How to Assess Learning in a Pandemic

Jul 29, 2020

As colleges ask faculty to prepare for a possible online, hybrid or altered in-person fall semester—or all three simultaneously—many instructors are wondering how to best measure student learning.

Even during the pandemic’s early days, some professors decided to toss out their grade books, figuring that high-stress assessments weren’t appropriate given the uncertain circumstances, which saw students sent away from campuses, sometimes without tech tools or internet access.

In the latest episode of EdSurge Live, we interviewed two professors who have long questioned traditional methods of grading about how to approach exams, essays and other assessments next semester:

  • Susan D. Blum, professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of “I Love Learning; I Hate School: An Anthropology of College,” and a contributor to the forthcoming book, “Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead).”
  • Tony Crider, professor of astrophysics at Elon University, offers his students “epic finales” instead of final exams.

Listen to the conversation, or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: I thought we could start out by asking both panelists to tell us what their approach to grading and assessment was when they first started teaching at the college level.

Susan D. Blum: I've been teaching over 30 years, so I've had a lot of time to evolve. And when I was first teaching, I was pretty much a stickler for control and for judgment. And I was very parsimonious in giving good grades. And I was suspicious of students who were cutting corners and possibly cheating. And I have been studying this subject anthropologically and pedagogically and theoretically for 15 years, and I've completely transformed my teaching, top to bottom.

I wrote a book about plagiarism in which I basically concluded that most of the time, the problem is an educational problem and a motivation problem rather than an enforcement problem. The goal is to create meaningful work that students are engaged in so that they have the tools to achieve what we've asked them to do. And that if they don't do that, then it's an educational problem that we have to solve. Clearly, there are exceptions here and there.

Since then, I have written more and learned more about what students are doing in higher education [broadly, and about] what the purpose is. And I no longer think that having a kind of uniformity of content delivery is really a goal. And I aim really to understand what each needs to get out of the class, and work with them as much as possible to develop their own goals. And then assessment is really a way of figuring out how well they've learned, which is really the only thing I care about. And if people learn in different ways, then that's appropriate because they're all different kinds of people. So the approach that has emerged from that is something that I and others call “ungrading.” We basically don't grade until we're required to at the end of the semester, but there is a lot of feedback.

Tony Crider: I came at it from the perspective of the physics education research, and looking at it as a way to say, How do we give tests at the beginning and test at the end to try to gauge what they learn over time? And it was very focused on treating each student like a data point—that they were all representing some measure of the effectiveness of the class as a whole. And I probably spent like five to seven years focused very much on that, trying to turn it into a science and optimize that so that it would happen as quickly as possible, from scantrons to online, [with] very traditional exams.

I think that probably the reason I'm on this call is, about 10 years ago or so, I started to ramp up the concept of “epic finales,” where you would treat the end of a semester not so much like it's that final assessment, that time where you fill in the blanks and then quietly leave the room. But it was an experience that would give the instructor a chance to see who did his students or her students turn into over the semester? You don't know that if you're just giving a traditional assessment. So … [I] like to have that final epic finale at the end of the semester where I can sort of see what students are capable of in a new and different situation.

Susan, can you tell us more about this idea of ungrading, where it came from and how you put it into practice in your classroom?

Blum: I began to read the research on motivation, and that, of course, distinguishes intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. And the goal was always to increase intrinsic motivation. But like a lot of others, I was influenced by behaviorism, which tells you that if you increase extrinsic motivation enough, if you give enough points, if you weight things enough, people will discover intrinsic motivation. But in fact, the research shows the opposite. The more extrinsic motivation you provide, the less students feel that it's up to them to really be enthusiastic and excited about things. So that was kind of a theoretical perspective. I wanted to diminish the extrinsic motivation focus as much as possible.

So I began by just telling students don't care about your grades, but I was still giving them, and I was still calculating the points. And how many points do you lose if you have absences above a certain number and how do you measure participation in how many blog posts do you have to have and how many responses to other people's blog posts? And it was very mechanistic and very much about students having a checklist to respond to. When I realized, when I started to read Alfie Kohn and even more Starr Sackstein, and some of the other people who really write a lot about grades, I realized that I needed to get rid of them—and that it was possible. I don't get rid of learning. We just don't focus on the grades. We focus a lot on learning and we have a lot of conversations about it.

I try every semester to have the students generate their own kind of baseline ... when they come in, what do they know? What do they think they're going to do? What do they want to do? What's hard? What's interesting? And I really encourage them to do a lot of honest reflection and self-assessment, so that they really see that, OK, this is an opportunity to learn something that matters to me, even if it's a requirement. Surely there's something about it that matters to each learner because I truly believe that all humans are wildly curious. You just have to figure out how to tap into that superpower of ours.

