How Pretesting Can Help Your Students Fail Well

Our previous post When Failure is a Good Thing, looked at an initiative at Smith College called Failing Well, a set of programs that helps student understand that failing can lead to better learning. Today, The Innovative Instructor offers a concrete way in which you can introduce students to that concept.

Piece of lined, loose leaf notebook paper with six multiple choice questions. ABC or D is circled in red for each question.In Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing (New York Times Magazine, September 4, 2104), Benedict Carey discusses the benefits of pretesting. He asks us to imagine that on the first day of a course we illicitly got a copy of the final exam. Would it help us to study more effectively and better attend to course readings, lecture materials, and class discussions? Undoubtedly it would. He then asks, “But what if, instead, you took a test on Day 1 that was just as comprehensive as the final but not a replica? You would bomb the thing, for sure. You might not understand a single question. And yet as disorienting as that experience might feel, it would alter how you subsequently tuned into the course itself — and could sharply improve your overall performance.” This is the concept of pretesting.

Carey calls it one of the most exciting developments in the science of learning field. “Across a variety of experiments, psychologists have found that, in some circumstances, wrong answers on a pretest aren’t merely useless guesses. Rather, the attempts themselves change how we think about and store the information contained in the questions. On some kinds of tests, particularly multiple-choice, we benefit from answering incorrectly by, in effect, priming our brain for what’s coming later.” The failure on the pretest is an example of failing well. It sets students up for better learning during the course. A study by U.C.L.A. psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork found that “…pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10 percent compared with a control group.”

Carey cites additional studies of pretesting with the insight that “testing might be the key to studying” and a way of “enriching and altering memory.” More traditional ways of studying do not seem to produce the same depth of learning that frequent testing, including the kind of self-examination that includes recitation, appears to yield. Other studies have shown that immediacy of feedback—getting the correct answers soon after the pretest—led to the greatest learning gains.

Why does pretesting work? There are several theories. First it gives students a preview of the material and helps them “prime the brain” to absorb what is most important. A pretest sets up a hierarchy and adjusts student thinking. Secondly, it exposes false impressions, things students think they know but don’t, by conveying multiple possible answers that they may not have considered as possibilities. Biological factors may come into play as well. Guessing at an answer on a pretest works differently from the memory functions at play in remembering and studying. Guessing embeds an unfamiliar concept into the brain that will be recognized when come across again, particularly if that happens within a short timeframe.

There are limitations. For example, a pretest for an intro course in a foreign language using unfamiliar characters (Russian, Chinese, Arabic) wouldn’t work because students have no “scaffolding of familiar language to work with.” In fact, “[t]he research thus far suggests that prefinals will be much more useful in humanities courses and social-science disciplines in which unfamiliar concepts are at least embedded in language we can parse.”

What can we take away from Carey’s article? Because pretests don’t need to be graded, this can be an easy innovation to implement in your courses. A short multiple choice quiz given before your lecture or class discussion asking questions pertaining to the key points you will cover could make a big difference in your students’ learning of the material. To be sure that they leave with the right information, review the quiz and the correct answers at the end of class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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How Do We Learn?

One of the online educational news sources that CER staff follow is Tomorrow’s Professor, edited by Rick Reis, a professor in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University.  Tomorrow’s Professor is a newsletter with twice weekly postings. covering a range of topics having to do with faculty development, including academic careers, the academy, research, graduate students and postdocs, and teaching and learning.

Close up view of university students in a lecture setting.A recent posting (#1495) was a reprint from Ralf St. Clair, “Engaged and Involved Learners,” chapter two from Creating Courses for Adults: Design for Learning, Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. In it St. Clair poses the questions, how do we teach people to learn and how can we design education that will facilitate learning. To get at the answers, he examines how people learn. St. Clair discusses two groups of ideas on learning, behaviorism and sociocultural learning approaches.

Theories of behaviorism share the concept “…that all learning always produces a change in behavior.” It’s precision appeals to educators “…because our actions as educators have demonstrable results and the outcome is absolutely clear.” Behaviorism has provided educators with valuable tools for curricular development (i.e., backward design) and assessment. The perceived downsides are that its approaches can seem mechanistic, and that it may appear to discount learning without a defined outcome. And, behaviorism does not give much guidance for social aspects of learning.

Students watching demonstration of frog dissection.Another area of learning theory addresses those concerns. “Sociocultural learning approaches represent an attempt to understand the ways that people learn from others.” The key points are that “learning is always social,” communities of practice play a critical role, apprenticeship is an important model, learning is a dynamic process, and teaching should be flexible to accommodate differing applications. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an example of sociocultural learning.

St. Clair also mentions the theory of transformative learning. “In this model of adult learning, people possess schema, or ways of looking at the world, that help them make sense of what they see… .” When things change, the person experiences a “disorienting dilemma.” The only way to resolve the dilemma is “…to learn so that their world makes sense again.”

In this chapter, St. Clair proposes taking aspects of each of these ideas to create a new model for learning. “Such a model would have these beliefs at its core:

  • Learning is a social process conducted, either more or less directly, with other humans.
  • People begin to learn by trying peripheral activities, then take on more complex activities as they grow in confidence and see other people perform them.
  • Individuals will repeat actions that are associated with a reward, including the approval of peers.
  • Even if the aim of the learning is not behavioral, having an associated behavioral outcome can make it easier to communicate and assess.
  • People learn most, and most profoundly, when faced with a dilemma or need to understand something relevant to them.”

St. Clair goes on to describe what teachers need to do to support learning under this model. Using active learning exercises, scaffolding content, and encouraging student understanding and mastery are crucial concepts. He notes that this model allows students to have control over their learning, to build connections and move from simple to more complex ideas, and encourages collaboration.

Suggestions for adhering to the model are offered. St. Clair notes that “The primary role of educators is to create the relationships and the context that can bring about this type of engagement.” The article is well worth reading in its entirety.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Report on the JHU Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences

On January 11th and 12th Johns Hopkins University held its fourth Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences. The event was part of a two-day symposium co-sponsored by the Science of Learning Institute and the Gateway Sciences Initiative (GSI). The first day highlighted cognitive learning research; theLogo for the JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative second day examined the practical application of techniques, programs, tools, and strategies that promote gateway science learning. The objective was to explore recent findings about how humans learn and pair those findings with the latest thinking on teaching strategies that work.  Four hundred people attended over the course of the two days; approximately 80% from Johns Hopkins University, with representation from all divisions and 20% from other universities, K-12 school systems, organizations, and companies. Videos of the presentations from the January 12th presentations are now available.

The GSI program included four guest speakers and three Johns Hopkins speakers. David Asai, Senior Director of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, argued persuasively for the impact of diversity and inclusion as essential to scientific excellence.  He said that while linear interventions (i.e., summer bridge activities, research experiences, remedial courses, and mentoring/advising programs) can be effective at times, they are not capable of scaling to support the exponential change needed to mobilize a diverse group of problem solvers prepared to address the difficult and complex problems of the 21st Century.  He asked audience participants to consider this:  “Rather than developing programs to ‘fix the student’ and measuring success by counting participants, how can we change the capacity of the institution to create an inclusive campus climate and leverage the strengths of diversity?” [video]

Sheri Sheppard, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, discussed learning objectives and course design in her presentation: Cooking up the modern undergraduate engineering education—learning objectives are a key ingredient [video].

Eileen Haase, senior lecturer in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins, discussed the development of the biomedical engineering design studio from the perspective of both active learning classroom space and curriculum [video]. Evidenced-based approaches to curriculum reform and assessment was the topic addressed by Melanie Cooper, the Lappan-Phillips Chair of Science Education at Michigan State University [video]. Tyrel McQueen, associate professor of chemistry at Johns Hopkins talked about his experience with discovery-driven experiential learning in a report on the chemical structure and bonding laboratory, a new course developed for advanced freshman [video]. Also from Hopkins, Robert Leheny, professor of physics, spoke on his work in the development of an active-learning- based course in introductory physics [video].

Steven Luck, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, provided an informative and inspiring conclusion to the day with his presentation of the methods, benefits, challenges, and assessment recommendations for how to transform a traditional large lecture course into a hybrid format [video].

Also of interest may be the videos of the presentations from the Science of Learning Symposium on January 11, 2016. Speakers included: Ed Connor, Johns Hopkins University; Jason Eisner, Johns Hopkins University; Richard Huganir, Johns Hopkins University; Katherine Kinzler, University of Chicago; Bruce McCandliss, Stanford University; Elissa Newport, Georgetown University; Jonathan Plucker, University of Connecticut; Brenda Rapp, Johns Hopkins University; and Alan Yuille, Johns Hopkins University.


Kelly Clark, Program Manager
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative logo

Art History Teaching Resources: Not Just for Art Historians

Screenshot from Art History Teaching Resources website.The first week in February, I attended the annual College Art Association conference in Washington, DC and co-chaired a panel titled Rethinking Online Pedagogies for Art History. In an era where higher education teaching and learning are being re-examined, and our institutions are pushing faculty to adopt innovative instructional practices, instructors may find themselves at a loss. It’s great to hear about online teaching, flipped classrooms, exciting apps that will engage students, but how exactly does one go about implementing these new strategies? Our approach for the panel was to showcase ideas and tools for teaching art history by having the speakers introduce innovative approaches, with a focus on key takeaways that could be adapted to an individual’s teaching practices. The topics included using peer assessment, student authorship of course content, gaming, e-portfolios, using Omeka, Neatline, and Voicethread, building an app and a website for an onsite course, and a presentation from Art History Teaching Resources, AHTR.

The great thing about AHTR is that it is a resource that has value for art historians, instructors in other humanities disciplines and beyond.  Some of the content is general, for example, the Library of Pedagogy has descriptions of texts that will be applicable to those teaching in any humanities discipline, as well as general books on teaching practices. A section on Syllabi/Assignments/Rubrics includes models, templates, and advice that can be easily adapted to other subjects.

Scan the blog posts in the ATRH Weekly. Posts on Slow Teaching, Field Notes from an Experiment in Student-Centered Pedagogy, and Pedagogy through Observation caught my eye as being broad-based in their application. And finally, if you are interested in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) or want to know more about it, check out What is SoTL?, an article that will be informative whether you are in the humanities, social sciences, or STEM disciplines.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Screenshot from Art History Teaching Resources:

Summer Reading: Three Articles for Your Consideration

Celebrating the end of the academic year and looking forward to some time for summer reading? It’s always good to have solid research to back up our teaching practices. Three recent articles highlight scholarship behind the claimed benefits of collaborative learning, improved student performance with the use of active learning, and taking notes by hand provides better cognitive retention than using a laptop.

Woman lying on grass reading a book.A tip from the Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list sent The Innovative Instructor to IDEA (Individual Development and Educational Assessment) and POD (Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education). “IDEA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide assessment and feedback systems to improve learning in higher education.” [] As part of IDEA, POD produces “succinct papers” to address specific ways for instructors to employ innovative teaching methods. The POD Center Notes on Instruction is definitely worth a look.

POD Item #5 Formed “Teams” or “Discussion Groups” To Facilitate Learning Overall, reviews the research supporting the benefits of collaborative learning. “Learning is enhanced when the material to be learned is thought about deeply and also when related material is retrieved from memory and associated with the new material. When students have an opportunity to work together to learn course content, particularly when applying that material to a new challenge, both deep thinking and retrieval of associated materials are realized.” Specific tips are presented for implementing group work in a course, including setting clear expectations and monitoring group progress. Applications of group work for online settings are examined, and assessment issues are addressed.

Next, a study on lecturing versus active learning was recently highlighted in both Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The results of the research, Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics, were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Scott Freeman, Mary Wenderoth, Sarah Eddy, Miles McDonough, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Michelle Smith. The lead researchers are in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington, Seattle.

From the abstract: “This is the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date.” “These results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sections, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” As for the significance of the report, “[t]he analysis supports theory claiming that calls to increase the number of students receiving STEM degrees could be answered, at least in part, by abandoning traditional lecturing in favor of active learning.”

From the April 2014 Psychological Science, The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, reports on the benefits students gain by taking lecture notes longhand rather than on a laptop. Although using laptops in class is common (and instructors complain about the distractions laptops present), this study “…suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.” “In three studies, [the researchers] found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” The authors conclude “…that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

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Perry’s Scheme – Understanding the Intellectual Development of College-Age Students

While attending the Educause conference in Anaheim, CA in October, I heard a talk on Flipping the Classroom that referenced Perry’s Scheme – the classic study and resulting model of cognitive development of college-age students. Back in the Center for Educational Resources, looking for more on Perry, I uncovered a trove of information, distilled for you in this post.

