Assessment is synonymous with testing – but it should evoke so much more.
What testing and assessment have in common is that they aim is to measure student learning: Did they learn? How well?
But in practice, testing often measures how well students prepared for the test, rather than how well they learned. Tests also take place too infrequently, and in circumstances too straitened to provide an accurate reflection of student learning.
Happily, assessment techniques extend far beyond testing to encompass myriad other kinds of measurement – many of which are also common teaching tools. Every time a teacher reviews a term, leads a discussion, gives a pop quiz, or assigns a response paper, he/she performs a mini-assessment.
Unlike testing, the purpose of assessment isn’t always to assign a grade that announces – in a purely symbolic and famously ambiguous way – the extent of a student’s learning. Rather, measuring learning is a prelude to learning more: the assessment should help teachers and students adjust their respective efforts. In other words, assessment precedes feedback, which should be qualitative at least as often as it is quantitative.
- Mix high- and low-stakes assessment to give students the opportunity to demonstrate learning in various contexts, and be explicit with students about what you’re doing. Ungraded pop quizzes or response papers can help diminish student anxiety around other testing.
- Since anxiety around big tests can be so high, use it to your advantage: design tests in a way to focus student studying on the most important content or skills you teach (See McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 2006, p. 74).
- Designing tests – or any assessment – to accurately measure student learning requires the clear and early articulation of what’s worth testing. In other words, clarify your course goals early, determine which of them are most important, and plan a semester’s worth of diverse assessments accordingly.
For more ideas about what constitutes effective assessment, see McKeachie et al. (2006), McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 74-86, and Angelo and Cross (1988), Classroom Assessment Techniques.