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For information or questions about assessing your students, please contact Carolyn Wood, Assistant Academic Dean and Director of SLATE.
Assignments and exams are often a significant component of asessing students. The below summary that was written by James Wilkinson for the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University.
Below are four main tips for designing assignments and exams:
Assignments and examinations play a crucial and, it should be stressed, pedagogical role in any course. The care that goes into crafting lectures and discussions is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for effective teaching learning. Examinations, in particular, seem the step-children of the educational process. And yet, more than any other single factor, they shape what students will focus on in a course.
Derek Bok notes in Our Underachieving Colleges that students "study with an eye toward the kinds of questions they expect to see on their exams; as a result, instructors need to reinforce the aims of their courses by taking care to construct exams that call for the very kinds of thinking that they most want to encourage." (pp. 120-21)
A key to creating effective assignments and exams is the concept of “alignment.” As defined by Ralph Tyler almost fifty years ago, alignment simply means starting with the “desired outcomes” of the course and working backwards so that the assignments and examinations reflect and support them. In some sense a successful course can be considered as an exercise in reverse engineering. Figure out first where you want your students to end up, and (only) then how best to help them get there.
The alignment principle would suggest that whatever is on the test should faithfully reflect the themes and materials most frequently stressed during the semester. Examinations should never be an afterthought. Nor, if the course is repeated more than once, should they be simply carbon copies of those administered the year before. Ideally, examinations should allow the instructor to gauge student learning. This is one reason why take-home examinations and examination substitutes such as research papers have become more commonly used in recent years. At their worst, examinations simply test how adept students are at taking examinations, e.g. writing rapidly under time pressure. At their best, they help students process and review material that would otherwise remain unprocessed and unreviewed, and thus unlikely to wind up in students’ long-term memory stores.
Assignments and examinations not only send a signal to students about what the instructor considers worth learning in a course; they also serve to offer feedback on how well students are meeting course expectations. There is, in fact, a direct relationship between frequency (and quality) of feedback on the one hand, and student performance on the other. This is one reason why some courses now place such stress on paper drafts, and why short assignments like response papers and examinations like weekly quizzes are becoming more common. Students perform better with practice and, the more practice they have, the better they perform.
Lee Warren prepared the following information for the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University.
Grading and feedback are among the most powerful ways in which teachers communicate with students. They are interconnected tools for teachers to express what they think students should be learning, and for helping students make progress toward those goals. In order for students to understand and make use of grades and feedback, faculty and teaching fellows need to ensure:
In designing a course, the instructor should consider providing opportunities for students to submit written work or problem sets. While the main purpose is to give them the opportunity to respond to criticism and improve their work, it also allows the instructor to calculate the final grade on a broader basis than one or two exams or a term paper. Year after year, student surveys indicate that it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of thoughtful comments and quick turnaround, or the resentment of students whose assignments were returned after the exam rather than before it.
If an instructor gives a less than perfect score on a question (e.g., 13/15), it pays to write a few words to explain why. That takes more time when grading, but less than one might think. The trick is to find just a couple of words to identify common errors -- which is one reason why it's usually more efficient to grade all the answers to one question before starting on another. Moreover, even a brief comment saves time later on, for it eliminates many student concerns about the way the exam was graded, while with those who still complain you don’t have to reread the exam to see why you took points off.
For information or questions about assessing your course, please contact Carolyn Wood, Assistant Academic Dean and Director of SLATE.
Gathering Mid-Course Feedback
All HKS faculty are encouraged to provide students with an opportunity to share their perspectives on courses (assignments, readings, pacing, etc.) mid-way through the course. By then, students will have experienced enough to have an informed opinion but it is still early enough to make positive changes for the rest of the course.
Here is one example that has been developed and used by various HKS faculty.You may have another form you’ve used previously; or you may wish to design a new form altogether (perhaps drawing from a list of potential questions the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning in FAS has collected).
If you want to pursue other options, such as an on-line survey or in-class student focus groups, SLATE staff would be happy to set up, administer and provide reports for you. Please contact Allison Pingree, Director of Professional Pedagogy, to arrange the details.
Once you’ve gathered student feedback, you can reflect on the overall patterns and ideas, and how you might use the feedback to refine your course. It can be helpful to discuss these thoughts with a colleague or with a SLATE consultant, as well. Equally important is setting aside a few minutes of class time to discuss with students what the main messages were, any changes you propose to make, and your rationale for not making other changes they may have suggested.
The Office of Teaching Support website provides information on the administration and processes around course evaluations at Harvard Kennedy School.
Summaries of HKS course evaluations are posted online at the conclusion of an academic year. These are accessible by Kennedy School Intranet login only.