Waiting to assess student learning until the first test 5 weeks into the term is setting your students up for failure. It’s too easy for your student’s to nod along during the first few weeks of class because as the saying goes, “everyone’s a sociologist”1. I’ve found that students, especially Mr./Ms. Nods-a-lot, are shocked when they do terrible on the first test. If that first test is worth a third of the total class points, then a terrible performance can be a deathblow to a student’s grade.
Good assessment then, comes early in the semester and frequently. By having frequent small assessments you can distribute the points across a set of assessments which lowers the points and the stakes of each individual assessment.
Last year in my Intro to Sociology classes I had weekly quizzes every Monday over the previous week’s readings/lessons. Instead of a multi-chapter exam we had several single chapter quizzes. The quizzes were all administered on GSU’s online learning management system (a variant of Blackboard). The benefits of online quizzes are that they are automatically graded by the server, so this is a solution that can scale (I had 350+ students last semester). The downside is that exams have to be open book and unfortunately open classmate (even though this is explicitly outlawed in the syllabus). However, this can be overcome, by 1. not releasing the graded quizzes until the quiz availability period has closed 2. having a large pool of questions that each student only gets a few out of and 3. asking application questions that can’t easily be Googled or looked up in the textbook’s index.
Online quizzes aren’t right for all of my classes, especially the advanced courses. However, small frequent assessments are a part of all my courses. In a upper division course I often pass around 3×5 notecards and ask students to answer a short direct question that only students who’ve read could accurately answer. The 3×5 note cards are easy to flip through and I like to pull out the best answers and through them up on the document camera2. Also, a 3×5 note card promotes succinctness and doesn’t burden me with a ton of grading everyday. I also like to have students write short application papers that require them to really understand the concepts discussed in class. I simply grade these with a ✓, ✓+, or I write “come see me” on their paper. In a class of 35 I typically only have 5-10 students who I need to chat with and after class they bunch around me and we talk it out. The important point is that they find out early on that they aren’t getting it and this lesson doesn’t cost them a whole letter grade.
To be clear, frequent small assessments can not replace more nuanced forms of evaluating student learning. Even in my 350 student classes I had my students take an essay test and write a 4-5 page paper. It was excruciating to grade them all, but it can be done. If you feel forced into only assessing student learning via multiple choice tests, you can still incorporate frequent small quizzes into your classes without too much additional work.
So to wrap the last two posts up. Good assessment provides students with as much feedback as you can give them, early in the course, and gives them an opportunity to recover from early poor performances.
1. “Everyone is a sociologist” is bull, yet “everyone thinks they are a sociologist, but they relay on anecdotal evidence, “common” sense, and self-serving logic” is fair.
2. A good idea is to pair a 3×5 card question with a small group discussion to start class and then you have the time to flip through the cards and pull the best ones out. My students love it when I provide them with real time feedback.