Five Rules for Assessment Your Students Won’t Hate You For

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Brian Oger

Student looking at F grade

A negative experience I had during my teacher training profoundly shaped the way I thought about assessment. The course was, ironically enough, about best practice in assessment. When writing an essay that was supposed to be 1000 words, I went somewhere around 15 words over. Because of those extra 15 words, the TA who marked the essay took an entire letter grade off my assignment. His reason? He was marking hundreds of these essays, and if everyone went 15 words over, it would be so much more work for him.

Oh, poor you.

I was not pleased.

The process to challenge a grade looked daunting to me, so I decided to just redouble my efforts on the rest of my coursework (being more cautious about word counts) to try to get my average back up to where I wanted it. In the end, I gained something far more valuable than the grade I felt I deserved on that essay — I learned what it feels like to be on the receiving end of poor assessment practice.

It was unpleasant.

It gnawed at my soul.

Okay, well, maybe that’s a little overdramatic, but it felt yucky, and from that day forward I was determined that I would avoid making my future students feel the yuckiness I had experienced. Here are five rules for assessment to make sure your students aren’t grumbling to each other about you.

Rule #1: Save surprises for birthday parties

I still remember a science test in ninth grade on chemistry. Of all the hundreds of tests I have taken, this one stands out because there were so many questions on it about things that I had never seen before. I gave it my best try, but I did not do well. I had not even heard about a lot of the information I needed to know to be successful.

Surprises might be fun for birthday parties, but they are not fun for tests. If you are giving a test or an assessment, make sure that you are testing something that they have already been taught. Better yet, tell students exactly what you are going to test them on and tell them where to find the information.

Somebody might say, “If I do this, the class average will be too high.” My response to this is, “Why wouldn’t you want your class average to be high?” A high class average means that many of your students have learned what you wanted them to know. Isn’t that what we want as educators? For students to be educated? Tests should never be the first place a student encounters a certain type of math problem, a new science concept, or a historical event. In StudyForge courses, we rigorously check to make sure that our lessons, practice questions, and assessments are all aligned so that students never feel surprised.

Rule #1 is this: Never test or assess something you have not equipped students to be successful in. 

Save the surprise for a birthday party. 

Rule #2: No marks for coloring

I know a student who was a smart young man but who got some very poor grades from one of his teachers in sixth and seventh grade. Why? Every project needed to have a beautifully colored title page. This young man did not enjoy making colored title pages, so he would throw something together and stick it on top of his otherwise meticulously finished project.

My question for this teacher is: Where in your social studies or science curriculum does it require students to be competent at making beautifully colored title pages? The answer, of course, is nowhere. You could search the farthest reaches of the galaxy and never find a single science or social studies course that requires this. So why are you requiring it? Save coloring for art class.

The broader principle, though, is not about coloring — it is about relevance. Whenever you are assessing student work in a particular subject area, make sure that the rubric is directly related to the subject area and a specific curricular goal for the course. Then, your students’ grades for that course will be based on your assessment of their skills and knowledge in that subject area, not another subject area.

Rule #2 is this: If a skill is not in the curricular goals for your course, it should not affect the student’s grade.

No one should fail math because they can’t color; no one should fail science class because they can’t spell.

Rule #3: Assess to teach

My daughter recently had an experience in an online course she took from another school that, unfortunately, was not using StudyForge. After she completed a test, she was not allowed to see the test or even know which questions she got wrong. Ostensibly, this was to prevent students from recording answers and selling them online to future students so they could cheat; in reality, it meant that she did not have an opportunity to learn from her mistakes.

As teachers, we need to keep in mind that the primary goal of assessing students’ learning is not judging or ranking students, but as a tool for teaching. We assess in order to teach; we do not teach in order to assess. The goal of every assessment should be student growth and learning, not the number or letter that we attach to it. This principle has led me to a number of guidelines I hold myself to in my teaching practice:

  • I almost always allow re-dos within reasonable limits. Auto-marked online quizzes can be done as many times as students want until they achieve mastery. For major assessments, I will allow a student who received 70% or 80% to have another try after receiving feedback. The 95% student who wants 100% should focus their attention elsewhere. Is it more work to allow re-dos? Occasionally, but it is an opportunity for student growth, and that is the goal.
  • I always let students see their tests so they know exactly what they got right and wrong. If this means I have to have randomized test questions or create new tests, so be it.
  • Students should always know the reason why they got the grade that they got. This means students need to have access to meaningful rubrics before, during, and after doing their assignment, along with an explanation of why they received that grade.
  • Except for auto-marked quizzes, I always provide anecdotal feedback that tells students how they can do better next time. I am not confident that they always read this feedback, but I always provide it, because I truly believe that well-crafted comments about an assignment are the best opportunities I have to give targeted, specific instruction in areas that need growth.
  • Students learn best when they know they are cared for and that we have their best interests at heart. So while I always provide comments on ways they can grow, I start my comments with encouragement about the things that they did well. The goal is still growth, but students grow better in a safe and encouraging environment.

