Should we be considering our own experiences when designing assessment?

During a conversation with someone recently, I was reminded of the value of reflecting on our own experiences of learning and assessment when we’re designing for others. Immediately I recalled a memory from my childhood – completing my preliminary grade piano exam. I had found the experience so daunting, and didn’t understand a question the examiner asked me, so I loudly declared I’d never do another one again. We all have memories, positive and negative, of times we’ve undertaken assessment (in all its forms) in our learning. Should we reflect on our own experiences when we’re designing assessments for others? My thought is we must.

Not only can we reflect on the assessment tasks or requirements themselves, but also the experience of the assessment process. Initial experiences of assessment processes help to shape our expectations and experiences in the future. We want to set learners up for success, and must consider how our assessment processes will support and not undermine learner confidence and ability. How can we do this?

Think about learning design holistically

In the holistic design and development of learning and assessment activities, we can help learners by applying constructive alignment to ensure learning outcomes, assessment and learning activities all line up. I’m sure you can recall a circumstance where you’ve participated in learning and, when it’s time for assessment, queried how the two are related to each other. Sometimes we’ve heard the statement “we didn’t cover this in class” as learners progress through their assessment tasks. I ask, you; would you play snap without matched cards? For learners it’s no different; they must see a definite match in order to feel supported and confident with assessment activities. If outcomes, activities and assessment all align, there’s clarity around how learning is applied during assessment.

Be upfront and clear

Assessment processes, requirements and criteria must be clear and communicated to learners; however what and how much is communicated needs to be well thought out. Think about when you’ve been given an assessment task and have not thoroughly understood what was required of you. How did this present a challenge to you? How were you able to complete the assessment? Let’s look at two aspects: the instructions and the conditions.

If we design instructions for assessment that are clear learners will be more likely to succeed with their assessment tasks. This also helps trainers/facilitators provide support as they too are clear on the task required, evidence to be collected and how they go about making their assessment decision. Clear assessment instructions also help trainers/facilitators administer assessments that are fair, valid, reliable and flexible. Many of us who work with national units of competency are familiar with the principles of assessment and apply them unconsciously; but regularly reflecting on how we are applying them in assessment design will help ensure we’re upfront and clear with learners and trainers/facilitators on what’s expected.

In thinking about assessment processes, it’s important we also consider the conditions under which the assessment takes place. The notion that “exam conditions” must be adhered to may put pressure on learners who are less confident with written assessment tasks, or recall memories of school days and the intimidating feeling of walking into a large hall full of rows and rows of desks. As too will the idea of “closed book”. Are these really necessary conditions? Or are we sometimes imposing these conditions because of lack lustre assessment design? This leads me to my final reflection.

Design real questions

Conditions of assessment such as “closed book” may have come about purely through poor assessment design. I’m sure you can recall a time where you’ve completed a multiple choice assessment where the answer choices were laughable. I know I have. We’re not treating our learners very respectfully if we’re making up ridiculous answers for them to choose from. Moving beyond knowledge in Bloom’s Taxonomy and pushing to have questions developed that address application (at the very least) can be a good way of acknowledging their learning and how they can apply it to their workplace. Of course, these types of assessments take time to develop as they’re often more complex to write – but the end result of a better assessment is worth it.

You’ve walked in their shoes

In summary, putting ourselves in the shoes of our learners is an essential aspect of our role. At some point in our lives we’ve been in a similar or relatable situation to that of our learners. Remembering how we felt, what we needed in the way of support and how we would like to feel confident is a good step towards better assessment design. And given the changes in how current and future generations are likely to engage in learning, it’s important we also branch out, have new experiences and reflect on these too.

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