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Assessing Equitably with All Learners in Mind 

The assessment of student learning is an important aspect of any course. The diversity of learners and course contexts necessitates that we question whether our current assessment practices are serving us: do they meet the needs of all of our students? Do they align with our course learning objectives and promote learning for all students? Through a process of reflection on our assessment approaches, we can recognize and remove barriers to student success and work toward more equitable learning experiences for all students.​

The CTL is here to help! 

The CTL is happy to assist you with your assessment approach in a 1-1 consultation, which you can schedule by emailing CTLFaculty@columbia.edu. For more resources on assessment, see the CTL’s Resources for Assessing Student Learning page. 

For information about live events related to this topic, please visit our Anti-Racist Pedagogy in Action: First Steps page.

The What and How of Equitable Assessment

Equitable assessment “refers to ways we ensure assessment processes and practices are appropriate for all students and that we ultimately do no harm in the process. While it can be challenging to consider the vast differences and needs of our student populations in our practices, our task as educational providers is to strive to help every student succeed.” (Montenegro & Jankowski, 2020, 13). This definition highlights the importance of taking account of all learners throughout the assessment process, and working to meet the diversity of needs they bring to our classrooms. To assess equitably is to:

  • have meaningful student involvement throughout the process.
  • implement assessment practices that are intentional and context-specific.
  • clearly articularly expectations and embed opportunities for assessment within and throughout a course.

Although equitable assessment practices share some features with other common assessment strategies, equity-minded assessment emphasizes the importance of accounting for the needs of all learners, which involves creating opportunities for choice and flexibility within a course; it’s about ensuring these practices are “appropriate for all students” and avoiding “harm in the process.” So the question remains: How do we embed equity within and throughout the entirety of our assessment efforts? The following sections offer a series of possible actions instructors might take in this process including:

1. Check biases and assumptions to make way for equity.

With assessment practices, biases and assumptions may manifest in notions of what ideal assignments look like, or how “model” students should behave and participate. There might be assumptions about what students should already know and be able to demonstrate on an assessment, resulting in an inaccessible and potentially “hidden” curriculum. Instructor biases and assumptions can be conscious and/or unconscious or implicit: Conscious biases and assumptions might include preferring or responding more favorably to particular response types or styles on an assignment, or beliefs about what model students should do or even look like. Unconscious or implicit biases and assumptions might include responding to or assessing a particular student’s work based on previous interactions or holding beliefs about what students should already know and providing minimal guidance, instruction, or feedback. Whether conscious or implicit, biases and assumptions can inhibit equitable assessment practices. 

Questions to guide your reflection:

  • How do you feel about assessment and grading? What are your beliefs and expectations? What purpose do you think they serve in your course?
  • How do you communicate about assessment with your students? What rationale, instructions, and guidance do you provide?
  • In what ways are your students given choices and encouraged to play an active role in course assessments and grading? How do you support students in being successful on assessments?

 

2. Rethink how you assess student learning.

Rethinking assessment is not just about moving away from traditional assessment practices; it is also about considering how students might use different approaches and skills to demonstrate their learning and achieve course objectives, which can help all learners find success within a course. At the same time, rethinking assessment practices can engage students in higher order thinking, asking them to grapple with real life disciplinary challenges.

Scaffold assessments to make space for practice, feedback, and revision.

Scaffolding assessments means breaking down large assignments into smaller, more manageable parts so students can practice different skills and get feedback to inform revision and/or future assignments. This process helps create lower stakes assessment opportunities, lessening potential pressure on students; as opposed to relying on a singular product (e.g., final paper, exam) to demonstrate their learning, students have opportunities to revise potential errors in their work, as well as continue to learn and develop throughout the process. Additionally, scaffolding creates additional opportunities for partnering with students in the practice and revision process. For example, if you’re using exams for assessment, consider asking students to develop their own exam questions as homework, a practice that will help them further articulate and understand the purpose of exam questions and question conventions. If preparing students for external assessment or evaluative experiences (e.g., licensure or board exams) provide students with opportunities to practice with similar exam conditions (e.g., question types, time-allowance). For further support on thinking through scaffolded assignments, as well as incorporating a cycle of feedback and revision into an assignment, see the CTL’s on-demand resources Feedback for Learning and Peer Review: Intentional Design for Any Course Context.

