Assessment in STEM in the Pandemic
This is a slightly modified version of an email I sent to colleagues following a workshop I facilitated on Assessment in STEM. Twenty faculty colleagues reflected and shared over two hours as we reconsidered approaches to assessment and grading in STEM for the upcoming semester of remote instruction. I learned so much from my colleagues, and wanted to summarize my takeaways as we move towards the fall semester, a term that is already defined by trauma, isolation, and stress. I quote extensively from my colleagues' written comments, but have removed their names to keep them anonymous.
Thank you so much for joining the conversation and sharing your insights yesterday! I learned so much, and want to take a minute to synthesize the discussion.
Through our conversation yesterday we saw that there is tremendous variation in how we relate to assessment practices in education. While there was agreement that assessment in all of its varied forms can play a critically important role in motivating, guiding, and reinforcing learning, many people expressed how assessment brings up negative feelings in our roles as learners and facilitators: ”Quiz, Exam, Presentation, Report, Tension, Tightness, Horror ." And: “ Mismatch: I think of it as an opportunity for students to demonstrate to me and to themselves what they’ve learned, but mostly students look at it as something to fear and stress out about ." Almost universally, concern about grades was described as having a negative influence on authentic learning, and often leads to a transactional and competitive learning environment (both among students and between instructors and students). “ I think I learned the most and worked harder in my grad classes where the “A” was basically automatic and I aimed to learn as much as I could for bettering myself ."
In our roles as instructors, we reflected on assessments that were most effective at helping us understand student learning, and were most useful for students. The common threads here were activities that asked students to apply and synthesize course content in original ways, such as through concept maps, presentations, and capstone projects, as well as projects that encouraged students to connect their learning with their own lives. “ An open-ended activity that made students go out, observe biological nature, and write about it." “I built in a weekly discussion board that asked students to list one of their strengths that week and to list something they took away from the course content that week. Their takeaways were insightful and I got to know them as people AND it felt uplifting." On the flip side, our biggest frustrations around assessments often involve issues of academic integrity (plagiarism, cheating), as well as well students seem more focused on wanting to meet detailed requirements to get a grade as opposed to creative and authentic learning. “ Anytime students cheat." “When I give students a performance task to solve as a team, but they take it as their team is their competition."
We shared our concerns about the challenges of remote learning as well as the ways the pandemic has impacted our students. Many people identified challenges facing students including housing and food insecurity, unstable home learning environments, work and family obligations, and challenges to physical and mental wellness. And, of course, feelings of isolation and lack of motivation.
Finally, many of you shared your fantastic ideas for designing courses and assessment approaches that are responsive to the challenges we identified above. These approaches included changing or simplifying grading scales, lessening the use of exams and high stakes assessments, building in flexibility and clarity in the timing of course activities, using a wider variety of assessment approaches, reducing content or expectations , allowing some number of missed assignments or participation opportunities , scaffolding of no- or low- stakes assignments, building in time for discussion and active learning, supporting student agency in co-creating assignments, and reinforcing the strengths and assets of students.
Thank you, all, for sharing your insights!
Some of my takeaways from our conversation, which will guide my course preparation and teaching this fall:
1. Our students are facing numerous challenges, including tenuous and traumatic living conditions and unpredictability in many aspects of their lives. Although everyone is facing challenges, inequity and disparity is heightened among our students (and among faculty and staff). I need to proactively reach out to students to encourage them to take advantage of technology support (https://www.csustan.edu/oit/tech-checkout ). I also need to share resources and normalize seeking help for food insecurity, mental health services, and other forms of support (https://www.csustan.edu/covid-19/student-resources-faqs).
2. Beyond helping students access resources to support their basic needs, my highest priority goals for my courses are to provide structure, some sense of normalcy, intellectual and personal engagement, community and socializing, and student agency. I can design my courses and teach in a way so that students find trust, safety, and validation.
3. My assignments can be designed to encourage participation, sharing, connection, and reflection. It is more important to me that a student feels motivated and excited to share their thoughts and observations in a discussion board, without fear of being wrong, than if they answer questions correctly in an online quiz from a place of fear or desperation.
4. I can build flexibility into my overall assessment and grading approach, allowing students to complete a subset of all possible activities to receive full credit.
5. To avoid academic integrity issues, I can completely do away with high-stakes assessments consisting of lower-order questions about content in favor of more frequent, low-stakes assessments that ask students to apply concepts or critically analyze new sources of information. I can create more assignments like this component of a final exam I gave in May; student responses were a joy to read, and told me so much more about student learning than a multiple choice question could have:
6. When in doubt, I can: