Making Assessment the Foundation of Our Teaching and Learning

Bupendra Shah, BSPharm, MS, PhD
Assistant Dean of Assessment
Associate Professor of Social, Behavioral and Administrative Sciences
College of Pharmacy, Touro College

In the past several decades, assessment has become a widely prevalent and often considered as a controversial element of the American academia. While the focus on assessment has been elevated to advance expectations of student scholastic achievements and to foster accountability, many in academia consider it as an administrative burden imposed on those involved in teaching and learning. In my many informal and formal conversations with many faculty and students, I have heard opinions that the key to assessment is to do it less and that more assessment doesn’t mean better outcomes. In the view of these individuals, assessment is busy work and nothing more. Others contend that assessment measures such as item analysis and rubrics are forced upon them and they don’t appreciate them because they are clear in their head about what they expect from students and have been evaluating student performance for years. For these individuals, today’s assessment practices are too quantitative, constraining and overbearing.

While some may want to tune out these negative opinions about assessment, I feel that this is the perfect opportunity to engage in a conversation with our colleagues and students who view assessment negatively. I propose that our conversation about assessment shouldn’t be about why and how much we need to do it, rather it should be about how we do it. I propose this because if we love teaching and seeing our students succeed, we need to able to identify what in our teaching and student learning is working and not working. Assessment should at the core of our solution to teaching and student performance issues. We need to remind everyone that the real value of assessment lies in its potential to improve our teaching and learning. If assessment is not the solution, then let’s ask our colleagues and students what the solution is and deliberate on those solutions.

As we start that conversation, we should first and foremost acknowledge that good assessment practices are hard, good assessment practices require a lot of work and time and can be burdensome if it is not supported institutionally. We should also acknowledge that in today’s world where documentation/reporting and accountability have gained paramount importance, assessments and outcomes will have to be documented/reported and utilized to make decisions about program viability. While we are at it, we should discuss the best practices and principles of good assessment. There is a tremendous amount of published literature on assessment best practices and I would recommend that institutionally these resources become widely available for faculty and students to peruse. An important element of these discussions would be to identify what our colleagues believe is their philosophy of teaching and assessment and use them to develop assessment strategies. Personalizing and tailoring our teaching and assessment strategies are central to their heartfelt adoption.

As I reflect on my in my involvement in teaching, learning and assessment for over a decade, I am able to outline some central tenets that I believe are integral to making assessment the foundation of our teaching. These tenets are:

  1. Assessment strategies should be transparent: There is no doubt in my mind that learners should know well in advance what they will be evaluated on. It doesn’t mean that we have to teach to the test. Rather it means that we direct our students to what is the mental frame and preparation required to learn. In case of a multiple choice question tests, this can be done via an Exam Blueprint and in the case of an assignment or a skills performance, this can be done via a checklist or a rubric. The goal is to be clear about our expectations and help the students meet them.
  2. Assessment should be student and faculty engaging i.e. lead to meaningful conversations between the teacher and learner: It should generate a dialogue between the faculty and the student about learning. Too often our students get focused on the score or the points they received on an assessment whereas we are focused on their learning. Good assessments will help assessments engage in conversations about learning and opportunities for improvement.
  3. Assessment should generate reflections and growth opportunities for both faculty and students: Good assessments are based on what and how it is taught not based on imagined expectations. We as faculty aren’t always perfect and so it becomes important to use assessment opportunities to reflect on whether we were fair to the students in terms of how we tested or evaluated them. As much as assessments provide for student growth, good assessments also provide for faculty growth. On a yearly basis we should become better teachers and our students should become better learners based on the reflections about our assessments.
  4. Assessment should be used for making tangible improvements: If not used for making tangible improvements, assessments are a wasted opportunity. Assessment data should be utilized to make improvement at the course level or curricular level or programmatic level. These improvements could be in the area of introducing new content or new pedagogy or new assessment tools or a combination depending on the available resources and needs. It is important to think that even what may be considered as trivial changes can lead to big improvements in student learning.
  5. The quality and value of assessments should be evaluated: No assessment is forever valid and reliable. Thus, it is important to use qualitative and/or quantitative approaches to evaluate the quality and value of our assessment tools. While there is debate about which approach is more suitable or best, I believe that there is value in using either approach based on one’s preference. For example, if qualitative approach is more preferred then one can ask peers to help evaluate the quality and value of the multiple choice questions. Alternatively if quantitative approach is more preferred then one can examine the metrics available within the item analysis reports available from our testing systems. Both these strategies can also be combined for a more comprehensive evaluation of the assessments.

Overall, I urge my colleagues and students to make assessment the foundation of our teaching learning efforts. I would encourage all of us to create our personal philosophy of teaching, learning and assessment that is based on our critical review of the best practices in teaching and learning. Finally, I would suggest that we routinely have conversations about how to address the barriers to our engagement as teachers, reflect on why many of us joined academia and use it to advance the academia enterprise.

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