(Trans)formative Assessment in Teaching

Today I’m attending ISA’s inaugural Innovative Pedagogy Conference in St. Louis.  Victor and I are doing a workshop on using games and simulations to teach political violence, showcasing activities like Survive or Die!, Prisoner’s DilemmaModel Diplomacy, identity exercise, and others.  But I’m most interested in reflecting on the session offered by Matthew Krain and Kent Kille of the College of Wooster on Assessment and Effectiveness in Active Teaching in International Studies. Their framework for formative assessment (that can, in fact, be transformative) is very helpful as an overall approach to teaching.

Their EEPA framework focuses on educational objectives, examples/applications, procedures, and assessment.  Teaching, then, starts with setting objectives to achieve.  We need to be honest with ourselves (and, according to the principles of transparent teaching, our students) about why we are having them do something in a course or classroom setting.  Next, we figure out what we are actually having the do–the specific examples or applications that we want to use to achieve these objectives.  The procedures are the how–how we are going to go about using those examples–the rules, the format, the questions we are going to ask, the assignments students will need to complete.  Finally, we need to assess–using either qualitative or quantitative measures (or both) to see whether students achieved our objectives and learned the desired material, but also whether our objectives, examples, procedures, and assessment process are producing the results we want.  That last stage encourages reflection first and foremost–reflection by students and instructors on the goals, processes, and outcomes of learning.  That feedback loop then informs how we construct our goals, examples, procedures, and assessment practices in the future. For a full explanation, you can find the slides from the conference presentation here, shared with the permission of the authors.

I think a lot of us are better on the examples and procedures than we are on the objectives and assessment. We often speak of the teaching ‘toolbox’, which we fill up with different activities and instructional ideas that we can then bring out as needed, adapting the procedures to fit different contexts and classroom environments to meet the task at hand.  But we might skip over really thinking through what that task actually is–the class objectives.

With the objectives, we may have a vague sense of what we want to achieve, or just a broad goal of ‘teach realism’ or ‘teach the UN’.  That’s not sufficient, because it doesn’t provide a focus point for the lesson.  Just as we tell our students that a good paper addresses a  question, problem, or puzzle, rather than a topic, our goals should be concrete, specific, and communicated to our audience.  We shouldn’t use a simulation just because it sounds fun to us, but because it fulfills objectives that we have for the class.  Engagement is great, but if that’s all students are getting out of your game, that’s probably not a strong enough reason in and of itself to keep using games.  

When it comes to reflection and assessment, we tend to rely on summative assessments–grading.  We give an exam and use that as a way to judge learning.  But shouldn’t we try to figure out BEFORE the exam or final paper if the students understand the material and if our chosen methods are working?  Luckily there are a number of ways to conduct this more formative assessment, many of which Matt and Kent touched on.  These methods not only allow us to assess student learning and the effectiveness of our teaching, but are also part of the learning process for students as they reflect on the material and organize their thoughts.

  • The Minute paper.  Give students one minute at the end of a lesson to define the key take home point and any questions or areas of uncertainty.  Flipping through these you can very easily see if the students are on track.
  • The Muddiest Point.  Ask students to identify the muddiest point of the lesson that causes them confusion.  A quick look through will reveal which points caused the most confusion.
  • Application Mini Paper.  Students write down one real world application for what they just learned.  This tests their ability to transfer knowledge.
  • Mind Mapping.  Use paper or online resources so students can develop mind maps to demonstrate their thinking on how processes unfold or how concepts fit together.
  • Cartooning.  Have students create a graphical depiction of an article’s argument or method.
  • Discussion board posts.  Matt has his students participate in a class discussion board prior to a class session.  They do the readings and have to pose a discussion question and reply to at least one classmate’s discussion.  This starts the conversation before class begins and also makes it easier for the instructor to group students together for small group discussion based on their answers. I use a variant of this where my students submit discussion questions to me prior to class.  I compile them by theme and pass them out during class and these questions form the basis of our class session.
  • Think-Pair-Share.  This very traditional method asks students to first think and jot down their thoughts on a prompt, then to brainstorm with a partner before reporting back to a larger group.  This lets students compare their thoughts with a classmate in a low-stakes setting and encourages wider participation.
  • Self assessment surveys. You can have students self-assess their own preparation, participation, and/or knowledge.  This is a great check on how confident they are feeling about their learning.  Sometimes students think they are doing well when in reality they need to do more work; other times students that are doing well are experiencing high levels of anxiety about their work.  Self-assessments can help identify this.

We spent a little bit of time talking about online applications, but there is a ton of educational technology out there (both within and outside of learning management systems like Canvas and Blackboard) that can enable these in online settings.  They can be used in large and small classes as well.

Matt, Kent, Jeff Lantis (who headed the committee planning the conference) and their colleagues at the College of Wooster always do a great job in their pedagogy workshops and this was certainly no exception.  I had the privilege of working with them as my mentors in the Preparing Future Faculty program during graduate school, and their commitment to the scholarship of teaching and learning and overall classroom excellence has always been an inspiration to me.  If you get a chance to attend one of their workshops, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, head over to their faculty pages at the College of Wooster to find their publications and more about what they are doing.