Talking Teaching

March 9, 2010

thoughts on assessment

From time to time my colleagues will argue that we ‘over-assess’ our students (bear in mind that this is the uni setting I’m talking about). I’m never quite sure what ‘over-assess’ actually means. The focus is generally on the number of tests & other assessment items that we require students to sit/submit, & the argument is generally that there should be less of them.

I guess it depends on the type of assessment, & its purpose…

Now, in my experience – & please feel free to disagree here! – assessment in science classes tends to be ‘summative’: it’s looking for a snapshot of what students ‘know’ at a particular point in time (a test, or a final exam). So the ‘over’ proponents would argue that we can get away with fewer tests & still be able to get a meaningful idea of what students actually know. Part of my objection to that rests on the nature of the assessment items, in terms of what the students are being asked. And another part is related to how we communicate with the students about their answers & their outcomes.

OK, objection part I: what do our tests & exams actually ask of the students? A lot of the time, what I see is questions based on simple recall: label this part of a graph/this structure in a dissection; give the definition of ‘x’ or the meaning of ‘y’; use this formula to calculate ‘z’. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I use such questions myself, some of the time, and that it may well be desirable to know that students can identify this or calculate that. Where I think we can have a problem is if this is the only/most common form of assessment question. Why? Because it encourages rote learning, & that sort of learning doesn’t have a long shelf-life in the old grey matter, nor does it encourage in-depth understanding of the subject they’re studying. My own feeling is that tests/exams need to have a mix of questions – some that do let you see if students can recall basic facts & concepts (& which incidentally cater for those students who tend to rely on rote-learning) & some that test understanding & the ability to see the big picture. And – students should know in advance what your assessment items look like, because knowing this does actually have an impact on the learning styles that students adopt.

Not quite sure how the ‘less is more’ approach fits here – you could argue for shorter tests, more often, & in fact that’s what our tutor is doing in assessing lab work: 5-minute mastery tests at the start of each week’s class, on the work they covered in the previous week. This should let us pick up students who are struggling, very quickly indeed, & it also gives students rapid feedback on their understanding of the lab content.

The other concern (well, if I think about it I could probably come up with more, but this will do for tonight!) is the sort of feedback that our assessment provides. Is it summative, where students simply get a mark (which lets us grade them – but which can also, if done early enough, be a way of identifying those at risk of failing)? Or is it formative, where they get constructive feedback on how their learning (or their ability to demonstrate it) is progressing?  Which is most helpful, to the learner & to the teacher? Personally I go for a combination of the two, and as time’s gone by I’ve begun using a wider range of formative assessment methods – pop quizzes in lectures, concept mapping in tutorials, alongside the more traditional (& more time-consuming) written comments on essays. The first 2 give both me & the students instant feedback on what they do & don’t understand, which can only be good for their learning & also for my teaching.

Incidentally, in response to the less-is-more approach, a couple of years ago we cut the number of tests in one of the first-year bio papers from 3 to 2. The next semester we went back to 3. Why? Because the tutor & I felt that by the time the first test rolled round, it was almost too late to begin meaningful interventions for some students. (It also meant that if someone missed one test, it didn’t leave me much to go on in calculating an aegrotat.) And because the students themselves, when polled at the end of the semester, indicated an overwhelming preference for the larger number of tests – they felt it was fairer & spread their workload more evenly.

I think I will continue to reject ‘less is more’ for the time being.


  1. I agree it depends on the nature and purpose of the testing. This is not the same as what you are talking about, but for the primary and secondary public schools, I definitely think we over test. Many schools are required to give their students so many national standardized tests that they spend all of their time preparing for the next test and have little time to teach anything beyond what is being demanded for the upcoming test. My daughter is in first grade and by the time she finishes the year, they will have spent almost two months taking standardized tests. This does not include the time spent preparing for them, just the amount of time actually taking the tests. Now, factor in all the other factors that disrupt the school year and take time away from actually teaching something and there is precious little time to do anything. The vast majority of these tests are also not to assess the students, but to assess the school performance.
    Frequent small assessments are a good idea I think. They motivate students to keep up with the work and provides quick feedback to the teacher about what is working and what isn’t. I have had classes that only do 1 or 2 tests and they are horrible. They are great for teachers that don’t want to grade much, but they are absolutely terrible for students. It puts the entire outcome of the class for the student on one or two days, creating an exceptionally stressful environment and encourages waiting until the last minute and cramming and therefore a shallow, short term understanding. It also gives the teacher no idea what is really going on in the classroom.
    As a student and a new teacher, I much prefer the style of your teaching suggestions over the final exam as your grade mentality.

