Every Learner Everywhere

3 Steps for Centering Student Care in Assessments

One effect of the pandemic is that many faculty and administrators are re-emphasizing the importance of putting student care at the center of institutional policies and classroom practices, and that is possibly most essential when it comes to assessment. How can these high-stakes, high-anxiety moments be redesigned with student care in mind while helping them achieve better learning outcomes?

Joshua Eyler, Director of Faculty Development at University of Mississippi, and author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching, notes that “the pandemic put a spotlight on grading. Because students were suddenly ripped out of the educational context they were in, educators began thinking more about how to assess students.”

Eyler’s book explores how grades can be obstacles to learning. Though he’s been researching assessment for years, he says the last year, and the mental health impact on students, has accelerated the conversation: “Anything that’s baked into tradition like grading is hard to get any traction on, but the pandemic got educators thinking about it.”

In short order, educators were considering significant changes to grading policies, including pass/fail options and doing away with grades entirely. Now, as the emergency appears to be passing, how can care-centered assessment practices be extended and sustained?

The Caring for Students Playbook: Six Recommendations for Caring for Students from the Online Learning Consortium, Achieving the Dream, and the Every Learner Everywhere Network, includes one section particularly on assessment, exploring methods that instructors can use to assess students’ learning in meaningful ways without provoking anxiety. It invites instructors to reflect on questions including:

  • Do students have multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge in a course?
  • Does the course provide students with opportunities on their learning through assessments?
  • What strategies are being used to provide students with feedback on their learning?

To help instructors move beyond the traditional assessments, the Playbook provides in-depth discussion, models, and resources in three areas: aligning assessment with needs and care, incorporating a variety of assessment types, and incorporating care and substantive feedback.

1. Align assessment with needs and care

The Playbook recommends that instructors consider ways of assessing students that don’t provoke anxiety. It recognizes that in any semester, you will have a few students who experience anxiety over high-stakes exams. But in times of crisis and disruption, as we’ve seen during the pandemic, the numbers will be even higher.

“When you drill down, students are saying the pressure to get good grades is the most prominent academic stressor,” Eyler says. 

“For me, that pushes this whole conversation from an academic issue to a moral imperative. If we know the systems we have in place have that kind of effect on the mental health of the students who are entrusted to us, we must interrogate those systems, change those systems to the degree possible, bring equity to our education system, and help those students with their mental health.”

Instructors should explore ways to utilize more authentic assessments that are likely to engage and motivate learners. 

Eyler says the traditional point and letter-grade systems penalize students for making mistakes, and “grades are the ultimate extrinsic motivator. Students learn very quickly to be strategic learners in such a way that they get the reward they’re seeking.”

2. Incorporate a variety of assessment types

Instructors should use a variety of assessment types to evaluate student learning. Traditional assessment includes methods such as standardized exams. 

But authentic assessments, or alternative assessments, ask students to demonstrate what they’ve learned by practicing real-world tasks. For example, consider if your course could use an open-book exam or take-home exam where students can solve a complex problem using resources they find on the internet or from peers.

Eyler calls alternative assessments progressive models or liberatory models of grading. Three models of grading he recommends include:

  • Portfolio grading. In this model, the student receives feedback as they work and then receives a grade on the final product. It emphasizes growth and acknowledges that learning takes time. It supports making mistakes, getting feedback, and trying again before the final grade is assigned.
  • Contract grading. This model specifies the goals for the class, the assignments, and activities, and how many completed and revised assignments are required to earn a grade. This model puts more emphasis on effort. 
  • Ungrading. In this assessment type, emphasis is placed on self-reflection, peer assessment, and faculty feedback. The final grade is determined through a conference between the student and the faculty member at the end of the semester.

3. Incorporate caring and substantive feedback

Eyler notes that effective feedback “balances constructive information with encouragement to motivate the student to keep working toward that goal.” Overly general feedback is open to misinterpretation, while substantive feedback gives a roadmap to where a student needs to go. 

He recommends methods that are non-evaluative and non-penalizing and that acknowledge where students are along a spectrum of goals for a class. 

“There isn’t a successful education system without diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he says. Inclusive assessment honors the educational experiences of the students that are with you in the room. That, in turn, fosters a sense of belonging and inclusivity within the classroom. 

One method he particularly recommends is wise feedback, which uses targeted feedback to convey high expectations. Eyler says studies of this model in groups of minoritized students compared to a control group demonstrate strong results. This inclusive practice counters unconscious bias and promotes trust and positive identity.

Momentum past the pandemic

Eyler says the number of educators formalizing ideas for putting student care at the center of assessment practices has been growing in recent years. The pandemic brought those conversations to the foreground.

“The question of grades is going to continue after the pandemic,” Eyler says. “I think of it like a snowball. It was already rolling but the pandemic just added more snow to the snowball. At some point, we’re going to be confronted with the big question, ‘What do we do about all this?’ I don’t know what the answers are to that, but I do know we’re at a critical point and there’s no going back.”

Download The Caring for Students Playbook