Teach the Earth > Course Design > Course Design Tutorial > Table of contents > Part 2 index > Assessing student learning

If you have dropped into this Course Design Tutorial from somewhere else, you might wish to start at the introduction, overview, or table of contents.

2.3 Assessing Student Learning

At this stage of the tutorial, you have set overarching goals, organized content, developed a course plan, and selected teaching strategies for specific assignments and activities to help students achieve course goals. In this section of the tutorial, you will decide how to assess student learning in your course. If you have developed activities and assignments, you have already developed some assessment strategies for your course.

What kinds of assessment strategies can you use to determine the extent to which students have met the goals of your course? Assessment of student learning can range from informal assessments of whether students are "getting it" (such as observing a well-informed, articulate discussion of a topic or noticing that students' eyes have glazed over in class), to formal assessments of student learning that contribute to their grades in the course, to research on how students are learning in a specific class. In this tutorial, we focus on assessments used to determine grades, including some informal assessments that might or might not be graded but that provide valuable information about whether students are "getting it". We encourage you to use a matrix of your goals and assessment strategies to make sure that your assessments are aligned with your goals.

Start by downloading the worksheet (Microsoft Word 37kB Jun20 05) that goes with this part, and use it as you work through the sections below.

Task 2.3: Exploring assessment strategies

Below, you will find a list of assessment strategies with links to more information and examples about selected strategies. Keeping the goals of your course in mind, browse the list to find strategies that you could use to assess student learning. Be sure to keep in mind the context and constraints of your course. Go to the course plan that you have developed in Parts 2.1 and 2.2, and add assessments as appropriate. You may decide that the student activities and assignments you have planned are sufficient to meet your goals, or you may decide that you need to add more and/or different strategies. Use the worksheet to check that your assessments are aligned with your goals.

Assessment strategies

The list of assessment strategies below includes only some of the many possibilities. A useful set of assessment resources is available at the Cutting Edge website Understanding What Our Geoscience Students Are Learning: Observing and Assessing. This site includes a page on Assessment Tools and Instruments and a page on Assessment Types. A primer on assessment in the geosciences is available at the Starting Point site.

ConcepTests are conceptual multiple-choice questions used during class that provide immediate assessment of student understanding. More than 300 ConcepTest questions are available on the Starting Point website. Using electronic response systems provides the instructor with immediate feedback about the distribution of answers in the class. Learn more about assessment and ConcepTests here.

Minute papers are one type of classroom assessment technique that will give you an indication of student understanding of a particular topic. A one-minute paper can be used at the end of the class by asking students to write on one of the following questions.

  • What was the most important thing you learned in today's class?
  • What question do you have about today's class?
  • What was the muddiest point of today's class?

Students write their answers on index cards or slips of paper that are turned in at the end of class and can be graded or not. learn more here (more info)

Problem sets can be a useful way to give students practice in solving problems, doing quantitative work outside class time, and practice specific techniques. Problem sets are standard in many science courses and can be an effective assessment strategy in entry-level as well as upper-level courses.

Labs can provide another way to assess student learning. The type of assessment might be a lab report, completion of the lab handout, a research project write-up, or some other assigment.

Concept maps can also be used for assessment. Learn more about assessment using concept maps.

Exams and quizzes are commonly used to assess student learning. They also force students to process information and help prevent students from disengaging in a course. Students need to process information in one way or another to learn. In studying for exams, students read, memborize, organize information, test themselves with questions, and with vary ing degrees of success, process the material for that particular section of the course. Processing inforamtion in a blitz of studying before each exam is not the ideal way to learn material, nor in many courses is it the only way students learn material. Studying before exams is, however, one of the most common ways in which students learn in a course. Exams can include mutiple choice questions, short answers, essay questions, questions about graphs or diagrams, and so forth. If you choose to use exams, it's a good idea to ask yourself how much of the exam requires students to use higher order thinking skills and how much of it requires lower order thinking skills and whether you are satisfied by your answer in light of the goals of your course.

Cooperative exams, also called "two-stage" or "pyramid exams", are exams that are taken by groups of students working together after they have completed the original exam individually. When done in one class period, students take the exam individually for the first part of the class. Then, when all students have turned in the exam, they retake the exam working in groups and, in some cases, in an open-book, open-notes format. Commonly these exams are multiple-choice exams with or without some short answer questions; the cooperative part may also have one or two longer questions. The instructors we know who use this type of exam base the total exam score for each student on 70-75% of the individual exam and 25-30% of the group exam.

