Assessment, Grade, Holidays…

Posted by: John Benwell, Principal Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

HD rubricIn Melbourne, it’s the last week of scheduled classes and nearing the long break over the southern summer. Whilst thoughts may be wandering towards holidays, sun, the beach and all those great ‘Aussie’ pastimes, it’s time to assess and grade our students.

All the formative assessment has been done; we have provided vast quantities of feedback to our students and maybe provided avenues for feedback from their peers; now is the time to give each one a grade.

So I thought for my last post for the year, and before running to the beach to go sailing, I’d do a light refresher on assessment and point to some resources on rubrics to help you through.

At this stage of the year, we already know how most students are going. We have been giving them formative assessment tasks, and providing feedback to them so they can learn from their mistakes, fill the gaps and polish their performance. There have likely been summative assessments, which have been building towards a final mark.

Maybe you’ve read (and found useful) other tomtom posts that have discussed aspects of assessment (like Thembi’s post on Active Learning Strategies, Meredith’s post on Academic Integrity, Alex’s post on Peer and Self-Assessment and my previous post, Keeping Watch on using assessment to track our students’ progress), so here is a post with some handy references on assessment and rubric development.

In the old days, students would now start cramming, revising knowledge and processes, going to the library and doing old exam papers hoping their lecturer would just revise the last year’s paper for this year.

Nowadays, we hope those student expectations are well behind us and the last assignment encapsulates the skills, knowledge and the application skills and knowledge into a capstone assessment experience to confirm the student has achieved the course (subject) learning outcomes.

In pondering assessment we should never lose sight of what assessment is, and its purpose. As a reminder, here are the core principles of assessment from The University of Melbourne’s  Centre for the Study of Higher Education:

  1. Assessment guides and encourages effective approaches to learning
  2. Assessment validates and reliably measures expected learning outcomes, in particular the higher–order learning that characterises higher education
  3. Assessment and grading defines and protects academic standards.

At this stage of the year, principle 1 should have provided students with tasks that permitted them to test their learning and understanding in their passage towards the achieving the learning outcomes. The best scenario would be student-lecturer negotiated, multiple learning and assessment tasks that were designed to increase in complexity over the semester.

Principle 2 reminds us that we should not be simply testing students’ knowledge, but more their application of skills and knowledge and their ability to independently think though increasingly complex problems associated with their intended discipline. And we must grade each student in a reliable and repeatable manner. More on how we do that later.

Principle 3 helps maintain our standards. Not only do we have to assess if they have achieved the course learning outcomes, but also how well they have achieved it with reference to industry standards and moderation across institutions. Painfully for a teacher, we also must decide if a student has not achieved the learning outcomes.

Using the results from several forms of assessment during the semester, we need a framework to grade effectively. We need to have a considered series of statements that allow us to assign an overall grade to each student. They are like performance indicators. These statements are incremental performance levels of the learning outcomes. The levels are based on professional judgement, industry expectations and the quality standards of the university.

Commonly referred to as rubrics, you should develop a set of guidelines for marking and grading. They are not rules, but a framework to help you and your co-assessors be consistent across the group of students, from year to year and to maintain the academic quality standards expected by your industry/discipline and the students’ future employers. Your institution also relies on your professional judgement to uphold the standard of its awards.

Some argue that rubrics are restrictive, but with a well-developed set of rubrics, time is saved, consistency is improved, standards are upheld, and the course remains constructively aligned — the rubrics being generated from the learning outcomes. Levels of attainment between are  documented and described for the students to see. These can be a little bit fuzzy in their generic form but discussion with students, providing exemplars and using the same rubrics for peer and self-assessment can enhance all participants’ understanding of what a rubric is trying to do. Rubrics can be applied to all types of assessments: essays, drawings, pictures, models, presentations, designs and films.

The links below have some useful reading on rubrics, their purpose, value and how to write them:

Unfortunately some students, despite all attempts by us, fail to provide us with the evidence they have achieved the learning outcomes. The result is then a fail. There wouldn’t be a lecturer or educator who does it lightly, but it’s part of upholding the professionalism of our discipline, and the standards of our university. The determined learner who fails will return and do the course again, learning from their mistakes, and hopefully will achieve a better mark the next time around.

So before you start marking this semester try developing your own rubrics. Start by writing your learning outcomes on the left of a tabjboceanle, and then use grade descriptors of what you would expect to see from the students in the boxes. Your learning and teaching advisor can help you create them and your results will be fairer and more consistent. Rubrics are also a great help when marking online or if you have several tutors performing the assessment. What’s more, you can save time!

Well my last student is graded, so I’m off to a BBQ tonight and out into the ocean (Bass Strait) for a sail on the weekend.

I hope you have an enjoyable break.

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Feedback on the outer limits

Posted by: Rebekha Naim, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.

