Equity-Minded Assessment – The Challenges

Do you hate grading essays as much as I do?

I suspect I’m not alone. In her “Why I Hate Grading” post, Katherine Pickering Antonova describes all sorts of work she’d rather do besides grading, and she concludes, “I would rather lick the bottom of a New York subway car than grade papers.” Yuck. 

Of course, many of our students hate their work being assessed as much as we hate assessing it. 

Many students feel a great deal of performance anxiety – which can get in the way of doing their best work. Some put too much weight on the importance of their grade on a specific task, confusing the grade with their potential or even their self-worth. In addition, some of them don’t know whether they can trust their instructor’s grading process.

There are good reasons we might be skeptical of our field’s traditional assessments.

Challenges for Instructors

It’s difficult to design effective assessments/assignments that students and faculty have confidence in.

Most of us have had a conversation with a smart and hard-working student who was frustrated because she didn’t demonstrate all that she understood on an essay, exam, or project. Of course, it’s possible that she just didn’t prepare correctly or didn’t understand the material as well as she thought she did, or she is obsessed with grades and wants to negotiate for more points.

Let’s not dismiss students’ concerns. Their grades may affect whether they decide to continue in history or will have access to future opportunities such as undergraduate research mentoring, scholarships, or acceptance to post-graduate programs.

It’s also possible that I didn’t design a great format for assessing what I taught (and what students learned). I know I haven’t been formally trained in assessment design, reliability, and validity, and sometimes I’m not as clear as I hope to be.

Again, I’m not alone. Results of a large multi-institutional study (Transparency in Learning and Teaching Higher Ed) showed that students are often confused by the directions, questions, and expectations of the assignments that we faculty design.

Students come into our courses with different (unequal) educational backgrounds and prior knowledge.

What they learned before they enter our classrooms affects students’ performances, advantaging some and disadvantaging others. It’s difficult for us to know whether a student’s performance on an assessment reflects what he has learned in the course or what he already knew. 

Research on first-generation students shows that those with prior knowledge of the tacit rules and practices of higher education’s “hidden curriculum” are more prepared to succeed (Jaschik).

We might use a method of assessment that rewards some students’ prior experience in performing a specific kind of work (e.g., argument-based essays, document analysis) or their skill in test-taking rather than solely their understanding of the material. Universal Design for Learning on Campus experts point out that along with content, some assessments measure “construct-irrelevant” factors, such as motor coordination (handwriting or typing), attention, time management, or the ability to work quickly under pressure.

Individual variability is the norm in our classes. As CAST observes, an international student whose native language is not English will face challenges in writing a long essay, especially if he can’t access a dictionary or if there is a time limit, and a student with Attention Deficit Disorder may have challenges with working memory.

Instructors have biases that can affect assessment.

We have good intentions; we want to be fair and consistently apply appropriate, discipline-based standards. However, psychologists in books like Jennifer L. Eberhardt’s Biased tell us that we all have unconscious prejudices about groups of people that affect what we perceive and do. These can certainly influence our ability to evaluate student work fairly and consistently, as an interesting study with K-12 teachers showed. (See also Staats.) In addition, confirmation bias may lead instructors to evaluate work in a manner that that confirms their existing views of individual students. I might unconsciously expect a student who makes smart comments in class to perform well on an exam or essay and therefore award that student a few more points on borderline work. Conversely, I might not fully appreciate the work of a student perceived as quiet or less capable during class or earlier in the semester (Steinke & Fitch).

Assessments that are poorly designed, unfair, or even perceived as unfair undermine the trust and sense of belonging that are critical for positive learning experiences.

So what do we do?

It is tempting to give up on grading altogether, as a few of the most radical proponents of “Ungrading” do, or to ignore the problems and just keep doing what we’re doing because we don’t know how to do something better.

Despite my dislike of grading, my reading in the literature on assessment has convinced me of two things:

  1. Assessment is an integral part of the learning process. Assessment ascertains the degree to which students understand our course content and perform the skills that we’ve taught.

    Well-designed assessments enhance students’ learning – by guiding their efforts in an appropriate direction and by raising their awareness both of what they understand and where they might improve. Seeing this evidence of what students understand and don’t understand also helps me refine my teaching methods.

    P.S. We need to remember that assessment is not simply grading. We do a lot of informal everyday checking of students’ understanding (i.e., formative assessment), and the feedback we give them at the time is essential to their learning.

  2. There is good news. SOTL research points to concrete strategies we can consider adopting with an eye to enacting our values related to equity and inclusion in mind.

As I find time (!), I’ll be adding a couple more posts on specific aspects of equity-minded assessment (including alternatives to traditional grading), related to the following questions.

  • How do we design assessments/assignments – and teach – so that all students have a chance to succeed, not just those who entered our course with educational advantages?
  • How do we design assessments/assignments that are meaningful, assess what we want them to, and help all our students learn?
  • How do we design a course grading scheme that gives students a chance to grow and learn from their previous work and mistakes?
  • How do we ensure consistency and minimize the effects of our biases when evaluating students’ work?

(This post was adapted from Elon University’s Center for Advancement of Teaching and Learning site on Teaching for Equity and Inclusion.)

………………………………………………………………………….

Jaschik, Scott. “The Hidden Curriculum.” Inside Higher Education, January 19, 2021.

Steinke, Pamela, and Fitch, Peggy. Minimizing Bias When Assessing Student Work. (2017). Research and Practice in Assessment 12, 87-95)

Staats, Cheryl. “Understanding Implicit Bias; What Educators Should Know” American Educator Winter 2015-2016.

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