Rule #3 is this: Always make the primary goal of assessment to aid student growth and learning.

Rule #4: Can the canned comments

With four children of my own, I have seen a lot of report cards and progress reports. Some of them are meaningful, with teachers who obviously know my children well and have insights into their skills and abilities. Other comments, though, are not worth the paper they are printed on or the bytes they use up in cyberspace. For instance:

Student has enjoyed playing music in an ensemble setting. 

Student has engaged with their peers in a small group setting.

Student has created several useless title pages that are as useless as all of these report card comments. 

The purpose of report card comments is to provide useful information to students and parents about a student’s learning progress. A comment that has been copied and pasted identically into forty report cards does not help anyone. Report card comments are a chance to let your students know that they are seen and cared about and that you are invested in their learning. Comments are opportunities to encourage students in their abilities, recognize their growth, and provide a pathway forward for continued development. A canned, copy-pasted comment cannot do any of those things.

I have found this to be more difficult as an online teacher than in a face-to-face or hybrid setting. So, to combat the anonymity of an online course, I give myself a helping hand by providing meaningful anecdotal feedback on assignments as I go. Then, when I am writing report card comments, I have all of that feedback in front of me. I start with a template that leaves room for these personal comments, and I fill these blank spaces in with useful, individualized information I have provided throughout their time in the course.

Rule #4 is this: Whenever you write anything to a student, make sure it is personalized.

If you could use a comment for every student in your class, don’t bother using it at all. 

Rule #5: Mark their work, not their behavior

I know a student who is very intelligent but lacks executive functioning skills. She can do solid work when given time, but with tight deadlines and unclear instructions, she quickly becomes overwhelmed and freezes. She misses deadlines, half-finished projects sit forgotten in her binder, and items are left empty in her teachers’ gradebooks. This student’s progress reports often show grades like 20% and 35%, because even though all the work she has completed is at a 75-85% level, zeroes have been entered for all the assignments she has missed. Does she really know 20% of the content? No, her achievement level is probably closer to 80% than 20%.

I know another student who is a very high achiever and who cares about her grades far too much. One time, a teacher gave her a zero on an assignment because she missed one aspect of the instructions and told her to re-do it. The zero dropped her grade by 20% and she was panic-stricken. Of course, she was able to fix her assignment and bring her grade back up, but the anxiety that teacher caused, in my opinion, was not helpful.

Nothing good ever comes from a grade of zero.

On a related note, I overheard a teaching colleague talking about a conversation he had with a student who had marks taken off for handing an assignment in late. The student told him, in essence, “If you take these marks off, you aren’t marking what I know — you’re marking my behavior.” Smart kid. That important insight has guided me in my assessment practice ever since.

  • I do not take marks off for late assignments.
  • I do not give bonus marks.
  • I do not give zeroes at any point during the course. Missing work is just missing work. After the course is over, if they have had ample opportunities to complete what is missing and they have not demonstrated their learning for a particular curricular goal, then a zero is appropriate.

Rule #5 is this: Grades are meant to assess a student’s learning and achievement, not their behavior.

No one should get an “F” for forgetfulness.

Conclusion

When people ask teachers what their favorite part of the job is, it is unlikely many of them say, “Assessment.” Most teachers would say, “Watching students grow,” or, “Seeing their faces when they have that, “Ah-ha!’ moment. They might say, “I love building relationships with my students,” or, “I love being part of their journey toward achieving their goals.” Done well, assessment can be part of all of these things. What it requires, though, is a shift in mindset. Whether you are designing an assignment, marking it, or writing a report card comment, remember that your primary role is not to be a marker but to be a teacher.

Teach.

About the Author

Brian Oger, B.A., MDiv

Humanities Curriculum Specialist

Brian lives in White Rock, British Columbia with his wife, four children, a dog, and six chickens. Don’t worry — the chickens stay in the backyard. He has been teaching for slightly less than half of his life, including several years in a blended classroom, but still has not achieved his professional ambition of having his class stand on their desks at the end of the year and say, “Oh captain, my captain.” He currently spends much of his working life writing online courses that he hopes will inspire the younger generation to love literature, language, history, and philosophy.

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