Richard Yuretich and Mark Leckie use "two-stage" exams with a significant collaborative component in a 600-student oceanography class that was transformed by modifying lectures to include cooperative learning via interactive in-class exercises and directed discussion. The transformation is described in an article in the Journal of Geoscience Education, Active-Learning Methods to Improve Student Performance and Scientific Interest in a Large Introductory Oceanography Class (Yuretich et al., 2001 ).

Randy Richardson, University of Arizona, also uses two-stage exams in A Geologic Perspective, a large physical science course. He gives an example of one exam (Microsoft Word 1MB Jul1 10), the pre-test information for students (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 851kB Jul1 10) explaining how the exam will work, and the instructions (Microsoft Word 34kB Jul1 10) for the exam given to the Disability Center for administering the exam, which explicity lay out the ground rules for the collaborative part of the exam given that he is not present at the Disability Center when the exam starts.

Written and oral assignments such as papers, oral presentations, debates, simulations, and so forth can also be used to assess student learning. In some courses, frequent written and oral assignents can replace traditional exams. In some exam-free courses students prepare one or two short written assignments each week in which they summarize the critical aspects of a reading assignment, relate data ro readings, make comparisions with what they have learned previously, take positions on issues, and analyse or synthesize information and ideas. These assignments then serve as the basis for group or class discussion and oral presentations or require students to pull together information from a series of classes either to solve a problem or to present a summary analysis of a particular topic. The activities that students are engaged in to learn the material are also used to evaluate their accomplishments. This is a type of authentic assessment, an approach to assessment designed to correspond as closely as possible to real world experience.

Grading rubrics

Grading rubrics are written guidelines by which student work is evaluated. They typically articulate items on which student work is judged as well as the standards necessary to achieve certain grades.

Grading rubrics are useful primarily when you have something to grade that isn't simply a matter of right or wrong fro which points can be easily assigned. Thus, they are useful for written work projects and oral work, rather than problem sets or short answer assignments. They allow you to evaluate a number of different facets of a student's work quite easily and rather quickly. Rubrics allow you to lay out specific criteria as well as standards that must be met for a student to earn an A on a particular assignment.

Grading rubrics are useful for encouraging students to give more thorough, thoughful, creative, or well-supported answers. May students produce work that is substsantially correct but of only average insight, thoroughtness, or creativity. Using a rubric, a correct answer of average completeness and insight can be given an average grade (a C+, a B-, a 3, or whatever you believe average work to be worth in your grading scheme), while an above-average grade (and A, a 5, or whatever) can be reserved for truly exceptional insight, throroughness, or creativity. Examples of grading rubrics for written assignments and oral presentations such as might be given at the beginning of the course are included here (Microsoft Word 42kB Jun20 05) and an example of an assignment and associated specific rubrics for that assignment are included here (Microsoft Word 98kB Jun20 05).

Advice for using rubrics

  • Establish a standard at the start of the term for what you consider to be average work, and publicize it to the students. Many students believe that if they simply do an assignment, they ought to receive an A. If this is your sense as well, that is perfectly fine, but you should still let students know that. If, on the other hand, you believe that an average job (substantially correct, workmanlike, does-the-job) ought to receive an average grade rather than an outstanding grade, you should let students know that it takes an uncommonly insightful answer to get an A. You should also let them know what you consider to be an average grade.
  • Hand out an appropriate grading rubric at the time you hand out an assignment so that students know what your standards will be and what you will be evaluating their assignments on when you grade it. Some instructors include a general grading rubric on their syllabus.
  • Take the time to write at least one comment on the rubric as you grade papers - don't let the rubric do all the communicating for you.
  • Post examples of average, above average, and superior work, with names suitably removed. A 3 does, in fact, look different from a 4 and substantially different from a 5, and students can benefit from seeing what the difference is between a correct, workmanlike job and a truly exceptional paper.

For additional information about rubrics, see Developing Scoring Rubrics in the Starting Point primer on assessment.


©2005 On-line Course Design Tutorial developed by Dr. Barbara J. Tewksbury (Hamilton College) and Dr. R. Heather Macdonald (College of William and Mary) as part of the program On the Cutting Edge, funded by NSF grant DUE-0127310.

New TTE Logo Small

Course Design resources from across Teach the Earth »

Course Design resources from Teach the Earth include:

Specialized collections including

or search