Invite students to compile their work and reflect on their learning.

Portfolio assessment typically accounts for the collection of work a student has completed, as opposed to a singular final product. For example, in a writing course, this might mean assigning a grade that takes into account the outlines, drafts, and final paper. This can take some of the pressure off a singular product and help students earn credit for the drafting and revision work they complete. Read more here about how Columbia instructors have used ePortfolios, as well as other alternative assignment types, in their own classrooms.

Design authentic assignments for learning.

Authentic assignments are an opportunity for students to draw from their own experiences to practice skills and norms of a discipline. In this way, they encourage students to take on a disciplinary identity, creating opportunities for students to “see” themselves in a course or discipline. Because they are unique to a specific course context, authentic assignments do not unconsciously favor students who perhaps have more familiarity with traditional assessment types. Instead, they offer a new, shared experience for all learners. At the same time, authentic assignments can help to uncover and make explicit the sometimes hidden norms or expectations of a field or discipline. For support on how to design authentic assignments for your course, see the CTL’s Designing Assignments for Learning resource.

3. Clarify assignment instructions and communicate expectations. 

One way that assumptions can manifest in assessment and assignment design is through minimal guidance or instruction with assignment expectations; instructors may have assumptions about what students should already know which can result in an inaccessible and potentially “hidden” curriculum. This can greatly disadvantage students who may be less familiar or have less experience with a particular topic, or students who are uncomfortable reaching out for clarity. Transparent assignment instructions, as well as explicit expectations, can ensure that all students share the same amount of information and foundational understanding within the course.

Make assignment instructions transparent.

Being transparent about an assignment’s purpose and the expectations of the assignment can help mitigate potential biases and assumptions. This transparency can help students succeed by making it clear what is expected of them and how they might achieve given outcomes. For further information around the benefits of transparent assignment design, including examples and further resources, see the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) website, particularly their examples and resources section

Provide rubrics alongside assignments.

Rubrics help instructors clarify what they are looking for in student work and make these expectations explicit to students. When well-designed and implemented, rubrics allow instructors to give consistent and clear feedback and to save time in the grading process. Rubric design is also an opportunity for instructors to partner with their students: consider co-constructing a rubric alongside your students, identifying assignment expectations and defining success together. To read more about how instructors have partnered with their students to revise and refine a grading rubric, see this blog post from Columbia School of Social Work faculty, Matthea Marquart and Elise Verdonner. For further support with getting started with rubrics, see the CTL’s Incorporating Rubrics Into Your Feedback and Grading Practices resource.

4. Involve students in the assessment process. 

Given their previous experiences and intersecting social identities, students enter classes with different conceptions of their own agency around assessment practices, which can impact how they interact with things like instructor and peer feedback, assignment prompts, and more. Additionally, stereotype threat (or the fear of confirming a negative stereotype) may keep students from asking for help or clarity on an assignment, or for asking questions around grading and feedback. Inviting students to play an active role in assessment signals the value placed on the diversity of learners.

Engage students in conversations about assessment.

Open and transparent conversations about assessment practices (especially grades and grading) can go a long way to empower students. It is easy to take for granted that our students will understand the purpose and goals of specific classroom assessments, but the truth is that students enter the classroom with varied experiences with and beliefs about grades and grading. Discussions about what grades are and are not (e.g., students are not their grades; grades are not representative of a student’s worth or value) can help students feel empowered about their learning and more confident in their abilities. Additionally, helping students articulate the connection between different assessment techniques, and how those assignments support their learning, can enhance students’ learning experience.

Guide students through self-assessment of their own work.

Self-assessment can be one way to help students re-see and rethink their own learning. The process of self-assessment can help students take more ownership and feel a greater sense of agency over their own learning. At the same time, this process can help students better understand an assignment, or understand an assignment in a new way, by articulating their own process of aligning their work with particular outcomes or expectations.

