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Wonder what happened at McGill’s Beyond Grading Symposium on assessment?

On a cold, blustery December 7th, nestled in the warmth of McGill’s New Residence Hall ballroom, with croissant and coffee in hand, I had the privilege to attend the Beyond Grading: Effective Assessment Strategies for Better Learning symposium. This university-wide event, organized by TLS and McGill’s Assessment and Feedback Group, offered a full day of sharing and learning about creative and effective assessment strategies to improve students’ learning and motivation. Through panel and round-table discussions, the symposium showcased the wealth of strategies used across disciplines at McGill, in both large and small classes.

As I began my day at the symposium, a couple of key questions lingered in my mind: “How well are we doing our job to teach students?” and “What are students really getting out of their assessments?” Lucky for me, my questions were about to be answered.

Two panel discussions, including both instructors and students, provided interesting perspectives on effective assessment practices, as well as the challenges faced and suggestions for improvement. The underlying takeaway from these discussions was that assessment is more than assigning a grade.
The goal of grading is to evaluate student learning, meanwhile the reason for feedback is to improve it. Fairness and transparency play a significant role in all of this and were an important part of the panel discussions. Uncertainty about the goals and criteria of an assessment can create a lot of unnecessary stress and demotivation. Therefore, being open and clear about how and why students are assessed contributes greatly to what makes the grades and feedback they receive meaningful.

Concerns about ensuring that the assessments we administer are equitable to students were also voiced. As Paul Hooley, undergraduate student, Faculty of Engineering, said “When you put 25-30 hours into an assignment and are proud of the result, it’s upsetting if it’s only worth 5% of your grade.” Ways in which we can improve learning outcomes without increasing student anxiety are key and the need for more formative assessments to help improve learning outcomes was suggested. Howard Li, undergraduate student in the Faculty of Science, explained how small, frequent quizzes in one of his classes helped him “stay motivated and on track.”

Round table discussions offered an opportunity to examine contemporary practice-based initiatives. The three round tables that I attended provided me with stimulating perspectives on how to better support students in their learning with creative assessment activities and multi-stage, formative feedback:

Table 9: How can you provide students with immersive learning experiences relevant to out-of-class situations? 

Pierre Forest, Lecturer, Career and Professional Development, School of Continuing Studies, provided a presentation on how he uses in-class simulations and role playing as an opportunity for feedback that students can then apply to an assignment. What stood out to me was how giving students the opportunity to practice key concepts and refine them based on feedback significantly increased their interest and involvement in the course. Another key takeaway was the way in which he accommodates different personality styles by offering a multitude of activity options for both extroverts and introverts so that all students can feel engaged in the course.

Table 7: How can feedback from lay readers enhance students’ writing?

Terry Hébert, Professor, Faculty of Medicine, explained how his students transform scientific articles written for academic audiences into articles which are suitable for lay audiences. Students submit multiple versions of the same article and receive feedback from lay readers on the effectiveness of their communication. Students revise their work accordingly and submit drafts at different stages for evaluation. This provides a richer learning experience for the students and allows them to reflect upon and correct any issues as they progress through the course.

Table 8. How can you create opportunities for students to revise their work?

Diane Dechief, Faculty Lecturer, McGill Writing Centre, offered a detailed glimpse into the types of activities she has designed to allow her student to receive feedback at different stages in their work.

Having students work on multi-stage assignments, such as allowing them to write drafts, gives them the opportunity to make errors, and receive clear and constructive feedback on what they can do to improve their work. This allows them to reflect on their learning, clarify any ambiguities and help build their confidence.

These round table discussions, along with the panels, presentations and informal networking that occurred throughout the day were enlightening and provided a multitude of ideas on how to integrate different assessment strategies. What stood out most for me was how valuable creative assessment activities are in helping students engage in deeper learning. Activities such as role playing, simulations, calibration sessions, real-world problems and introducing elements of surprise into a course not only make the course more entertaining and fun for the students (and instructor!) but also allow students to further advance their learning.

The open and supportive environment provided at the symposium offered a tremendous way to share and learn about creative assessment practices at McGill, as well as allowed me to better appreciate how we can improve the ways in which we assess our students.

Original publication date: March 5, 2019

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