Begin with the End in Mind - Part Two - Fall 2015

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Begin with the End in Mind

Part Two: Connecting Assessments to Course Outcomes

By Wendy A. Crocker 
Curriculum Specialist 
Teaching Support Centre

In the spring edition of Reflections (Crocker, 2015), the idea of constructive alignment (Biggs, 2003) was introduced including the triangle graphic (Figure 1) that has been developed by the Teaching Support Centre for use when working with faculties and instructors to construct effective courses.

The article also introduced the three guiding questions of good course design: “What do I want students to know and be able to do?”, “How will I know that they have learned it?”, and “What techniques and resources will I use to share information?” The article in spring Reflections established the process for creating course outcomes to address the “big ideas” (Crocker, 2015; Wiggins & McTighe, 2013) to establish what students will know/do by the end of a program of study. This article will explore the second key element – matching assessment to outcomes in order to respond to the second question, “How will I know that they have learned it?”

Taking Stock of Assessments

The first important step is a review of the assessments that are currently used in your course. Brainstorm a list of the “usual” ways that you measure student learning. Your list may reflect methods such as exams, quizzes, and mid-terms. While these assessments have their place, they each require the use of pencil and paper tasks to evaluate students’ recall of knowledge. These kinds of assessment tools tend to focus on the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (See Figure 2) and include Knowledge, Comprehension, and Application. If however the outcomes for the course call for higher order thinking skills such as Analysis, Synthesis or Evaluation, the methods that we choose to assess student learning should align with these outcomes.

In her visit to Western in 2014, Peggy Maki, advocated the importance of identifying or designing tasks to assess the dimensions of learning. During her presentation based on her best-selling book, Assessing for Learning (2010), she reminded us that assessments do not function in isolation and that an assessment’s effectiveness in improving learning depends on its relationships to curriculum and instruction. So what does that have to do with exams, quizzes, and midterms? Perhaps the assessments that you are currently using to measure student success aren’t the best tools? Perhaps it is a good time to rethink WHAT you want students to know/do and HOW you will know that they have learned the material? It is time to rethink your assessment toolkit.

Assessment Tools

With the onus on creating course outcomes that begin with an action, and that reflect a higher order on Bloom’s Taxonomy (Figure 2), traditional pencil and paper assessments can fall short of measuring what students have learned. Some verbs by their very nature require an action to demonstrate a skill – model, present, draw, design, debate, perform, to name a few. If these action verbs have been used in your course outcomes, then the assessments that students perform to demonstrate their achievement of that outcome must also be active – that is, a performance of some kind.

Quantitative and Qualitative Assessments

As instructors in a university setting, there is a need for a quantitative reporting to the administration usually done in the form of summative grades. However, as teachers we also are responsible to the students for their learning. This dual role can be challenging and could cause instructors to view the primary role of assessment as the construction of a series of assignments that can be readily translated into numbers that constitute a grade. However, is this really measuring what a student has learned in your class? There is a place for both quantitative (numerically based) and qualitative (description based) assessments to measure student achievement. The most effective way to meet the diversity of learner needs and established course outcomes is to use a variety of methods to collect information for creating an evaluative judgement. In the autumn 2013 edition of Reflections, an article on Authentic Assessment offers some recommendations for alternatives to more traditional pencil and paper measures of learning (Crocker, 2013). Fenwick and Parsons (2009, p. 50) provide the below performance tasks below for consideration (Figure 3).

Performance Task + Rubric = Assessment

When incorporating a performance assessment as a demonstration of student learning into your course, you must also remember the “measurement” aspect. While a performance task will align with course outcomes that require a more active demonstration of learning, as the instructor there remains the requirement to measure “how well” the student executed the task. Rubrics give structure to observations. Instead of judging the performance, the rubric describes the performance (Brookhart, 2013). About the only kind of work that does not function well being assessed on a rubric is that which has a right or wrong answer. Any task that has “…degrees of quality performance, where you want to observe how appropriately, or how completely, or how well a question was answered, can be assessed with rubrics” (Brookhart, 2013, p. 5). As was described in the Reflections article, Ruminating on Rubrics (Crocker, 2014), rubrics must be well-designed, and should be used for learning as well as for grading by giving the student the assignment, and the rubric, at the same time.

Connecting Outcomes and Assessments

In order to respond to the question, “How will I know if my students have learned it?” instructors must adopt a form of assessment or measuring student knowledge. In considering constructive alignment (Biggs, 2003), the assessments must also measure the key course outcomes that address the question, “What is it I want students to know or be able to do at the end of this course?” If the outcome has utilized a verb from the higher orders on Bloom’s Taxonomy, then the assessment tool must match the action of the verb. If the course outcome is to redesign and critique a Roman weapon of war, a pencil and paper exam may not truly capture how well a student has achieved this expectation without first having actually constructed the weapon. Only then could students offer ideas for redesign by critiquing what worked or didn’t on the original armament. In choosing active verbs as outcomes, the assessments must make room for student

performance to demonstrate what they have learned. How will that affect what happens in class time? What resources would you choose to support student learning? How do you scaffold the skills students need to actually complete the assessment tasks? These topics will be addressed in the final installment of “Begin with the end in Mind” coming in Reflections 2016.


Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at the university: What the student does. (2nd Ed) SRHE Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Brookhart, S. (2013). How to create and use rubrics for formative assessment and grading. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Crocker, W. A. (2013). Authentic assessment: Evaluating “real-life” applications of knowledge in higher education. Reflections, 69, 1 – 3. Retrieved from resources/publications/newsletter/previous_ issues/Reflections_69.pdf

Crocker, W. A. (2014). Measuring an authentic assessment task: Ruminating on rubrics. Reflections, 70, 4 – 5. Retrieved from http:// newsletter/previous_issues/Reflections_70. pdf Crocker, W. A. (2015). Course design: Begin with the end in mind. Reflections, 71, 5 – 7. Retrieved from Reflections_72.pdf

Fenwick, T. & Pasons, J. (2009). The art of evaluation: A resource for educators and trainers. (2nd Ed). Toronto, ON: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc.

Maki, P. (2010). Assessing for learning. (2nd Ed). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing

McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Useful links for more information on assessments and rubrics

Cornell University rubric resources teaching-ideas/assessingstudent-learning/using-rubrics.html#resources

Faculty Focus http://www.facultyfocus. com/articles/teaching-andlearning/should-you-be-usingrubrics/

Iowa University – Purdue University Indianapolis com/site/iupuinca2012/Home/ creating-rubrics

Jon Meuller Authentic Assessment Toolbox http://jfmueller.faculty.

McQuarie University (Australia) http:// curriculum_assessment/ assessment/toolkit/

UNSW (Australia) https://teaching.unsw.

University of Wisconsin (STOUT) http:// assess.cfm