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Monday, July 13, 2020

Preparing for Fall Teaching – Assessment Theory for Physically Distanced, Hybrid, and Remote Courses

This post is part of a series on preparing to teach in the fall.  For the other posts in the series, see here.

In an earlier post, I laid out a five step approach to redesigning your courses for a physically distanced, hybrid, or remote semester.  This post introduces the second step, which is designing assessment & engagement techniques for these new learning environments.  I’ll cover this step in a number of posts over the next two weeks.  In this intro post, however, I want to review the basics of assessment theory, especially as it relates to these new learning environments.

First, the good news – assessment theory is largely the same in physically distanced, hybrid, or remote courses as it is in traditional courses.  The same principles still apply, so we aren’t reinventing the wheel from a theory perspective.  The bad news though is that we may not always follow this theory perfectly in our own classes.  So before diving into specific techniques for the fall (they’re coming in future posts – I promise!), I want to highlight some of the key principles from assessment theory that will be especially relevant as we redesign our courses for the fall. 

Alignment:  In my last post, I discussed integrated course design and how defining your learning objectives should be the first step of any course redesign.    Your learning objectives should then inform your assessments and learning activities, with all three tightly aligned.   This visual shows the interdependent relationship between these three parts of course design.

Integrated course design

So go back to your objectives before you start redesigning your assessments.  What is the best way to assess if the students have achieved the learning objectives?  How can you use class time to prepare students for these assessments?  Legal education has sometimes had a mismatch of objectives, assessments, and learning activities, so your redesign this summer is the perfect opportunity to create better alignment.

Formative & Summative Assessment:  Legal education is used to thinking about summative assessments, but many of us don’t think nearly as much about formative assessments.  Summative assessments are the assessments we provide to audit student learning and determine what grades to assign, often at the end of the semester.  Our final exams do a good job sorting students into grade categories, but they don’t do as much to help students learn along the way, especially when students receive little feedback on their exam performance other than the grade itself.  

In contrast, formative assessments are designed to be part of the learning experience.  They provide feedback on student learning throughout the course so both students and faculty can assess whether students are meeting the course objectives.  They also provide students with frequent opportunities to practice what they are learning, along with immediate feedback on their efforts.  The most effective formative assessments are ones that are (i) aligned with the course objectives and (ii) accompanied by feedback that is frequent, immediate, based on clear criteria and standards, and delivered empathetically (see here for more information on feedback guidelines).

Developing and using these assessments does not need to be overly time-consuming.  We tend to think of assessments as tests, papers, or quizzes that professors have to grade.  But there are plenty of ways to provide quick graded or ungraded feedback to students to help them reflect on their learning.  For graded assessments during the semester, consider using rubrics that allow you to quickly assess student performance (see here for sample law school rubrics) or multiple choice or true/false assessments that can be graded in your learning management system.  For ungraded assessments, instructors can provide feedback to the class as a whole by discussing the answers in class or through polling software that provides instantaneous feedback.  Instructors can also use peer assessment where students provide feedback to each other using rubrics from the instructor.  Or they can use self-assessment where students assess their own work using model answers.  With formative assessment, the grades are not the point; instead, the assessments themselves help students learn the material and guide their future learning.  

Offer a Variety of Authentic. Higher-Order Assessments.  Authentic assessments ask students to apply their knowledge in real-world scenarios.  How would a practicing lawyer use the information that you are teaching?  Try to have your assessments match how the law is used in the real world.  If you are teaching pleading standards, have students evaluate and/or draft real complaints?  If you are teaching elements of specific torts, have them look at real jury instructions. 

Learning activities should encourage students to apply the content and make connections using the content.  These connections can be internal (across the course content) or external (from the course content to the students’ experiences and/or the world).  These connections are crucial because new learners can have trouble seeing how all of the different elements of a course fit together.  They tend to focus on isolated facts or checklists instead of gaining the big picture.  Understanding the connections underlying the course material can advance their knowledge in important ways.

Finally, think about how you can build assessments to scaffold student learning.  If you want students to become proficient at more complex legal analysis or skills, you may need to start with easier formative assessments at the start of the semester and slowly build up to more complex assessments. 

The principles above focus on principles of assessment theory that apply to any course design.  But there are a few additional principles that apply when designing for physically distanced, hybrid, and remote courses. 

Engage More.  We are going to have to work harder for students’ attention this fall.  Think back to your last Zoom meeting.  How long did it take you to check your email or click over to social media?  Probably a lot less time than it would have taken you if you were physically in a room with the other meeting attendees.  There’s something distancing about sitting behind a screen or a mask, so we will need to design our classes to bring in even more opportunities for them to engage with the material.  If you used to lecture for 15 minutes before switching to a learning activity, you might want to make it 10-12 minutes now.

Don’t Try to Just Replicate Your Old Techniques.  If you are used to having your students learn through in-person Socratic discussions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to find a way to have the same type of discussions in a physically distanced classroom or through Zoom.  Your goal is not to replicate your old learning activities in these new teaching environments.  Instead, go back to your course objectives and figure out what types of assessments and activities work best given how you will be teaching in the fall.  Maybe it’s replicating the Socratic method online, but maybe it’s an entirely different technique that better accomplishes your learning objectives.  

Consider How Remote Students Will Participate.  At many schools in the fall, students will have a choice regarding how they attend class – either in-person in a physically distanced classroom or remotely over Zoom or a similar platform.  This blended approach will allow students to participate in class even if they are sick, immune-compromised, or quarantined. It will, however, make designing assessments even more challenging.  With every assessment or learning activity, consider how you will include students participating remotely over Zoom.

Beware Extraneous Tech: When it comes to engaging students remotely, there are lots of tech tools out there.  Resist the urge to try new tech just to try it.  Every use of technology should connect back to your pedagogical goals.  You also don’t want to overwhelm your students (or yourself!) with lots of new tech in your courses.  I’m aiming to incorporate no more than one or two new tech tools this fall, so I’ve been evaluating the various options to see what might work best for me.   

In future posts, we’ll turn to assessment techniques, building on the assessment theory outlined here.  If you tried a great assessment technique or if you’re curious about a particular technique, let me know!   

Posted by Jessica Erickson on July 13, 2020 at 12:25 PM in Remote & Physically Distanced Teaching, Teaching Law | Permalink


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