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15.11: Choosing assessments

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    Assessment that enhances motivation and student confidence

    Studies on testing and learning conducted more than 20 years ago demonstrated that tests promote learning and that more frequent tests are more effective than less frequent tests (Dempster & Perkins, 1993). Frequent smaller tests encourage continuous effort rather than last minute cramming and may also reduce test anxiety because the consequences of errors are reduced. College students report preferring more frequent testing than infrequent testing (Bangert-Downs, Kulik, Kulik, 1991).

    • More recent research indicates that teachers’ assessment purpose and beliefs, the type of assessment selected, and the feedback given contributes to the assessment climate in the classroom which influences students’ confidence and motivation. The use of self-assessment is also important in establishing a positive assessment climate.

    Teachers’ purposes and beliefs

    Student motivation can be enhanced when the purpose of assessment is promoting student learning and this is clearly communicated to students by what teachers say and do (Harlen, 2006). This approach to assessment is associated with what the psychologist, Carol Dweck, (2000) calls an incremental view of ability or intelligence. An incremental view assumes that ability increases whenever an individual learns more. This means that effort is valued because effort leads to knowing more and therefore having more ability. Individuals with an incremental view also ask for help when needed and respond well to constructive feedback as the primary goal is increased learning and mastery.

    In contrast, a fixed view of ability assumes that some people have more ability than others and nothing much can be done to change that. Individuals with a fixed view of ability often view effort in opposition to ability (“Smart people don’t have to study”) and so do not try as hard, and are less likely to ask for help as that indicates that they are not smart. While there are individual differences in students’ beliefs about their views of intelligence, teachers’ beliefs and classroom practices influence students’ perceptions and behaviors.

    Teachers with an incremental view of intelligence, communicate to students that the goal of learning is mastering the material and figuring things out. Assessment is used by these teachers to understand what students know so they can decide whether to move to the next topic, re-teach the entire class, or provide remediation for a few students. Assessment also helps students understand their own learning and demonstrate their competence. Teachers with these views say things like, “We are going to practice over and over again. That’s how you get good. And you’re going to make mistakes. That’s how you learn.” (Patrick, Anderman, Ryan, Edelin, Midgley, 2001, p. 45).

    In contrast, teachers with a fixed view (fixed mindset) of ability are more likely to believe that the goal of learning is doing well on tests especially outperforming others. These teachers are more likely to say things that imply fixed abilities e.g. “This test will determine what your math abilities are”, or stress the importance of interpersonal competition, “We will have speech competition and the top person will compete against all the other district schools and last year the winner got a big award and their photo in the paper.”

    When teachers stress, interpersonal competition, some students may be motivated but there can only a few winners so there are many more students who know they have no chance of winning. Another problem with interpersonal competition in assessment is that the focus can become winning rather than understanding the material.

    Teachers who communicate to their students that ability is incremental and that the goal of assessment is promoting learning rather that ranking students, or awarding prizes to those who did very well, or catching those who did not pay attention, are likely to enhance students’ motivation.

    Choosing assessments

    The choice of assessment task also influences students’ motivation and confidence. First, assessments that have clear criteria that students understand and can meet rather than assessments that pit students against each other in interpersonal competition enhances motivation (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, Wiliam, 2004). This is consistent with the point we made in the previous section about the importance of focusing on enhancing learning for all students rather than ranking students.

    Second, meaningful assessment tasks enhance student motivation. Students often want to know why they have to do something and teachers need to provide meaningful answers. For example, a teacher might say, “You need to be able to calculate the area of a rectangle because if you want new carpet you need to know how much carpet is needed and how much it would cost.” Well-designed performance tasks are often more meaningful to students than selected response tests so students will work harder to prepare for them.

    Third, providing choices of assessment tasks can enhance student sense of autonomy and motivation according to self-determination theory. Kym, the sixth-grade teacher whose story began this chapter, reports that giving students choices was very helpful. Another middle school social studies teacher Aaron, gives his students a choice of performance tasks at the end of the unit on the US Bill of Rights. Students have to demonstrate specified key ideas, but can do that by making up a board game, presenting a brief play, composing a rap song etc.

    Aaron reports that students work much harder on this performance assessment which allows them to use their strengths than previously when he did not provide any choices and gave a more traditional assignment. Measurement experts caution that a danger of giving choices is that the assessment tasks are no longer equivalent and so the reliability of scoring is reduced so it is particularly important to use well designed scoring rubrics. Fourth, assessment tasks should be challenging, but achievable with reasonable effort (Elliott, McGregor & Thrash, 2004). This is often hard for beginning teachers to do, who may give assessment tasks that are too easy or too hard, because they have to learn to match their assessment to the skills of their students.

    Providing feedback

    When the goal is assessment for learning, providing constructive feedback that helps students know what they do and do not understand as well as encouraging them to learn from their errors is fundamental. Effective feedback should be given as soon as possible as the longer the delay between students’ work and feedback the longer students will continue to have some misconceptions. Also, delays reduce the relationship between students’ performance and the feedback as students can forget what they were thinking during the assessment.

    Effective feedback should also inform students clearly what they did well and what needs modification. General comments just as “good work, A”, or “needs improvement” do not help students understand how to improve their learning. Giving feedback to students using well designed scoring rubrics helps clearly communicate strengths and weaknesses.

    Obviously, grades are often needed, but teachers can minimize the focus by placing the grade after the comments or on the last page of a paper. It can also be helpful to allow students to keep their grades private making sure when returning assignments that the grade is not prominent (e.g. not using red ink on the top page) and never asking students to read their scores aloud in class. Some students choose to share their grades—but that should be their decision not their teachers.