Solicit student feedback to check your assumptions.

Student feedback can be a great way to check your own assumptions. Ask students about the assignments and assessment practices in the course to find out what’s working, and what might need revisiting. One potential method for collecting this kind of feedback is the Start-Stop-Continue method. Ask your students: 

  • What can we start doing in this class that would help you learn?
  • Is there anything we should stop doing that isn’t helping you learn? If so, please explain.
  • What should we continue doing that is helping you learn?

This approach to student feedback can help instructors identify particular practices that are working, as well as some that are not. It’s also a way to gather feedback around new ideas and practices that you might consider implementing. For further support with collecting student feedback, see the CTL’s Early and Mid-Semester Student Feedback resource. 

5. Rethink grading practices to keep the focus on learning. 

Grades hold a great deal of power in the higher ed landscape, from everything to GPA and scholarships, to admissions to programs of study. They are one area where students feel they have the least amount of agency and power, as they sometimes perceive grading to be a top-down practice over which they have little control (e.g., grades are “given” by an instructor). Relatedly, instructors may also feel they have little power when it comes to grading schemas and requirements, feeling potentially bound by departmental or disciplinary assessment expectations (e.g., expectations to grade on a curve).

Consider alternative assessment approaches.

While traditional approaches to assessment (e.g., mid-term exams, final exams, quizzes) and traditional grading schema prevail, there are a multitude of alternative approaches (e.g., ungrading, contract & labor-based grading) that help students focus on the process and experience of learning, without the pressure or emphasis placed on a final product or final grade. While these approaches can help create a more equitable learning experience for students, they can likewise cause discomfort as students may not be familiar with such practices. So, if you decide to use an alternative assessment method, it is important to clearly communicate to your students why and how you have decided to do so. To explore alternative assessment approaches in the context of your course, email CTLFaculty@columbia.edu to schedule a 1-1 consultation. 

Anonymize your grading practices.

Navigate biases and assumptions with an anonymized grading practice; anonymized grading allows instructors to focus on a given assignment without potential student biases impacting their judgement. This can be a great way to ensure that assessment and feedback are about the assignment at hand, without being influenced by a student’s previous work or comments. Both Speedgrader and Gradescope, which are available through CourseWorks, offer instructors an anonymized grading option. For support in setting up anonymized grading in your CourseWorks platform, contact the Learning Designer liaison for your school or department, or join the CTL’s virtual office hours by phone or Zoom.

Conclusion

While assessment and grading practices are specific to a particular course, they are also part of the broader system of higher education. Engaging colleagues in your department, school, and broader discipline in open discussions around equitable assessment approaches is one way to begin implementing broader change. This might include identifying explicit and implicit expectations, outdated or less equitable assessment practices, and what a more equitable assessment future might look like for your discipline. While these conversations may be uncomfortable (and sometimes unwelcome), they are an important first step toward changing the larger structure around assessment and grades, and are essential when trying to create a more equitable assessment structure more broadly. 

Lastly, it’s important to engage in ongoing reflection about one’s own assessment practice and values. And so, returning to your initial reflection responses, and considering the strategies above, what changes might you implement to make your assessment approach more equitable? 

Resources & References

Brown, C. (2021). Equity and Assessment. Center for Professional Education of Teachers. Teachers College, Columbia. 

Inoue, A. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. The WAC Clearinghouse. 

March, L., & Melo, M. (2021, December 9). It’s time to tackle perfectionism head-on in the classroom. THE Campus | Times Higher Education.

Montenegro, E., & Jankowski, N. A. (2020, January). A new decade for assessment: Embedding equity into assessment praxis (Occasional Paper No. 42). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).

Nowak, Z. (2021, December 15). The benefits of requiring students to come to office hours. Inside Higher Ed. 

Stommel, J. (2020, February 6). Ungrading: An FAQ. Jesse Stommel. 

Supiano, B. (2019, July 19). Grades can hinder learning. What should professors use instead?. The Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Washington University in St. Louis Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Reducing stereotype threat.