide immediate feedback. Students don’t have to wait to get the exam back. They get a good indication from those in the group why the answer is or is not correct.
  • Working together on test questions teaches students how to identify credible arguments and sources. Given the opportunity to change answers based on what someone else says directly confronts students with the tough issues of who to believe and when to trust their own judgment.
  • Collaborative quizzes and exams model how problem solving in professional contexts usually occurs. Professionals collaborate, they have access to resources, they can contact experts, they argue options, and evaluate possible answers. Collaborative testing gives students the opportunity to see how and why that results in better decision making.
  • Group quizzes and exams can improve exam scores and sometimes, but not always, content retention. The improvement in scores is an expected outcome of collaboration, but the improvement is also present when students collaborate on exam questions and then answer questions that deal with the same content on a subsequent exam taken individually. Effects of collaboration on retention are mixed. See the following references listed at the end of this article for examples: Cortright, Collins, Rodenbaugh and DiCarlo, (2002), Gilley and Clarkson (2014), Leight, Sunders, Calkins and Withers (2012), Lust and Conklin (2003) and Woody, Woody and Bromley (2008).

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Ten Study Strategies for Students and Their Teachers

Here’s one of those articles that really shouldn’t be missed, particularly for those with interest in making teaching and learning more evidence-based. Current thinking about evidence-based teaching and learning tends to be more generic than specific. Use any active learning strategy intermittently or even regularly, and some would call the teaching evidence-based. That’s a superficial understanding of what it means to use practices that have been proven to promote learning. This article leads to a deeper level of understanding.

It’s a review of mostly cognitive psychology research that explores 10 learning techniques. The cognitive psychologist authors provide the background. “Psychologists have been developing and evaluating the efficacy of techniques for study and instruction for more than 100 years. Nevertheless, some effective techniques are underutilized—many teachers do not learn about them, and hence many students do not use them, despite evidence suggesting that the techniques could benefit student achievement and with little added effort. Also, some learning techniques that are popular and often used by students are relatively ineffective.” (p. 5)

Here are brief descriptions of the 10 learning strategies reviewed in the article.

  • Elaborative interrogation—generating an explanation for why some fact or concept is true
  • Self-explanation—explaining how new information is related to what is already known, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  • Summarization—writing summaries of text content to expedite learning the material
  • Highlighting/underlining—marking potentially important text passages while reading
  • Keyword mnemonic—using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  • Imagery for text—attempting to form mental images of text material while reading or listening
  • Rereading—reading text material again after having read it initially
  • Practice testing—self-testing or taking practice tests on the material to be learned
  • Distributed practice—scheduling practice so that it spreads study activities over time
  • Interleaved practice—mixing different kinds of problems or materials within a single study session

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Female college student studying

Student-Led Advice on How to Study

Most of the advice students hear on how to study comes from teachers. We offer it verbally in class before and after exams, in online communications, and on the syllabus. We talk about study strategies during office hours, especially when we meet with students who aren’t doing well in the course. The problem is students don’t always follow our wise advice.

I was once observing a physics class and, at the end of the session, the teacher reminded students that there was a test next week. Students went about packing up and preparing to leave, but then he said he had a handout with some advice on how to study for the exam. As he began distributing it, the packing up stopped. Book bags were put down; students began reading the handout.

When a copy of the handout came to me, I saw why students were so interested. The handout contained study recommendations from students who had taken the class previously. They were identified by name and beside their name was the grade they’d received in the class (not something to be done without student permission, which this professor did get).

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Study Guides and Study Groups

Most college faculty are terribly well-intentioned. We care about student success. The material in our courses is important; we want students to learn it. And so, we go out of our way, bend over backwards, and give students everything they need to do well in the course. If it looks like our students don’t know what or how to study for the exam, we respond with carefully prepared, detailed study guides and long lists of study questions for every chapter.

But here’s the question: Who stands to benefit the most from the preparation of study guide material? The teacher who knows the material and knows how to make a good study guide? Or students who must interact with the material in order to make a useful guide and who need to learn how to organize content in ways that expedite learning?

We’d serve our students better by contributing to the process, rather than doing the work they should be doing. We can prepare a set of guidelines that delineate the features of useful study guides and let them pull it all together. We can facilitate an in-class or online discussion during which students identify the features they’d find most helpful. We can share some good and not-so-good examples of study guide material.

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Conducting In-Class Reviews Effectively

Good study skills are the key to successful performance on exams in college, and good study skills are what many of today’s college students don’t have. We can spend time pontificating about who bears the responsibility for these absent skills. We can philosophize about who should be going to college. Or our time can be spent helping students become better learners thereby upping their chances of success in our courses, in college and in life.

Exams do manage to motivate most students. They take them seriously. They study for them. That still doesn’t always improve their performance on them. However, there are activities that do improve exam performance and those activities can be modeled and demonstrated by teachers within the course.

I can hear the objections. But I already have so much content to cover. I don’t have time to teach study skills. And shouldn’t students know how to study by the time they get to college?

Fortunately, a lot of these activities don’t require huge time investments. They can be embedded in ongoing course activities, which is the most effective place anyway. One of the tough lessons learned from the efforts to remediate learning deficiencies has been that learning skills are best taught in the context of a discipline-based course. They make sense there and course work provides authentic practice opportunities.

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Punctuating Error: Strategies to Help Students Become More Disciplined Writers

When final paper time looms, students become increasingly anxious about the grammatical errors they believe lurk in their writing. That belief is so strong it can undermine their drafts. Even worse, students have come to expect that their professors will point out errors—and make corrections—that seem invisible to student eyes. Such a learned practice dissuades students from the far more productive work of rewriting sentences that would remove many of those errors just as invisibly.

Helping students learn how to revise and rewrite should be our priority so that their writing becomes more effective and they’re able to eyeball what remaining errors need correcting. Nevertheless, even with that process, some errors persist. For years, I struggled with determining how much instruction to devote to error, how to time such instruction, and where to conduct it—classroom, conference, or paper annotations—so that my efforts would prove more helpful than hurtful.

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Three Methods to Enhance Peer Review in Your Classroom

We’ve all done it: asked students to switch papers before turning them in for editing and peer review, only to receive superficial comments and vague critiques that make us wonder if peer review is really worth the time. Some of us have students put sentences on the board for whole class peer review. The sentences go up, but when I ask for edits that might make them better, I hear nothing but the crickets chirping.

Although extensive research indicates that peer review of student writing is beneficial and often critical to revision, many teachers are opting to leave it on the back burner. But I don’t think it belongs there and would like to propose some ways technology can improve peer review. In fact, research is identifying a number of advantages from online peer review. The comments reviewers provide are easily read and printed. Students tend to maintain greater focus on the task in the online format. Teachers can monitor the discussions and weigh in as they see fit. Technology makes it easy to compare peer review drafts with finished papers to see progress. I’ve used the methods I’m describing here, and they are making peer review a more productive part of the writing process in my courses.

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