By: Melissa Pullara

After years of being students ourselves, many Teaching Assistants (TAs) have likely become well-acquainted with the fact that not all students learn the same way. Many of us, too, have likely been subject to various forms of categorization: my grade ten Careers class, for instance, required us to take an aptitude test with the purpose of being so ‘sorted’ (the test later informed me that I am a “Reading/Writing” learner with primarily Verbal and Musical intelligences—two of the seven kinds of intelligences Dr. Howard Gardner identifies in his Theory of Multiple Intelligences. The others are Logical/Mathematical, Visual/Spatial, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalist [Dickinson, par. 1]). Given that educational institutions have recognized the prevalence of these learning differences among students, it is surprising how little the variant learning and teaching needs of students have been considered within course curriculums, especially where assessment is concerned. In the mid-1980s, Dr. Gardner noted how academic systems catered to a narrow range of intellect, focusing on the verbal/linguistic and the logical/mathematical (Dickinson, par. 1). Thirty years later, the verbal and mathematical core seems largely unchanged, and this narrow scope of learning, which determines both teaching and assessment practices, puts those students who thrive outside of it at a severe disadvantage. This article explores the problematic way traditional methods of assessment exclude and inhibit different learners, and suggests how TAs can work with students and professors to create more inclusive assessment tactics that allow students to demonstrate their learning and understanding of course objectives through a variety of mediums. Traditionally limited methods of evaluation cannot accurately assess the levels of comprehension of every student; by implementing a wider scope of assessment options, TAs and professors can offer otherwise disadvantaged students an opportunity to explore course material in a way that best suits their individual learning needs.

Focus on Learning Objectives

The goal of any student assignment is to assess what, how much, and how students are learning. What do they understand about the material, and how does (or doesn’t) their understanding coincide with the aims of what the teacher is trying to communicate in class? I believe that the best way for instructors to get the most accurate idea of how well each of their students is absorbing the material is by centering the course and its assignments on learning objectives. Instead of emphasizing particular texts that should be covered, it is more productive to consider what the aims of course are: what skills or knowledge are the students meant to take away from their time with you? Focusing a course’s learning objectives allows instructors to open up not only their style of teaching, but also their style of assessment in a way that will not confine either to certain academic boxes, which not every student can easily fit themselves into. The problem with instructors and course assessors sticking so prudently to certain types of assignments is that such rigid models do not account for the different kinds of learners and the variant styles of learning that we have heard so much about. Visual Learners will not necessarily excel in an essay-style assessment like Verbal Learners will; however, assuming that the former’s struggle with essay writing is an indication of them not understanding the course material would be a mistake. But in circumstances when assignments only cater to certain kinds of learners, these mistakes become all too easy to make, and the unfortunate result is that students are not permitted to explore or demonstrate the full scope or potential of their learning. This inevitably leads to, as D. Royce Sadler notes, a large number of students who leave university feeling that they have not gained anything in the realm of analytical or critical thinking skills (Sadler). Too often, that perception is a by-product of the methods of assessment they have encountered that did not allow them to exercise these skills in ways that best fit their learning/performance styles. It is these skills—critical thinking, analysis—that should be foregrounded when instructors and TAs create assignments. Doing so will likely mean sidestepping tradition, which not all instructors are comfortable with. Nonetheless, the result of daring to be different in assessment will be a much more fruitful interaction between student and teacher, which will not only encourage students to participate in their own learning, but will also make completing assignments less of a burden, especially if students feel the freedom to demonstrate their learning in unconventional ways.

Different Methods of Assessment

The contemporary student population is becoming more and more diverse, especially as factors like invisible disabilities and variant learning styles become more prominent in the discussions about students’ academic experiences. Our methods of assessment need to consider these significant factors in order to ensure that the methods we choose to evaluate student understanding of the material are inclusive and accessible. To achieve this, Harshvardhan Singh advocates for Differentiated Instruction, which he describes as an innovative way of thinking about teaching and learning that acknowledges these learning differences and turns assessment into a collaboration between instructors and students (59). This collaboration becomes a key element in disseminating responsibility for learning between the teacher and the student, making students active, rather than a passive, participants in their education. This collaborative effort essentially entails the teachers allowing students to have a choice in the way they are assessed; Singh emphasizes, in particular, the importance of allowing students to connect what they have been learning to events in their own lives (Singh 59). I find that this consideration is especially significant for instructors, like myself, who deal in textual material that is often considered outdated or no longer relevant. The best way for me to communicate the ongoing significance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is to have students consider how the nature of his contemplation—about death, about action—relates to them as students and/or young adults in the twenty-first century, or to the tumultuous world in which we live. By incorporating methods of assessment that allow them to express their thought process while drawing links between the sixteenth century and the modern day, I will not only be able to evaluate how well they understood the fundamentals of the assigned text, but more significantly, I will be able to facilitate and observe the results of their critical thinking about it.

