The essential purpose of assignment design is to assess what students have learned in your course.
Effective assessment strategies are important in any course. We usually think of assessments in higher education as being either formative or summative. Most instructors use a combination of formative and summative assessments in their classes. It is not best practice, for example, to have a class with simply a midterm and final exam. One well-established rule of measurement is that the more samples of behavior you have, the more accurate your assessment will be. Every assessment result we obtain contains some element of what we want to measure but also some degree of error.
As an example, If a vocal music instructor wants to assess a student’s vocal range and tone and does so through a formal recital in front of a large audience, the assessed quality of that performance will contain some true score (e.g., reflecting the student’s vocal talent, how much they practiced, their true vocal range) and some error (e.g., quivering voice due to nerves, reduced range because of a recent illness). If that instructor instead assesses the student’s vocal range and tone at several different times in the semester, using performance pieces from multiple musical genres and in a variety of settings, they will arrive at a summative evaluation of vocal talents that is far more accurate.
In a similar way, having a course with multiple assessment strategies (e.g., essays, tests, activities, oral presentations) that occur across the semester would provide a more accurate assessment of a student’s achievement of learning goals than using two or three multiple-choice only exams. Using multiple methods of assessment at several points in the semester is also consistent with a culturally responsive approach to assessment.
Another good assessment practice is to align your assessments in a course with your learning goals. That is, if your major learning goals for a class were to build content knowledge in the subject, to display skills in applying theory to practice, and to demonstrate college-level writing and oral communication skills, you would want assessments that evaluate the degree to which students have achieved each of these. Of course, a single assessment might provide information about more than one goal. For example, students in an education class might have to create a written lesson plan (writing skills) for a specific topic of instruction in third grade math that incorporates at least one learning theory (applying theory to practice) – and then present it to the class for feedback (oral communication skills). Instructors want to avoid, on the other hand, assessments that require knowledge or skills to succeed that are irrelevant to learning goals. For instance, using an oral presentation as a final assessment in a calculus course when strong oral communication skills are not a learning goals could be problematic.
What else should instructors consider when it comes to assessment? Transparency is one very important attribute. Strive to create assessment tasks with purpose and goals that are clear to students. Being transparent about evaluation criteria is also important, and rubrics can be an excellent method for doing so. Not only do rubrics make clear how to succeed on an assessment, but they also force instructors to identify specific indicators of learning on that task. Another assessment strategy supported by the literature is the use of authentic assessments. It can be particularly helpful as an approach for aligning assessments closely with course learning goals. Unlike traditional tests, authentic assessments involve the student actually “doing” the subject matter and applying it in realistic subject manner. Indiana University’s Center for Innovative Teaching Learning provides excellent examples of authentic assessment strategies for use in specific subject areas.
Good assessment practices are important to providing feedback to students and instructors and to informing the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.