    Comment by jdmimic — March 12, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    • It also gives the teacher no idea what is really going on in the classroom. This is why I just can’t understand the push from some of the people I work with to offer just a single test & the exam (plus maybe an assignment) for the whole semester. It simply doesn’t make sense from the student point of view. In my rather cynical view, the benefit is to the lecturers – cuts down the amount of time spent in marking!

      Comment by alison — March 12, 2010 @ 8:43 am

  2. Interesting, I am usually puzzled by the same questions. What is best? When I handled my own course in the US, I did lots and often testing. In esssence the students had to put 3 hours of independent study per hour lecture, but they *had* to do it in between lectures, students were tested one way or another a couple of times a week (as homework related discussion or as a takeaway essay question or whatever). The thing I found great was that I got to easily identify how well they were grasping the material, and constantly regauge my class to make sure I didnt move to step 2 until step 1 was well understood. I also saw how much better students got once they got into the rhythm of actually going through the lecture material after every lecture, and coming to the next already prepared for the next topic. By the end they had a discipline that was amazing! (as was mine with having to mark!)

    Comment by kubke — April 7, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    • We do the ‘lots & often’ thing with our first-year bio labs – last year the tutor & I persuaded our colleagues that short mastery tests at the beginning of each lab – covering the previous week’s material – were the way to go. (Previously each of the 3 tests during the semester covered both lab & theory material.) Going down this route has made it much easier for us to pick up struggling students early, & offer them extra help. I have to say, though, that the actual uptake on this offer has been extremely low. But – there does come a point when the students need to learn to stand on their own two feet. I tend to think that if they don’t act on offers like this, then it really is their decision & their responsibility.

      The flip side of bringing in the mastery tests is that we’ve dropped to just 2 theory tests, so on that side it makes it a bit harder to detect the strugglers. It’s a real juggling act actually; many of my colleagues feel that we ‘over-assess’ (whatever that means) & that students would like less of it. But back in school, the kids have become used to regular & frequent assessment & recognise (well, most of them!) the positive impact this can have on their learning. My cynical side thinks that ‘over-assess’ equates to ‘too much marking for us’ :-), but that’s where you have to get creative with the formative assessment. The in-class quizzes work well for me as there isn’t any marking but the students get instant feedback. Similarly the group work we do in tuts. I’m giving consideration to moving to peer marking of some things; managed well this is also extremely valuable for both the markers & markees (& apparently students can mark even harder than I do, which is quite an achievement in itself!).

      Comment by alison — April 7, 2010 @ 11:33 am

      • I have had discussions about possibly using peer marking as well. However, there are potential legal privacy issues that may be raised here. It is not legal to allow access to a student’s grades by those not authorized by the student. While this issue is often ignored by many faculty (I have seen numerous instances of professors grading papers in full view of students in the class and papers being returned by simply dumping them on a table and having the students rifle through them to find their paper or at the most extreme posting the grades in full view for anyone who walks down the hall complete with names attached), it nevertheless can and has become a source of litigation.
        How have you thought about addressing this issue and mitigating potential concerns of students and administrators?
        I would like to explore this possibility, but am unsure how best to avoid the litigation minefields.

        Comment by jdmimic — April 10, 2010 @ 7:49 am

      • Truth to tell, we haven’t had a lot of discussion on the legal side, more the logistical. I fully agree with the points you make – I’m also uneasy about the fairly common practice of having grad students marking tests, although I guess if the papers are returned to students then they can follow up on any perceived problems with the marking. But our processes for returning work (generally via a central ‘depot’ & only on presentation of ID card) & publishing marks (ID but no name) are reasonably sound.
        After reading your comments, I’m beginning to think that this technique might be best used for draft assignments, or maybe in-class exercises on things like paraphrasing, where no marks are recorded but students still gain formative feedback on what they’ve done…

        Comment by alison — April 15, 2010 @ 10:15 am

  3. […] of teaching than doing it all face-to-face? Do things like peer assessment (which we talked about in another thread) make it easier for lecturers to focus on the ‘core’ business? What is the […]

    Pingback by being an academic – some days it’s like herding cats « Talking Teaching — April 24, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

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