William G. Perry, Jr. was a psychologist at Harvard and professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. During the 1950s and 60s he conducted a 15 year study of the intellectual and cognitive development of Harvard undergraduates. In 1970 he published Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston; reprinted November 1998; Jossey‐Bass. The long-term impact of Perry’s scholarship is captured in a quote from the book jacket of that publication: “Since its original publication in 1970, this landmark book by William Perry has remained the cornerstone of much of the student development research that followed. …Perry derived an enduring framework for characterizing student development – a scheme so accurate that it still informs and advances investigations into student development across genders and cultures.”

An excellent summary of the key points of Perry’s book for practical application is provided in James M. Lang’s On Course: A Week by Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching, Harvard University Press, 2008, pp. 163-173.

In a nutshell, Perry “described the development of Harvard students as progressing from the dualistic belief that things are either true or false, good or evil, through a stage of relativism in which they feel that all beliefs are equally valid, to a stage of commitment to values and beliefs that recognized to be incomplete and imperfect but are open to correction and further development.” [Wilbert J. McKeachie, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, Houghton Mifflin, 2002, p. 296.]

Diagram showing the progression of Perry's Scheme from Dualism to Multiplicity to Relativism to CommitmentMore specifically, Perry’s Scheme of intellectual development proposes nine positions or levels with the transformative sequences that connect them. Googling William G. Perry or Perry’s Scheme (be sure to add the middle initial to avoid being inundated with links to William “Refrigerator” Perry, the former NFL lineman) will provide a number of summaries of his model, which is often reduced to four levels:

1. Dualism – knowledge is received, not questioned; students feel there is a correct answer to be learned.
2. Multiplicity – there may be more than one solution to a problem, or there may be no solution; students recognize that their opinions matter.
3. Relativism – knowledge is seen as contextual; students evaluate viewpoints based on source and evidence, and even experts are subject to scrutiny.
4. Commitment within relativism – integration of knowledge from other sources with personal experience and reflection; students make commitment to values that matter to them and learn to take responsibility for committed beliefs. There is recognition that the acquisition of knowledge is ongoing activity.

An individual student at a single point in time may be at different stages in regards to different subject areas. Hofer and Pintrich note that change from one stage to another “…is brought about through cognitive disequilibrium; individuals interact with the environment and respond to new experiences by either assimilating to existing cognitive frameworks or accommodating the framework itself.” [Barbara K. Hofer and Paul R. Pintrich, The Development of Epistemological Theories: Beliefs About Knowledge and Knowing and Their Relation to Learning, 1997 67: 88 Review of Educational Research, p. 91.]

While Perry himself acknowledged the limitations of his work – the majority of his subjects were white, male students at Harvard and the interviewing process was not subjected to protocols that would be considered mandatory today – as the book jacket claims, the study is still considered to be a seminal work.

So why is it important to you as an instructor? Let’s say that you’ve just given a brilliant lecture on different theoretical models for economic development in Mongolia or presented several philosophical approaches to the question of nature or nurture. Afterwards a student comes up to the podium and asks you, “But which is the right one?” Understanding that for this subject at least, your student is stuck in the dualism stage might help you in responding and providing appropriate guidance.  Although today dualistic thinking is less prevalent among college-aged students than in Perry’s time – most students come into a college education at the stage of multiplicity – your first year students may still perceive the instructor to be the disseminator of truth. Students who have not reached the stage of relativism may be less comfortable in a classroom setting that is focused on active learning. When students push back on teaching and learning strategies that shift their roles from being recipients to being participants and collaborators, it may be because they are not yet developmentally up to the task. Such teaching approaches may, however, help students transition to higher levels as they experience the “cognitive disequilibrium” that Hofer and Pintrich describe (see above).  As our faculty-centered pedagogies shift to learner-centered approaches, a key to success will be in understanding how students view their acquisition of knowledge.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: CC (some rights reserved) Macie Hall

Should you stop telling your students to study for exams?

Male student in library studyingThe Innovative Instructor recently came across a thought-provoking article by David Jaffee in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams. In a nutshell, Jaffee advocates for telling students that they should study for learning and understanding rather than for tests or exams. He reminds us that just because content is covered in class does not mean that students really learn it. Regurgitating information for an exam does not equal long-term retention. He points out that there are real consequences to this traditional approach.

On the one hand, we tell students to value learning for learning’s sake; on the other, we tell students they’d better know this or that, or they’d better take notes, or they’d better read the book, because it will be on the next exam; if they don’t do these things, they will pay a price in academic failure. This communicates to students that the process of intellectual inquiry, academic exploration, and acquiring knowledge is a purely instrumental activity—designed to ensure success on the next assessment.

