Assessment in higher education shapes the experience of students and influences their behaviour even more than the teaching they receive. (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004)
Assessment is a central element in the overall quality of teaching and learning in higher education. Assessment of students' learning can take many forms including essays, portfolios, tests, performances, presentations, design proposals, and more.
The quality of assessment procedures can be enhanced at each of the three distinct stages of:
Establishing expectations for what students will learn and how they will demonstrate their learning
Selecting a type of assessment that matches the learning objectives
Providing effective feedback to provide to students
The first step in assessment of learning is to clearly articulate your expectations for what students will learn and how they can demonstrate this learning. These expectations form the basis of later decisions about types of assessment and feedback.
An efficient approach to identifying learning expectations is to draw on established learning frameworks such as Bloom's Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) and ICE (Fostaty Young & Wilson (2000). Learning frameworks organize the many potential forms of learning into a concise structure detailing what is to be learned and at what level. The ICE learning framework (which stands for Ideas, Connections, and Extensions) was conceptualized by Wilson (1996) and fully developed by Fostaty Young & Wilson (2000) based on a natural learning progression where student understanding deepens gradually:
Ideas represent the building blocks of learning. They can be: discrete ‘chunks’ of
information; facts, definitions, vocabulary, steps in a process; or discrete skills.
At the subject or topic level, connections are made by making appropriate links between
ideas (or chunks of information). At the personal or broader level, connections are made by relating new knowledge to what is already known, in a course, in other courses, or in a student’s personal or professional experience.
Extensions involve re-working students’ knowledge and understanding by extrapolating,
predicting outcomes or working out implications.
To use the ICE framework, identify course content in terms of basic ideas, subject connections and personal or broader connections, then further extensions to learning that involve greater critical thinking. For more information about the ICE model, refer to the Resources section at the bottom of this page.
With the inclusion of Ontario-wide Undergraduate Degree Level Expectations (UDLEs) and Graduate Degree Level Expectations (GDLEs) in the Queen's University Quality Assurance Process (QUQAPs) when programs under internal academic review, programs are increasingly identifying learning objectives for their students and linking particular learning objectives to specific courses or course levels. When planning a course consider any program level objectives required for your course or course level. For departments seeking support in curriculum mapping with these degree level expectations, online resources and tools are available as well as consultations through the CTL.
After generating ideas about expectations for students' learning, the next challenges is writing the learning objective. As the terms "understand" and "learn" are vague, more precise words such as arrange, propose, compare, and illustrate are preferred. Expectations designed based on the ICE learning framework can be cognitive, affective or psychomotor domains and thus expressed with one of the over 180 sample action words for stating learning objectives.
Learning objective can be communicated to students verbally during lectures, in writing on the syllabus, online in Moodle or the course website, and within descriptions of upcoming assessments. The expectations need to also be communicated to whoever is evaluating your students as graders, field-placement supervisors, peer-reviewers, and students when self-reviewing.
Written guidelines and rubrics can convey the expectations to both students and evaluators about what will be learned and what level of demonstrated learning is worth what grade. Rubrics are scoring guides; Appearing in chart form, they outline explicit criteria across progressive levels of performance. When rubrics are well constructed, they have the additional benefit of helping students plan for appropriate assignments when provided in advance of deadlines, and post-feedback improvement when provided after submitting. For more information about rubrics, please refer to our rubrics page.
The most appropriate assessment is determined by the level (ideas, connections or extensions), domain (cognitive, affective or psychomotor), and course context (students, program goals, resources). In general, assessment can support student learning when designed to:
For Presenting Summarized Information:
For Creating Something New:
For Student involvement in assessing:
Feedback is an opportunity to support students by identifying current strengths and areas of improvement, indicate specific ways students can improve, or provide an evaluation of the level achieved by the end of a course. The type, timing and focus of feedback depend on what are the aims for each assessment.
Purpose of assessment
Assessment can serve several goals related to student learning including:
These goals determine the amount of feedback the students need to receive and the type of feedback. For example, a total grade may be appropriate for summative evaluations, while formative is more effective when a grade is broken down by criteria with information about their current skill level and what a higher skill level looks like. Detailed rubrics can provide informative feedback quickly, while simplified rubrics provided quick totals.
Diagnostic assessments provide a baseline level to which later achievement by individuals or the class can be compared. Feedback is primarily a score or other indicator of skill or knowledge level. Such information can be useful for instructors planning a course's content, pace or assessed skill level, and for students to realize how much they will need to learn to achieve course or career goals. Students' improvement from based could be recognized and rewarded informally (e.g., by congratulating a class on doubling their average), or formally by including improvement as criteria for grades or other formal rewards. One challenge for use as a formal criteria is that individuals near the top have less room to grow than individuals with low scores.
The purpose of formative feedback is to guide students in further learning by highlighting what they have done well and indicating how and where they can improve. The feedback needs to be timely, so it is received by students when it still matters to them and they can apply it to further learning.
Providing relevant feedback:
Match the focus and level of detail given to:
Offer selective criticism.
Indicating final achievement level, summative feedback usually comprises of a total grade broken down across specific criteria for the purpose of accountability and clarity when later reviewing any students' grades. Feedback on how to improve is minimal or provided only as requested. Although the purpose of an assessment is summative, an option for formative feedback might be provided as courses do build on each other. In this scenario, an instructor would ask students to indicate if they would like to receive comments and only those who requested such formative feedback received it in addition to their summative grades. Rubrics can be designed to provide concise summative grades as well as formative comments.
Purposeful Assessment to Support Intended Learning with Sue Fostaty Young presented in chapters on topics such as What Does Good Learning Look Like?, Choosing a Model for Purposeful Assessment, and Rubrics.
Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education: Using ICE to improve student learning. (PDF, 175kB) As published in the Proceedings of the Improving Student Learning Symposium, London, UK, 13, 105-115. Imperial College, London, UK, September 2005. Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.