Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Course Design > Assessments

Create assignments and assessments that vary in format and are inclusive regarding their implementation.

To avoid overwhelming student workload, substitute (rather than add) by replacing existing high stakes assignments (or part thereof) with low-stakes practice and feedback.

Examples:

  1. Divide writing tasks into smaller milestones (e.g., pre-writing, rough draft, peer review, revision plan, final draft) and give feedback on the process of writing as part of the assignment. (History)
  2. Create question banks on Canvas from past years’ exams for students to practice core skills before quizzes or exams. For remote assessments, to encourage repeated practice, consider allowing multiple attempts and give credit for completion or meeting a threshold rather than correctness. (Engineering)
  3. Explore techniques or materials during class via non-graded exercises that provide immediate feedback from both instructors and peers. (Art)
  4. Assign short, cumulative problem sets to practice skills introduced previously as well as during the current unit to track progress on students’ skill development over time. (Computer Science)

Considerations:

  1. Providing feedback early in the course gives students a sense of expectations and helps them to stay on task and assess their own learning and study needs.
  2. Low stakes student practice can give instructors timely information to identify common challenges, so they can adjust teaching on the fly.
  3. By spacing out low stakes assignments, students are less likely to be overwhelmed at any time in the course. You don’t need to have a deliverable for every class meeting or every week (and students are taking multiple courses). 
  4. Grading for effort, (rather than correctness); and providing qualitative comments can help focus students’ attention on improving skills rather than the grade or score alone. 

Reduce stereotype threat by communicating high standards, aloing with confidence in students’ abilities to reach those standards (and then provide associated support for student success). 

Examples:

  1. Include statements normalizing struggle and reaffirming available support in the syllabus or project descriptions such as, “Each one of these projects builds on skills acquired in the projects preceding it, so if you get behind it only makes it harder. If you are finding it difficult to complete a project or if you get stuck somewhere along the way, you should contact me right away. I would much rather review material with you and guide you through a process than have you suffer needlessly on your own. Some of the best learning happens when working through a challenge together.” (Drama)
  2. Include a self affirmation writing activity prior to high stakes exams as an evidence-based approach to protecting against stereotype threat negatively impacting performance. (Psychology)
  3. At the beginning of the semester, foster a growth mindset by saying something like, “With effort and good practice strategies, and seeking help when you need it, you can learn the material. Learning this field isn’t a natural ‘talent’.” (Physics)
  4. Include assignments that allow for iteration and revision and point out concrete examples of improvement over time (and, if applicable, level up the standards for successive iterations). (Any)
  5. Ask students to reflect on their progress throughout the semester and identify their own improvements. (Any)

Considerations:

  1. Describing an assignment, concept, or skill as “easy” may marginalize students experiencing challenges and trigger stereotype threat
  2. Collecting demographic data on student identity (race, gender, etc.) immediately before a high stakes assessment can trigger stereotype threat and should be avoided. 
  3. Modeling inclusive language can avoid implicitly triggering stereotype threat or reinforcing traditional patterns of underrepresentation in the field. 

Avoid assignment prompts that may marginalize students (e.g., designing the interface for a dating website that assumes heterosexual, cis-gendered users).

Examples:

  1. When writing prompts or cases, use names that reflect the demographic diversity of students. Avoid using western-centric names exclusively, such as Alice or Bob, and include names from diverse cultures and countries, such as Xiaofei or Akshat. (Business)
  2. Include varied and non-binary names and pronouns as part of assignment prompts and examples. (Computer Science)  
  3. Create an ongoing, crowdsourced exercise (e.g., a discussion board thread) in which students and instructors are able to call out and discuss examples of marginalizing perspectives or examples they encounter in course materials, like textbooks. (History)

Considerations:

  1. Transparently explaining the rationale for using specific course materials and assessments can communicate to students that instructors recognize that their choices have consequences.
  2. Open conversations with students about how course materials and assignments include or exclude them (or others) can provide insight about how to revise or reframe assignments. 
  3. When possible, allowing students to choose among assignments, topics within assignments, or the type of deliverable for an assignment provides greater flexibility for students.

When appropriate, incorporate student choice, creativity, and flexibility regarding the deliverables for assigned work. 

Examples:


  1.  When asking students to summarize readings for class, allow students to choose the format (e.g., writing a summary paragraph, choosing an image that represents the main idea). (Architecture)
  2. In a programming assignment, define which technical concepts the students’ code should demonstrate, but allow students to define what their app does. (Information Systems)

Considerations:

  1. Lack of variation in assessment types can advantage or disadvantage students based on their background preparation. Varying the types of assessments (writing, exams/quizzes, projects, presentations, etc.) and deliverables throughout the semester can reduce disadvantages.
  2. Returning to the learning objective can provide guidance. Can a student demonstrate the same learning objective in different formats (e.g., a final presentation or a final paper)? If so, give students the option to choose.
  3. Talking to instructors from different disciplines can offer inspiration for new assessment ideas and formats. 

Recognize and respect different “ways of knowing” and methods of inquiry across disciplines and cultures. Often they are complementary, rather than at odds.

Examples:

  1. Encourage students to use mixed methods (e.g., both quantitative and qualitative) in their research projects. (Psychology)
  2. Utilize peer review and meeting with the TA to provide comments, rather than giving comments from the instructor alone. This helps students to see different perspectives about writing. (Philosophy)
  3. Ask undergrad TAs for project ideas and share drafts with them before finalizing for the course.  (Biomedical Engineering)
  4. If public speaking is not explicitly a learning objective in the course, then provide alternative, text-based opportunities for students to participate and show what they have learned, such as anonymous index cards, exit tickets, or Google Form submissions. Recognize that some students, especially international students, may not be comfortable speaking in front of the whole class. (Any)

Considerations:

  1. Reflecting on your own beliefs can help you start to understand and challenge your assumptions about what constitutes valid student participation, engagement, and time on task. 
  2. Students may have taken courses in other disciplines that may emphasize different habits of mind and conventions for discourse, writing, attribution, problem solving, what constitutes evidence, and more. Explicitly discussing norms, without marginalizing approaches used in other courses, avoids confusion for students with different backgrounds.

 

 

Eberly colleagues are here to help!

Eberly colleagues are available to help you translate strategies and examples to your particular teaching context (eberly-assist@andrew.cmu.edu).