New Policy Opens the Way for New Approach to Assessment

An assessment policy that supports students’ learning? Yes! McGill’s Senate has passed the new Policy on Assessment of Student Learning (pp. 3-11) (PASL [rhymes with tassel]). The PASL is core to the University’s mission and guides the implementation of assessments to promote student learning. Dr. Laura Winer, Director of Teaching and Learning Services (TLS), and Glenn Zabowski, Associate Dean of Students, led the working group that brought the PASL to Senate. I interviewed them to learn what prompted the revisions to the policy and how these changes support student learning.

Carolyn: The changes made to the USAP go beyond the typical review and revision process. Can you tell me what motivated these substantive changes?

Laura: It came out of a discussion that began around seven years ago at ESAAC about principles of assessment that we wanted to instill at McGill to shift the focus of assessment to be on student learning. When we looked at the principles and the existing assessment policy, we realized this went beyond a simple revision and required a complete rethink.

Glenn: We needed to make the policy more relevant, and it was important that it allow Faculties and Schools to assess students’ work in ways appropriate to the different disciplines but based on the same principles, which are based on knowledge learned from the field of assessment.

CS: What was the process for moving that initial conversation with ESAAC to a policy presented to Senate?

LW: It took two years to produce a report for ESAAC, and then three years of a working group meeting and consulting with the community to draft the PASL.

GZ: The working group consisted of faculty and students (p. 3)—different students over the years from SSMU, PGSS and student advocacy groups. In year one, we gathered information. We met with specific student groups, faculties, and units. We also had a web form where anyone in the McGill community could submit suggestions and concerns. Years two and three—that’s when we really started looking at the policy. The working group met every couple of weeks over the years until we had a good draft for Senate in April 2021. Since then we’ve continued to consult, and further hone and edit the draft.

LW: Consultation has been wide—ESAAC, where Faculties, Schools, and students are represented; the APC Subcommittee on Teaching and Learning (STL), another committee where all Faculties are represented; Senate; and Faculty Academic Planning and Operations Workgroup (FAPOW). Every Faculty had numerous opportunities to provide input. We also reached out to groups involved in labour relations—MAUT, AGSEM, and MCLIU. Other consultations were with several members of senior administration and McGill’s Legal Services. According to the literature, five years is about how long it takes to implement major paradigm shifts if you’re going to do something that really gets at the heart of what you want to do. Our timeline has been similar.

CS: The PASL has a focus on supporting student learning. Can you describe some points in the policy that have the potential to enhance students’ learning experience?

LW: The principles include a focus on wellness for both students and instructors. Assessment should not create unnecessary stresses, though some stress is normal—it can be healthy stress and productive stress. Some revisions address concerns about equity. That’s why, for example, the new policy states there is no cost for rereads. So, this policy is coming at a time when it’s responding to current concerns about student wellness, about wellness in general, and about equity concerns.

The PASL also has a focus on the concept of assessment for learning, for example, the importance of students receiving feedback. Students have to have the opportunity to receive formative feedback before the University’s official course withdrawal deadline.

There’s also increased clarity around expectations and assessment criteria for the assessment tasks. The working group felt this clarity would help students learn more effectively because they will have a better understanding of the goals of the assessment.

It’s less exam centric. Exams can be valid, authentic, and reasonable ways to assess student learning; however, an exam centric policy can unduly push instructors toward exams even when exams might not necessarily be the best way to assess students’ learning. By making it clearer that options exist, I think it nudges instructors to consider a variety of assessment tasks.

GZ: To add to what Laura said, I think the responsibility lies on both sides. In the case of students, there’s assurance that they can view assessments. Also, if students know what’s coming and they’re able to do the assessments with sufficient time, and there are no last minute changes for students, that helps their learning.

LW: The policy does allow for some flexibility, though. Previously, it was not clear whether instructors could make changes to the assessment tasks for a course once the course outline had been shared with students. It was a grey area. Instructors sometimes felt frustrated because it’s once the course is underway that one realizes when something isn’t working. Now, there’s a clear path by which instructors can make changes to be responsive to a particular cohort or situation. Building in this flexibility is a way to support student learning.

CS: You both spent years working toward the implementation of this policy on assessment of student learning. Is there something that you have found to be especially gratifying about this effort?

GZ: I’m a Faculty Lecturer in Management and I’ve been involved in Student Affairs; I’ve spent six years in the BCom Office and nine years in the Office of the Dean of Students. Of the policies I’ve worked with, this is probably the one that students are most concerned about—they want to know how their work is going to be assessed. So to me, this is the most important policy revision at McGill in perhaps the last 15 to 20 years, and it’s gratifying to me that I’ve been a part of that. It was especially gratifying that we were able to get both instructors and students—constituents on both sides of assessment—to support this policy.

LW: Building on what Glenn said, assessment is a place where students’ and instructors’ interests overlap, and the perspectives are not necessarily aligned. To have a policy that is core to the mission of the University, that I feel really embodies principles about teaching and learning, for me, is incredibly exciting and gratifying. I also appreciated the energy and thoughtfulness of the working group. When we had disagreements, we worked through them because everybody was mission-driven. Everybody was focused on the same goal: producing a principles-based assessment policy that would support student learning.

The PASL will have a two-year implementation period (p. 4). TLS will support instructors with designing assessments that support student learning and comply with the policy. Watch for more information in the Focus on Teaching bulletin (for McGill instructors).

Image credit: StockSnap on Pixabay

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Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!

(Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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