Assessment Design: Perspectives and Examples Informed by Universal Design for Learning

Section 1.1: Reassessing Assessments

Most broadly, understanding a student’s learning means that we must account for the ways that they have constructed their reality according to their educational context. This workbook is dedicated to assessment – the conventional and the alternative – and it is our hope that before you start to choose the assessment methods for your course, you will start by considering that assessment is not just a measure of what students know; it has the capacity to shape a student’s attitude, goal setting, and engagement (Struyven, Dochy, & Janssens, 2005). Typically, we often understand assessment from the standpoint of the instructor: How can we find out if a student is learning what we want them to learn? What are the best ways to assess student’s content knowledge and learning transfer? When and how often should assessments take place?

Traditionally, assessments in post-secondary contexts have been primarily exam-based or essay-based. Exams have the specific purpose of gauging the automaticity of recall, or in other words, how quickly and accurately a student can answer questions set by the instructor. Exams offer an efficient means of representing and measuring knowledge conveyed in a course. However, timed exams can simplify learning content into a superficial, rote manner that may not be meaningful or generalizable. That is, students may remember information for the exam, but may not be able to remember it afterwards or apply it in problem-solving. Similarly, essays are used to assess how readily students can compile information, take a perspective, argue for a point of view, and in doing so, synthesize content in a more meaningful fashion. Essays have the advantage of drawing in student voice which thus makes learning more meaningful, but given the technical approach to writing, essays run the risk of superficiality if students feel compelled to overly focus on mechanics and “what the instructor wants” over synthesis and interpretation.

There is no single assessment type, method, or paradigm that works best for all cases. Assessments have strengths and weaknesses, which can live as a set of trade-offs as we see in the examples with essays and exams. Depending on what you settle upon in your courses, your evaluation methods have the potential to support memorization, synthesis, analysis, deep engagement, skill building, or unanswered (and unanswerable) questions. We can look at assessments as evidence that a student’s understanding is matching up with the instructors, or better yet, we present to you an alternative: let us look at assessment as a process – as a series of check-ins on the ever-expanding base of knowledge and inquiry as students move through our courses.


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A Comprehensive Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning by Dr. Seanna Takacs; Junsong Zhang; Helen Lee; Lynn Truong; and David Smulders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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