His claims are backed with evidence. Numerous studies have shown that students who use rote memorization to cram for tests and exams do not retain the information studied over the long term. Real learning, which involves retention and transfer of knowledge to new situations, is a complicated process reflected by the vast amount of research on the subject.

As a side note, for those interested in learning more about cognitive development and student learning, there is a nice summary of key studies and models in the book by James M. Lang On Course: A Week by Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching [Harvard University Press, 2008]. See Week 7 Students as Learners for an overview and bibliography.

Instead of a cumulative final exam, Jaffee recommends using formative and authentic assessments, which “[u]sed jointly…can move us toward a healthier learning environment that avoids high-stakes examinations and intermittent cramming.” Formative assessments, performed in class, provide opportunities for students to understand where their knowledge gaps are. [See The Innovative Instructor 2013 GSI Symposium Breakout Session 2: Formative Assessment and Teaching Tips: Classroom Assessment.] Authentic assessments allow students “to demonstrate their abilities in a real-world context.” Examples include group and individual projects, in-class presentations, multi-media assignments, and poster sessions.

The article has obviously provoked some controversy as evidenced by the number of comments made – 225 as of this posting. One of the commenters supporting Jaffee with several rebuttals to critics is Robert Talbert, Professor of Mathematics at Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and author of The Chronicle of Higher Education blog Casting Out Nines. Talbert has blogged extensively on his experiences with flipping his classroom.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

Innovative Instructor: Mindsets and Academic Motivation

Graphic depiction of fixed vs growth mindset with characteristics and results

By Dr.Carol Dweck, graphic by Nigel Holmes. View full size graphic here.

Do you wish students were more engaged with the content? Have you struggled with lethargic students in your class?  Carol Dweck’s research on the psychology of motivation describes how a student’s “mindset” can influence their motivation to learn and ultimately their academic success.

Carol S. Dweck is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.  Her research on motivation led her to develop a theory of mindsets described in her book Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success.  There has been much discussion of her research in the popular press including National Public Radio (Students View of Intelligence Can Help Grades), Wall Street Journal (Flumoxed by Failure –  or Focused?), and the New York Times (How to Not Talk to Your Kids).

A fixed mindset is one defined by a belief that talent and intelligence are innate.   Students with a growth mindset believe that innate talents and intelligence are just the starting point, and can be cultivated through hard work (Mindsets, p.7). A mindset analogy used at the Laurel School is that brains are more like muscles than skeletons.  Brains, like muscles, start small and grow with sustained, challenging effort.

Both mindsets can motivate someone to succeed, but Dweck’s work shows it occurs for different reasons and with different outcomes.  Those with a growth mindset learn for the love of learning, while those with a fixed mindset are motivated to reveal their identity as talented and/or intelligent.  Students with a fixed mindset are vulnerable to failure – criticism can lead them to shut down. A fixed mindset “creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well, then you had better prove you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics” (Mindsets, p.6).

Dweck’s research has shown that over time individuals with a growth mindset are more likely to outperform those with a fixed mindset. (Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S., 2007. Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an interventionChild Development78. 246-263, Study 1). In addition, helping students develop a growth mindset may reduce gender and racial achievement gaps. (Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., & Dweck, C.S., 2007, Study 2; Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C., 2002. Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligenceJournal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 113-125.)

If a growth mindset is more likely to lead to deeper learning and lasting outcomes, can we help our students to adopt a growth mindset?  Dweck suggests teachers can shape their students’ mindsets through the following.

1)      Set high expectations – Students don’t learn by simply being celebrated.  They need to be challenged.

2)      Praise the process – Feedback shapes a student’s mindset.  Words reflecting permanent traits (e.g., “You must be smart to have done so well!”) lead students to develop fixed mindsets.  To encourage the development of a growth mindset, focus feedback on effort and process.  “You did well on this test. Tell me how you mastered the content?”

3)      Create risk-tolerant learning environments – allow students to fail and experiment. Communicate at the beginning of the semester or difficult assignment that you expect mistakes will be made.  “When students fail, teachers should also give feedback about effort or strategies — what the student did wrong and what he or she could do next.” (

4)      When appropriate, expose students to basic neuroscience research – Dweck’s research shows that students briefly introduced to how the brain changes through the learning process (e.g., how neurons change after a challenging task) are more likely to adopt a growth mindset. (Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., & Dweck, C.S., 2007).

