Non-Traditional Assessment


December 5, 2013
and how to assess whether student learning has gone beyond memorization. Discussion lead by Leah McCurdy, PhD Student & Adjunct Professor. We discussed two innovative methods to assess students in non-traditional ways as a means to target student learning that goes above and beyond content memorization. These methods are the “semester-long test” and seminar assessment.

In Fall 2013, Leah implemented a semester-long test in her introductory archaeology course at Northwest Vista College. Leah encountered this idea in a workshop conducted for UTSA University Teaching Fellows by Dr. David Dees of Kent State University. In summary, a semester-long test involves three main components: 1) a study guide delivered early in the semester that covers elements guaranteed to be included on upcoming tests; 2) (practice) tests each weighted under 10% of final grade; 3) Final test weighted significantly more (i.e. 30% – 40%) that consists of questions already attempted by students on (practice) tests. Feedback is fundamental to the success of this assessment technique. Students will attempt questions on (practice) tests, while still being responsible for the grade they receive, but are provided with significant feedback to improve their response and understanding of relevant material. Students can improve their understanding of and response to essay questions based on this feedback to perform their best on the final test and to demonstrate their improvement.

The key to this assessment technique is focusing on student improvement. Instructors can promote the positive benefits of initial mistakes and the importance of development over the course of a semester. Hopefully, this larger idea can be applied beyond anthropology courses into a student’s continual engagement with academics and learning opportunities.

The other fundamental component to the semester-long test is student choice. Based on the study guide, students are given the opportunity to choose, or vote on, a smaller number of questions that will be taken ‘off the table’ and thus cannot be included on a (practice) test. This allows students a say in their assessment and also to provide the instructor with feedback about course content that may have been confusing and/or needs to be covered further.

Leah implemented the semester-long test using a football metaphor. The study guide became the Pre-Season as a compilation of all essay questions that could be asked on the tests. The (practice) tests were labelled as head-to-head contests between real NFL teams whose team identities were relevant to topics covered on each test. For example, the test in which topics such as religion, ideology, and ritual were covered was labeled Cardinals vs. Saints. Further, the final test became the Superbowl. Leah received a great response from students, especially regarding their ability to vote on the essay questions to be included on tests.

Despite the success of the semester-long test, Leah is interested in targeting both students’ written and verbal communication skills through seminar assessments. Professional and informed discussion and conversational communication skills are not only important for anthropology but for many different careers and fields students can pursue. Seminar assessments can interweave anthropology concepts, reading comprehension, writing preparation and execution, and verbal communication.

Leah presented her plan to create a new type of assessment based on seminar participation. Seminar assessments will follow a similar pattern to graduate courses in anthropology in which students prepare by reading relevant material specified with the instructor and offer meaningful contributions to discussions. Students come to seminar prepared to discuss topics revealed through readings and are aware that their participation in the discussion is essential to the success of the class. Leah plans to provide her undergraduate students with one relevant and recently published articles that involves topics recently covered in class. After reading the article on their own time before the seminar period, students will be required to create a “seminar brief” in which they detail meaningful contributions derived from their reading that they plan to input during discussions. This “brief” will be an academically written document and provide students the opportunity to demonstrate and improve their ability to communicate ideas in an academic manner. Armed with their meaningful contributions, students will participate in seminar discussions during the seminar period, facilitated by the instructor and their development of discussion questions or topics. Students will have the opportunity to edit their “brief” based on the discussion in seminar and any new or altered insights they derive from the conversation. Students will be assessed on both their written and verbal contributions to seminar.

This plan was developed by Leah and based on her conversation with the ATF. Some of the ideas and concerns presented by ATF members included:
• Designing other course elements such as in-class activities to model academic reading for content, seminar participation techniques, what meaningful contributions can be, etc.
• Incorporating both traditional and non-traditional assessment techniques to allow for all student aptitudes and skill sets
• Improvements to the timing and format of the written portion of seminar assessment, particularly the suggestion to structure the written portion before, rather than after the seminar discussion as original proposed
• Ideas to employ this technique even in courses with large class sizes (Leah suggested dividing courses up into seminar groups of 15-20 students that can be lead by the instructor, a TA, or invited grad students with experience in the subject matter and who have prepared to lead a discussion on the particular article.)
• Offering enough seminar periods so students can drop the lowest grade if they have no experience with seminar discussion and so can get their bearings

Overall, the attendees found the ideas of the semester-long test and seminar assessment interesting with good possibilities for anthropology classes. With their encouragement, Leah plans to implement seminar assessment in Spring 2014.

Meeting Attendees: Will Robertson, Jenna Bonavia, Lori Barkwill Love, Emily Lloyd, and Guillaume Pages