“Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour.” -William Cowper
There are three stages to teaching: planning, instruction, and assessment. For many of us one of these stages is more satisfying than the others. We may be better versed in one more than the others. In those areas in which we are weak, or not as well versed, we might avoid or instead just “fly by the seat of our pants.” Instead of avoiding those stages where we feel less confident, we can choose instead to include that area in our own professional growth.
For example, I love planning and I love teaching. I loathe grading. As a result, I spend more time focused on the former rather than the latter. That’s not the best approach. For me, grading or assessment was akin to eating Brussels sprouts – best avoided. Students depend on my thoughtful and relevant evaluation of their work, and without that effective feedback, they will not experience growth and success in their pursuits. I needed to learn to love Brussels sprouts – or at least make them easier to swallow.
Did you know that Brussels sprouts are like baby cabbages? I actually like cabbage, so this newfound knowledge made me curious. Could I find some recipes that added much needed flavor and remove the bitterness I often tasted when eating Brussels sprouts? If I didn’t change how I prepared them, I would always loathe and avoid eating them. Mind you, no one is forcing me to eat Brussels sprouts, but I’m using this analogy to assessment in hopes you’ll understand the aversion I know many of us experience with other parts of the teaching and learning process.
Grow it yourself
As an avid gardener I have learned that the vegetables I grow myself burst with flavor in comparison to those I buy at the local grocer. Vegetables, which I previously could do without, have become mouth-watering must-have’s in my weekly recipes. When you grow it yourself, it just tastes better.
Consider the way you assess student learning in your courses. Are you using assessments that came with your textbook? Are you using assessments someone else developed before you took on this course? Are you using traditional paper/pencil tests because you don’t know of any other way to get students to show what they know or because you’ve always done it this way? These approaches to assessment are more often than not like buying an expired frozen bag of Brussels sprouts that some farmer in another country grew in depleted soil – flavorless, bitter, with very little nutritional value.
It’s time to design or redesign your own assessments. Look for authentic and/or performance based assessments that evaluate both the knowledge and skills students need to show they’ve met your course or program outcomes (student learning outcomes). What do students in your course need to both “know” and be able to “do”? The theory of backwards design or understanding by design (Wiggins) is a tried and true approach that will energize your assessment process. It is your design, so it’s like you’ve grown it yourself.
Variety is the spice of life
One size fits all applies to very little in life. When I grow my vegetables, I use more than one type of seed. I mix heirloom tomatoes with the traditional Big Boy bush tomatoes. I also use my own compost made from all the organic material from our home and yard. It is a unique mix that when applied can change how robust my tomatoes will grow in a given year. Poor soil that is not supplemented produces stunted vegetables with very little flavor. I need to add nutrients and grow a variety of each type of vegetable if the garden will produce the yield I want.
When designing assessments, it’s important to offer more than one way to gauge student learning. Design a variety of ways for students to express their knowledge and skills. Consider “Universal Design for Learning” as a way to provide for this variety (CAST.org). Assessment should always lead to instruction and as such how you assess should inform what needs to come next in your instruction. A mix of formative and summative assessments that are authentic and tied to your outcomes will produce the student learning yield you want.
Eat well, and eat often
It’s not easy to eat enough of the right foods to get the recommended nutrients. It’s also important to know how much and what type of foods you need to meet a certain goal or lifestyle. Are you trying to lose weight, gain muscle, lower your sugar, increase your good cholesterol or bulk up for the upcoming state fair’s hot dog eating contest? Do you need more probiotics, protein, or good fats in your diet? No matter the goal, more is not always better. Better is better. When I go out into my summer garden to forage for dinner, I snip and sift through the five different kinds of lettuces, multi-colored carrots, plum and cherry tomatoes, green and purple peppers, red and yellow onions, red, white, and the orangey sweet potatoes, the red and green cabbage, and green and purple sweet peas. Any combination of the above makes for a fresh, flavorful and nutrient-rich meal. It’s about quality over quantity.
It is better to assess as you go along instead of assessing one time at the end of a course. Student learning is best monitored through targeted and meaningful measures and not just a heavily weighted final exam. If learning is a process (and not a product), then we need to assess the process. Consider how you’ve been evaluating student learning. Has it been more process or product-based?. The goal is to design and use meaningful and authentic assessments on a regular basis.
If you want to learn more about creating meaningful assessments, check out the links below. In the meantime, I’m going to sauté some Brussels sprouts in garlic, rosemary-infused olive oil, parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.
“Universal Design for Learning.” UDL Guidelines: https://udlguidelines.cast.org/
Wiggins, Grant. Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments To Inform and Improve Student Performance: Jossey Bass: San Francisco, 1998.
Dr. Vicki Caruana is an Academic Assessment Manager at The School of Professional Studies, City University of New York (CUNY).
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