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Flexible assessment: One instructor’s implementation in a large class

This post is co-authored by Kira Smith and Carolyn Samuel.

What are the outcomes when students are given choices about how they are assessed? “They’re empowered, excited and they feel agency over their own learning,” says Dr. Candice Rideout, Senior Instructor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia. In a presentation for members of McGill’s Assessment and Feedback Group, Teaching and Learning Services, and staff from the Office for Students with Disabilities, Candice shared an approach to flexible assessment that she designed and uses with students in her large, undergraduate courses. She provides students with the opportunity to personalize their learning experience by allowing them to select the value—within certain limits—that the different assessments will have in determining their final grade. In this post, we share highlights from Candice’s presentation for instructors who might want to try it out.

Candice implements her approach to flexible assessment as follows: She provides her 200-280 students with a proposed grade distribution that also indicates an alternative percentage range for each assessment. The only exception is a mandatory 5% allocated to participation in in-class activities. The ranges ensure that students have a guide for determining their own distribution and that all possible distributions will still allow students to meet the course learning outcomes. Students email Candice their selected grade distribution by a specified deadline, generally right after the add/drop period. Students’ choices are entered in the grade area of the learning management system (LMS) (at McGill, that’s myCourses), and Candice then emails students individually to confirm that their decision has been recorded. After the deadline, students are not permitted to make changes. Students who do not send an email to indicate their preferred grade distribution are assigned the proposed assessment scheme.

Providing students with a proposed assessment scheme is considered key to a successful implementation of this flexible assessment approach. Approximately 40% of Candice’s students choose the proposed assessment scheme. It appears to suit students who believe the teacher knows best and those who have anxiety about making grade distribution choices. It offers students a safety net.

While the approach affords students some agency, it’s important to note that no student can avoid doing any one type of assessment. Both the proposed and a personalized assessment scheme allow students to experience a range of activities and be assessed multiple times throughout the term, and offer students many opportunities to succeed and build different skills. Each student’s learning experience will be rich enough to fully meet the course learning outcomes, though some students will potentially have a deeper learning experience depending on the assignments they choose to do.

The various assessment methods allow students to not only learn in ways they prefer, but also help them explore areas for growth. Here, we think an important connection can be made with Universal Design for Learning: flexible assessment inherently affords students multiple means of demonstrating what they know and have learned (read more on this page under Principle II: provide multiple means of action and expression). By providing students with assessment options, instructors increase accessibility and inclusivity in their classrooms.

Candice was inspired to develop this approach to assessment because she sought to apply her understanding of social cognitive theory to her teaching practice. She wanted to advance students’ academic self-efficacy (students’ belief that they can accomplish what they set out to, academically) and perceived academic control (the belief that they can impact their own learning experience).

There were questions for Candice about her approach. Here are a few of them, along with her responses.

Do students experience “buyer’s remorse” and want to change the distribution later in the term?

Candice responded that she was surprised by how infrequently this has happened. Of the some 3500 students with whom she has used this approach, only three have requested a change after the deadline. Her answer was no. Students set themselves a goal when they submit their choice and then need to work toward achieving that goal. It’s like a ‘learning contract.’ Candice is firm about the learning contract because of its potential for supporting student learning. Of course, exceptions are made, where warranted, for accommodation requests.

Could the confirmation email to students be replaced by an online form submission that would bring the distribution breakdown directly into the LMS grade book?

Yes, but in her teaching context, Candice sees a benefit to the email communications: this interaction may be the only one that students in her large classes have directly with her. She hopes it reduces the distance between her and the students, allowing them to feel more connected to the class, and less like a number and more like a person. Candice has timed how long it takes her to respond to students’ emails: about one minute per email, time she believes is well spent.

What advice would be helpful for colleagues who are interested in implementing flexible assessment?

Candice suggests just jumping in but starting small, perhaps with the addition of one optional assignment. To determine which assessments can be added as options, instructors should think about introducing multiple feedback opportunities throughout the term and ensuring students have opportunities to develop a broad range of skills. To determine the grade range for each assessment, instructors can consider their priorities for students’ learning and the amount of work required for completing each assessment. As instructors become more familiar with how flexible assessment might fit with their course, the options can grow in sophistication.

Candice noted that the viability of a flexible assessment scheme hinges in part on the soundness of the overall course design. So, while flexible assessment is a tool that can be leveraged to support student learning, sound overall course design should happen, too. Designing a flexible assessment scheme can also be leveraged to foster sound course design: it can motivate instructors to determine what the essential knowledge and skills are that students should leave the course with.

There were more questions for Candice about her approach to flexible assessment and she had lots more to say. If you’re a member of the McGill community and would like to learn more, you can view Candice’s presentation by logging in to Office 365 and selecting: videos > the TLS channel > the video entitled: Webinar: A Novel Flexible Assessment Approach.

Also, check out Candice’s publication, where you will see examples of the different assessment schemes:

Rideout, C. A. (2018). Students’ choices and achievement in large undergraduate classes using a novel flexible assessment approach. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(1), 68-78. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2017.1294144

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Student Engagement Officer, Office of Science Education

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