Artist concept of Voyager 1 encountering a stagnation region.

Artist concept of Voyager 1 encountering a stagnation region. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Well done – HD”, read the scrawl across the top of the page. Nothing more! She placed the paper down on the table feeling angry and upset. All that work, all that effort – for what? To be given a simple compliment?

On his back page were a whole lot of words he could hardly read or understand. He had found the teacher’s response eventually – “Fail”. He had suspected he didn’t have a clue, and this confirmed it.

Giving feedback to students validates their learning and ensures they are on the right track. For most students, particularly students who sit at either end of the spectrum like the ones above, feedback needs to be explicit and appropriate. It needs to resonate with the learner providing closure on a task, or a step in the task, and pointing to what they have to do next.

Exemplary students commonly put extra effort into their assessments and expect detailed feedback, even if it is all positive. Transforming learners who already seem transformed is still possible. They need to see just how ‘right’ they are. That way, they will be more likely to keep performing. Anyone who has ever been on top of their game will know that staying on top is not easy. Every learner can still be given guidance on further development.

I firmly believe we achieve what others expect of us, so it is equally important to continue to challenge high achievers and extend their boundaries and capabilities even further. Offer advice on further development. Introduce them to RMIT’s LEAD program. Discuss research opportunities with them. Connect them with mentors and industry professionals.

Moving learners into new horizons beyond their own expectations supported by visionary educators. This is what tertiary education can aspire to do.

The learner who has failed or is at risk of failing needs careful consideration and your personal touch. But why aren’t the avenues above appropriate to them? Perhaps these activities, the ones that open up a bigger picture of your discipline or of learning in general, are what they need too?

More specifically, low performance should trigger a set of questions and response systems to improve the situation. Are you aware of any learning difficulties they may have? Are their English, literacy or numeracy skills letting them down? Could they be referred to the Disability and Liaison Unit? Are there personal or cultural reasons as to why they do not understand the material? Could there be personal problems that have affected them during this period? Do they need information about the university’s Counselling Service?

Will writing a paragraph on the back of their work actually help them to “get it?”

It’s important that lecturers and tutors identify how to support students who struggle early to avoid escalation of the problem and address issues quickly. In the TAFE environment it should be par for the course that struggling students are identified and supported. Once identified, struggling TAFE learners can be assisted through one-on-one sessions, extra classes, extra support material and support from Student Services. RMIT’s vast resources can address many underlying concerns, and staff PD sessions can help you to manage students who do not seem to be achieving their best.

Early intervention is key for students who might not be making a smooth transition into tertiary studies. Try to identify them in early assessments and formative tasks. The efforts of students who ‘struggle’ might not be that dissimilar to the efforts of their ‘high-achieving’ counterparts, despite the differences in their final output.

Once a student’s individual needs are met, someone who previously struggled can be transformed, a wonderful reward after a failed assessment. I once taught someone who suffered from bouts of depression. After not submitting yet another assignment he broke down in class. I encouraged him to see an RMIT counsellor, which he eventually did and the decision was the first of many positive changes he has since made to his life. He is now a successful IT programmer in his hometown of Darwin.

Assessment Rubrics

In the TAFE School of Media and Communication where I teach, assessment rubrics are used to give student feedback and they double-up as assessment tools as well. Used to grade students’ work by looking at a range of criteria, they can be applied to all tasks. There is a vast array of rubrics to be found on the internet to get you started (and they come in all sorts of formats). They can also be implemented in myRMIT/Blackboard.

They require every element being assessed to be listed on the rubric, with defined and clear differences between each level of achievement. It takes time to develop a robust assessment rubric that aligns closely with the assessment requirements. I would put aside three hours to develop one from scratch.

Developing a rubric with colleagues and industry professionals is even better. Distributed to students at the start of the course, an assessment rubric will give students (and you as their assessor) a clear understanding of what is required of them to achieve certain grades. For the student who achieves a good (but not outstanding) outcome, the rubric level descriptors gives them a clear indication of their achievement without vague adjectives or confusion about the distance they still need to travel.

Hopefully it moves them away from a comparison with their peers and their ‘rank’ in the class to an understanding of what they need to do to get better. Ideally, they would consult it before they approached their next task in your unit. Rubrics allow students to target their revision or improvement efforts.

Finally, I also recommend using self-review whenever possible. When a student hands in their work together with a self-assessment (either answering a few questions or as an analytic or holistic rubric) it re-affirms student understanding and their feedback can help guide yours.

Receiving a filled-in assessment rubric from a teacher highlights particular achievements in each area of the assessment easily. And a comment section allows for recognition of individual effort; particularly useful for students at either end of the spectrum, on the outer limits.

Do you have examples of feedback and assessment strategies that work? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section!