Michael J. Reese, Associate Director
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: © Nigel Holmes (thanks to Mr. Holmes for permission granted for use in this post)

2013 GSI Symposium Breakout Session 2: Formative Assessment

A Report from the Trenches

We’re continuing with our reports from the JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative (GSI) 2nd Annual Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences. Next up is “Assessing Student Learning during a Course: Tools and Strategies for Formative Assessment” presented by Toni Ungaretti, Ph.D., School of Education and Mike Reese, M.Ed., Center for Educational Resources.

Please note that links to examples and explanations in the text below were added by CER staff and were not included in the breakout session presentation.

The objectives for this breakout session were to differentiate summative and formative assessment, review and demonstrate approaches to formative assessment, and describe how faculty use assessment techniques to engage in scholarly teaching.

Summarizing Dr. Ungaretti’s key points:

Assessment is a culture of continuous improvement that parallels the University’s focus on scholarship and research. It ensures learners’ performance, program effectiveness, and unit efficiency. It is an essential feature in the teaching and learning process. Learners place high value on marks or grades: “Assessment defines what [learners] regard as important.” [Brown, G., Bull, J., & Pendlebury, M. 1997. Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education. Routledge.]  Assessment ensures that what is important is learned.

Summative Assessment is often referred to as assessment of learning. This is regarded as high stakes assessment – typically a test, exam, presentation, or paper at the midterm and end of a course.

Formative Assessment focuses on learning instead of assigning grades. “Creating a climate that maximizes student accomplishment in any discipline focuses on student learning instead of assigning grades. This requires students to be involved as partners in the assessment of learning and to use assessment results to change their own learning tactics.” [Fluckiger, J., Tixier y Virgil, Y., Pasco, R., and Danielson, K. (2010). Formative Feedback: Involving Students as Partners in Assessment to Enhance Learning. College Teaching, 58, 136-140.]

Effective formative assessment involves feedback. That feedback has the greatest benefit when it addresses multiple aspects of learning. It includes feedback on the product (the completed task), feedback on progress (the extent to which the learner is improving over time), and feedback on the process (If the learner is involved, feedback can be given more frequently.)

Diagram showing the Three Ps of Formative Assessment

 From this point on in the session, the participants engaged in active learning exercises that demonstrated various examples of formative assessment including utilizing graphic organizers (Venn Diagrams, Mind Maps, KWL Charts, and Kaizen/T-Charts – practices that focus upon continuous improvement), classroom discussion with higher order questioning (based on Bloom’s Taxonomy),  minute papers, and admit/exit slips.

Classroom discussions can tell the instructor much about student mastery of basic concepts. The teacher can initiate the discussion by presenting students with an open-ended question.

A minute paper is a quick in-class writing exercise where students answer a question focused on material recently presented, such as: What was the most important thing that you learned? What important question remains? This allows the instructor to gauge the understanding of concepts just taught.

Admit/exit slips are collected at the beginning or end of a class. Students provide short answers to questions such as: What questions do I have? What did I learn today? What did I find interesting?

There are many ways in which faculty can determine learner mastery. These may include the use of journaling or learning/response logs to gauge growth over time, constructive quizzes, using modifications of games such as Jeopardy, or structures such as a guided action or Jigsaw. There are also ways to quickly check student understanding such as using thumbs-up–thumbs-down, or i>Clickers.

Assessment may also be achieved by using “learner-involved” formative assessment.  Some ways to achieve this are through the use of three-color group quizzes, mid-term student conferencing, assignment blogs, think-pair-share, and practice presentations.

When incorporated into classroom practice, the formative assessment process provides information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are still happening. Finally, faculty should look on formative assessment as an opportunity. No matter which methods are used it is important that they allow students to be creative, have fun, learn, and make a difference.

Faculty may also use assessment methods as research. This allows them the opportunity to advance hypotheses-based teaching, gather data on instructional changes and student outcomes, and to prepare scholarly submissions to advance the knowledge on teaching in their discipline. Teaching as research is the deliberate, systematic, and reflective use of research methods to develop and implement teaching practices that advance the learning experiences and outcomes of students and teachers.

Cheryl Wagner, Program/Administrative Manager
Center for Educational Resources

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Macie Hall