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Early and Frequent Assessment is Good for Students and Instructors

Submitted by Thom Janini,

In the past four issues of the Wednesday Wire, members of the Retention Task Force have written articles for the Attention to Retention blog highlighting things we might do to help students be more successful academically and socially. My contribution spotlights the importance of early and frequent assessments for student success by helping students accurately gauge their learning progress, helping instructors measure their effectiveness in the learning process, and giving academic advisors data that will help them guide the students they counsel. 

Making the transition from high school to college is difficult for many students and it is common for students to overestimate how well they are doing early in a college class. Perhaps this is because new college students do not understand that they are responsible for spending a considerable amount of time outside of class engaged in learning since this may not have been a requirement of most of their high school classes. Certainly, the level of learning in college is greater than what was expected of these students in high school. Whatever the case, assessing student performance with a combination of quizzes, tests, short writing assignments, or lab exercises early in the semester will let them know how they are doing while there is still plenty of time for them to adjust their study routine. 

But early assessment is not enough. It must be frequent so that the student can discern if the changes they make in their study routine are having a positive effect on their learning. These assessments should initially be low stakes (not contribute significantly to the final grade) or even “no stakes” so students can get the feedback they need without the associated anxiety of how this is going to affect their final grade. Think of it as practice with coaching (feedback). There is also the case to be made that significant learning occurs during the assessment process.

Assessing early and often can also benefit the instructor. By analyzing the aggregate results of an assessment, the instructor can gauge when a learning objective is not being met, or where the comprehension of a point is not great enough, while there is still time to revisit the topic during the semester. 

The assessment data collected by instructors is also used by academic advisors as they work with students. At ATI, we supply this data to the advisors in the Early Alert Rosters that are prepared during the sixth week of each semester. The effectiveness of this endeavor is dependent upon the quality of the data contributed by each instructor. Yet there are a few instructors who report no assessment-based grades on the Early Alert Roster because they have not yet performed any meaningful assessment of student learning at this late stage of the semester. 

For those of you preparing your syllabi for the coming semester and meeting with a new group of students in January, I invite you to think about how and when assessment fits into your course, and to consider adjustments that will address some of the points I have made. You can also turn to scholarly literature for more information. I recently searched for “student assessment in higher education” in Google Scholar and found 4.7 million results. Happy reading!