And [students] are appreciated by their classmates. If you do something well in the class and your classmates say, wow, that was interesting. That's a kind of assessment. They don't need me to be micromanaging.

How it works at the end of the semester [is that] we have a conference where the students suggest a grade. They say, I think what I've learned and produced this semester is worthy of a B-plus, or it's worthy of an A-minus, or an A. Every now and then there's a student who says, I've only really done C work. And that's really wonderful to me that they are honest like that because sometimes we don't care, and that's OK. It's certainly better than having everybody pretend that they've done their maximum for an A, when we know in real life outside school, we aren't always functioning at the maximum. So it fosters reflection, it fosters honesty, it fosters interaction and it leaves open the possibility for more learning. And the class is just a beginning, in my experience, of their engagement with the subject.

Tony, you were recently on the EdSurge Podcast, talking a bit about your unusual and awesome approach to final exams. And I wondered if you could, for people who missed that episode, just briefly tell us what the concept is and give one example of what it means.

Crider: I came up from a different perspective on motivation theory, looking through gamer motivations and research on why people are motivated intrinsically to play video games, and then [I’ve] have taken those into the class. People tend to want to master something to win, or they want to have some social experience or they want to be immersed in some world. And so I want to provide something for them to think about for the rest of their lives.

[The final exam is] the last time you're gonna spend three hours with them. In fact, it might be the only time that you spend three consecutive hours with them, depending on your university. … Even if you're still doing a multiple choice test, it doesn't have to be the last three hours that you spend with them.

I craft experiences for the students. The most recent one, in ... a class where we looked at the scientific revolution and then the Industrial Revolution, and then the revolution that we're living in right now, and compared and contrasted those.

And then for their epic finale, I told them, show up to this building. I actually had to tell him, bring four sets of clothes. You'll need some Elon University gear. You'll need some business attire. You'll need some black clothes. And you'll need some sweaters. And then when they walked in the room, I sort of played a character [and said,] alright, here we go, kids, I've invented time travel, and we're going to have you go into the future. And they'd sort of take a pill, like in the Matrix, although they were Mike and Ikes. And then [they’d] go into the room and they'd have to pretend they were five years, 10 years, 25 years and 50 years in the future. And they would each draw cards telling them what their possible life might be like. Maybe they're living at home. Maybe they lost their job. Maybe their job was taken by a robot. And then they'd record themselves on their phones for most of this time. And my goal for this was to get them to see the connections between the sort of possible futures that I've mapped out.

Some students, they would just play it out as written, but others would say, wait, this is what we talked about in the Industrial Revolution. I didn't just lose my job. I lost my job because AI became powerful enough to take my job.

That's what I was looking for in terms of an assessment, but [it’s] also ridiculously memorable. The goal is to make an exam that they will talk about for the rest of their lives because that's your last three hours with them. And so I've been doing that for years.

And I'll tell you what, grading these epic finales is the most fun that you ever have. I have grading parties where I sometimes have other professors come in, and we sit and we watch hours of this play out and go through the rubric and say, How did this student do and how did it play out?

I'm curious what your thoughts are about assessments are for this time of pandemic and the upcoming semester. What approach are you taking? What do you recommend?

Blum: Now is a great time to try something new. You know, we are in a really weird moment right now. This is nothing like any of us have ever lived through. Personally, I'm going to be fully online this semester for the first time in my teaching career, aside from, you know, those seven weeks in March and April.

One of the things that a lot of us have really been thinking hard about is equity, and equity when people are in uneven circumstances doesn't mean sameness. And so I think ungrading makes a lot of sense in these particular circumstances. Most of my students have Wi-Fi, and most of them have the tools they need at least on campus. But when they went home in March, there were people who were very crammed into housing, and they were sharing Wi-Fi, [or had] no Wi-Fi. They didn't have good computers with them. And so if I had been a stickler for uniformity and precision—grading and points and attendance and participation in synchronous meetings—it would basically have measured people's economic comfort. And that doesn't seem to me what we're after.

So I think these are the perfect moments in which to really figure out what is possible for each student and what will help them learn given the reality of their life right now. And it seems to me that if we're not just preparing our students for school, but if we're preparing them for life after school, this is a very, very real life lesson to really figure out, what can you do? What's possible?

Crider: I'm at an institution where there's a lot of technology that's the same. Economically, they're very similar. There are 95 percent of them that have an iPhone. Which makes it such that I can design for that. And I know that's not the case at other universities where you've got a wider range of tech or maybe poor connection when they get out of there. And if they're not able to come to campus, that's going to have to be on a case-by-case basis with instructors and the students, sort of trying to figure out what the minimum technology is in that class and how to do that.

The tech, it's causing us problems, but it provides opportunities. I tend to look at the pandemic we're in in terms of technology and education. We've all suddenly been thrust forward 10 years into the future. … We'll adapt to it.


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