    When grading, teachers often become angry at the mistakes that students make. It is easy for teachers to think something like: “With all the effort I put into teaching, this student could not even be bothered to follow the directions or spell check!” Many experienced teachers believe that communicating their anger is not helpful, so rather than saying: “How dare you turn in such shoddy work”, they rephrase it as, “I am disappointed that your work on this assignment does not meet the standards set” (Sutton, 2003). Research evidence also suggests that comments such as “You are so smart” for a high-quality performance can be counterproductive.

    This is surprising to many teachers, but if students are told they are smart when they produce a good product, then if they do poorly on the next assignment the conclusion must be they are “not smart” (Dweck, 2000). More effective feedback focuses on positive aspects of the task (not the person), as well as strategies, and effort. The focus of the feedback should relate to the criteria set by the teacher and how improvements can be made.

    When the teacher and student are from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, providing feedback that enhances motivation and confidence but also includes criticism can be particularly challenging because the students of color have historical reasons to distrust negative comments from a white teacher. Research by Cohen Steele, Ross (1999) indicates that “wise” feedback from teachers needs three components: positive comments, criticisms, and an assurance that the teacher believes the student can reach higher standards. We describe this research is more detail in “Deciding for yourself about the research” found in Appendix B.

    Self and peer assessment

    In order to reach a learning goal, students need to understand the meaning of the goal, the steps necessary to achieve a goal, and if they are making satisfactory progress towards that goal (Sadler, 1989). This involves self-assessment and recent research has demonstrated that well designed self-assessment can enhance student learning and motivation (Black & Wiliam, 2006). For self-assessment to be effective, students need explicit criteria such as those in an analytical scoring rubric. These criteria are either provided by the teacher or developed by the teacher in collaboration with students. Because students seem to find it easier to understand criteria for assessment tasks if they can examine other students’ work alongside their own, self-assessment often involves peer assessment.

    An example of a strategy used by teachers involves asking students to use “traffic lights” to indicate of their confidence in their assignment or homework. Red indicates that they were unsure of their success, orange that they were partially unsure, and green that they were confident of their success. The students who labeled their own work as orange and green worked in mixed groups to evaluate their own work while the teacher worked with the students who had chosen red (Black & Wiliam, 2006).

    If self and peer assessment is used, it is particularly important that the teachers establish a classroom culture for assessment that is based on incremental views of ability and learning goals. If the classroom atmosphere focuses on interpersonal competition, students have incentives in self and peer assessment to inflate their own evaluations (and perhaps those of their friends) because there are limited rewards for good work.

    Adjusting instruction based on assessment

    Using assessment information to adjust instruction is fundamental to the concept of assessment for learning. Teachers make these adjustments “in the moment” during classroom instruction as well as during reflection and planning periods. Teachers use the information they gain from questioning and observation to adjust their teaching during classroom instruction.

    If students cannot answer a question, the teacher may need to rephrase the question, probe understanding of prior knowledge, or change the way the current idea is being considered. It is important for teachers to learn to identify when only one or two students need individual help because they are struggling with the concept, and when a large proportion of the class is struggling so whole group intervention is needed.

    After the class is over, effective teachers spend time analyzing how well the lessons went, what students did and did not seem to understand, and what needs to be done the next day. Evaluation of student work also provides important information for teachers.

    If many students are confused about a similar concept the teacher needs to reteach it and consider new ways of helping students understand the topic. If the majority of students complete the tasks very quickly and well, the teacher might decide that the assessment was not challenging enough. Sometimes teachers become dissatisfied with the kinds of assessments they have assigned when they are grading—perhaps because they realize there was too much emphasis on lower level learning, that the directions were not clear enough, or the scoring rubric needed modification.

    Teachers who believe that assessment data provides information about their own teaching and that they can find ways to influence student learning have high teacher efficacy or beliefs that they can make a difference in students’ lives. In contrast, teachers who think that student performance is mostly due to fixed student characteristics or the homes they come from (e.g. “no wonder she did so poorly considering what her home life is like”) have low teacher efficacy (Tschannen-Moran, Woolfolk Hoy, & Hoy, 1998).

    Communication with parents and guardians

    Clear communication with parents about classroom assessment is important—but often difficult for beginning teachers. The same skills that are needed to communicate effectively with students are also needed when communicating with parents and guardians. Teachers need to be able to explain to parents the purpose of the assessment, why they selected this assessment technique, and what the criteria for success are. Some teachers send home newsletters monthly or at the beginning of a major assessment task explaining the purpose and nature of the task, any additional support that is needed (e.g. materials, library visits), and due dates. Some parents will not be familiar with performance assessments or the use of self and peer assessment so teachers need to take time to explain these approaches carefully.

    Many school districts now communicate though websites that have mixtures of public information available to all parents in the class (e.g. curriculum and assessment details) as well information restricted to the parents or guardians of specific students (e.g. the attendance and grades). Teachers report this is helpful as parents have access to their child’s performance immediately and when necessary, can talk to their child and teacher quickly.

    The recommendations we provided above on the type of feedback that should be given to students also apply when talking to parents. That is, the focus should be on students’ performance on the task, what was done well and what needs work, rather than general comments about how “smart” or “weak” the child is. If possible, comments should focus on strategies that the child uses well or needs to improve (e.g. reading test questions carefully, organization in a large project). When the teacher is white and the student or parents are minority, trust can be an issue so using “wise” feedback when talking to parents may help.

    15.11: Choosing assessments is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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