Like Singh, Maryellen Weimer argues for allowing students to have a choice in how they are assessed. After all, not every student is an excellent essay writer or test taker. It is important that instructors consider assessment practices that expand beyond the traditional, limited scope. Allowing students to submit a visual presentation of a novel’s important themes or to create a song that underscores the significance of a particular character’s psychological journey can nonetheless demonstrate the extent of students’ understanding about course material, while allowing them to perform through mediums in which they excel. The key is to ensure that all available assignment options accomplish the course’s learning objectives and/or goals. An instructor I had in my second-year undergraduate Shakespeare course was one of the first teachers I encountered who embraced this notion of differentiated assessment. For our term project, she allowed us to either write a traditional literary essay, or to perform our favourite speech from any of the plays we had read that term. The speech had to be of a minimum length, and the performance would be evaluated on dramatic flair, intent, characterization, and so on. Students who chose this second option also had to submit a written reflection about why they chose that particular passage, and how their performance reflected or spoke to aspects of the character or of the scene chosen. Personally, the thought of having to memorize and perform Shakespeare frightened me to my core, but a few students did choose this option (drama majors/minors all, unsurprisingly). Not only did this option allow certain students to play to their strengths, but it also allowed the rest of the class to enjoy dramatic performances and to see some of our favourite scenes and characters being acted, when otherwise the plays had been read or analyzed according to academic literary tropes. It served as a new learning experience for all of us, not only the students being evaluated. Weimar notes that these kinds of student-chosen assignments prompt students to reflect on their performance especially because they were given a choice; the fact that it is their selection becomes a kind of challenge to prove to themselves that it was the best choice. Furthermore, something Weimar does not mention (but which I believe is equally viable in these cases) is that students are more likely to take accountability for their own success or failure if they cannot ascribe (or more often, blame) a certain grade to the limited parameters of the assignment. It no longer becomes about the teacher, but about students taking responsibility for the quality of their work.

Susan Spangler extends this notion of teacher-student collaboration to the realm of grading. Citing a study first done by Bergmann and Samm, Spangler advocates for Flipped Assessment Practices, wherein the student takes an active role in creating and filling out their own rubric, a process of self-evaluation in conjunction with the teacher’s own assessment that aims to help students understand both their areas of achievement and those in which they could use improvement. The process includes three steps:

  1. Create assessment rubrics with the class of students, focusing on the learning objectives of the assignment, highlighting what they are being asked to do or show, and at what level, while incorporating their suggestions on what (else) they think they should be graded on
  2. Before submitting the assignment, have the students fill in sections of the rubric, justifying why they fulfilled the criteria of that section. The purpose here is to have them critically analyze the final product of their work, and such a process may prompt them to reconsider certain aspects of it if they find that they themselves cannot adequately advocate awarding a certain grade
  3. Grade the assignment with the students in grading conferences, allowing the students to ask questions to clarify your responses or reactions to the assignment, and helping them to see where they succeeded and why, and, more importantly, where and why they did not do as well as they might have liked. (Admittedly, this last suggestion may prove difficult in larger university classes, but for TAs assigned 20-30 students, such conferences are possible especially if they are only allotted a certain amount of time each).

Flipped Assessment invokes teacher-student collaboration and focuses on the learning objectives of a course. Furthermore, creating assessment rubrics based on learning objectives, on what a student is supposed to understand from the course texts overall, also provides a universal method for marking various kinds of assignments.

Benefits and Conclusions

The objective of my teaching of Macbeth will not be to have students memorize the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” monologue, or even to have them tell me the exact act and scene where it occurs. Rather, I want my students to be able to tell me why such attention has been paid to this part of the play: why does it matter and to whom? I aim to facilitate critical thinking skills, literary analysis, comparison, evaluation—skills that Linda Darling-Hammond claims “will be the skills of a literate 21st-century citizen,” but which are not currently measured by high-stakes standardized tests (Darling-Hammond, pars. 3-4). In order to ensure that all students emerge from the postsecondary system with skills that will carry them into and through the workforce, and life, successfully, we as instructors must concede that our methods of assessment must be expanded to accommodate for different kinds of learning, and for the evolving world of students. We must focus on creating links between course material and the student’s experience, between course material and an understanding of the world. This is the best way to achieve what Ralf St. Clair calls “transformative learning,” wherein people are confronted with a challenge, a “disorienting dilemma,” to their social perception from which they can learn (St. Clair 58). Presenting this challenge does not mean forcing a C student to write essays until they achieve at least a B. Presenting a challenge that can have a truly transformative effect on students’ learning entails making them think about how the material in front of them effects them—how it helps or hinders, makes them feel or think, or not feel or think, and why. We must encourage the expression of this thought through the assessment medium that best allows students to confront this challenge, to change their perception, to transform their learning. As TAs and instructors, this should be our ultimate learning objective.

Works Cited

Darling-Hammond, Linda. “How Should We Measure Student Learning? 5 Keys to Comprehensive Assessment.” Edutopia, March 2008. https://www.edutopia.org/comprehensive-assessment-introduction. Accessed 27 October 2016.

Dickinson, Dee. “Learning through Many Kinds of Intelligence.” John Hopkins School of Education, 1996. http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/strategies/topics/mi/dickinson_mi.html. Accessed 27 October 2016.

Sadler, D. Royce. “Three In-Course Assessment Reforms to Improve Learning Education Outcomes.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 41, no. 6, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2015.1064858. Accessed 27 October 2016.

Singh, Harshvardhan. “Differentiating Classroom Instruction to Cater to Learners of Different Styles.” Education, vol. 3, no. 12, 2014. DOI: 10.15373/22501991/December2014/25. Accessed 27 October 2016.

Spangler, Susan. “Flipping Assessment: Making Assessment a Learning Experience.” Faculty Focus, June 2015. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/blended-flipped-learning/flipping-assessment-making-assessment-a-learning-experience/. Accessed 27 October 2016.

St. Clair, Ralf. “Engaged and Involved Learners.” Creating Courses for Adults: Designs for Learning. John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2015, pp. 57-65.

Weimer, Maryellen. “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment?” Faculty Focus, June 2011. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/a-role-for-student-choice-in-assessment/. Accessed 27 October 2016.

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