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What’s My Grade: Why Students Need to Understand Learning and Assessment

The EvoLLLution | What’s My Grade: Why Students Need to Understand Learning and Assessment
Shifting toward a truly student-centric institutional model requires a greater effort to ensure students truly understand how assessment works, what their grades mean and the significance of learning and course outcomes.

For those with any experience teaching, the question of “what’s my grade?” is a ubiquitous one. For students, grades are the measure of success in the classroom. This norm persists even though many institutions articulate learning outcomes at the course, program and institutional levels and implement assessments to ensure achievement of these outcomes. Instead of focusing on their learning and the results of these assessments, however, most students are chiefly concerned with their grade. Of course, this is a practical realization of a system that uses grades as the central measure of a student in the classroom for seat-time credits. However, it also hints at something deeper and more conceptual: There is indifference and/or a lack of understanding, on the part of the students, of how and why we emphasize student learning (and its assessment) in the classroom. As higher education strives to achieve a truly student-centered approach, this is a critical issue that must be addressed.

This use of systemized student learning assessment has become part of the greater effort outlined by educators such as Barr, Tagg, and Guskin years ago. Their claim was that higher education must evolve from an instruction-centered paradigm and shift its focus on the needs of students in the classroom.[1][2] Student learning assessments have been one of the major results of this call to action, largely through outcomes-based applications. Scholars such as Biggs, Cohen, Martone and Sireci, Tam, and many others outline systems whereby learning outcomes are established, and then students are measured against those outcomes through appropriately aligned assessments.[3][4][5][6] More than grades, institutions use this approach to quantify and qualify what students are learning in the classroom. With an understanding of the knowledge, skills, abilities and dispositions imparted on students, institutions evaluate the effectiveness of their curriculum and implement changes to ensure that students’ investment in their education has an actual net result.

Implementation of these outcomes-based assessment systems to develop a student-centered experience, however, has faced numerous challenges. Primary among these is the balance of faculty and administration involvement in these efforts. Faculty members are obviously the most critical drivers in any effort to assess student learning, but their effort and motivation varies based on purpose. Importantly, a key factor is the trust that learning assessment data will not be used against them in a punitive fashion. [7][8][9] Conversely, faculty members positively believe in the use of student learning assessment, when the system is respectful of academic tradition and helps improve the quality of education for the student. [10][11][12] As scholars better understand this complex relationship, institutions have been better able to navigate these waters to employ this formalized, outcomes-based approach to evaluate and improve student learning.

But where has this focus on implementation efforts left our conception about how students understand the process of measuring their learning? Compared to work done on conceptual implementations and relationship to faculty, the studies about how students perceive assessment are much smaller in number. Fletcher, Meyer, Anderson, Johnston and Rees shed some light on this subject with their large-scale quantitative study on student and faculty perceptions of assessment. Essentially, they found that students believed that learning assessment results were an effective measure of institutional quality and student accountability. [11] However, the study also revealed a belief that results could be irrelevant, with students citing unfairness and lack of thoughtful use of results. [11] Despite this general skepticism about the use of learning assessment, they also expressed the belief that it could be beneficial to understanding their learning. The authors therefore posit that the importance and role of assessment in learning must be emphasized to students. [11]

In conducting my own study about formalized learning assessment, I encountered much the same thing. The faculty participants in my study noted that students were largely uninformed and/or uninterested in the learning progress. In a qualitative study about their lived experience with formalized learning assessment in the classroom, most of the participants readily admitted that students had little concept of their learning and its measurement. A few of the participants specifically mentioned that students were only concerned with how assessments impacted their grade. In fact, one participant noted a negative perspective of assessment, mirroring the findings of Fletcher, Meyer, Anderson, Johnston, and Rees. She was also the only participant (of the nine) who discussed having extended conversations about the nature of learning and assessment. She indicated that students eventually reacted positively, but only after significant effort to undo their negative perception and help them understand the larger concept.

To continue the shift towards a student-centered approach in higher education, we must do a better job articulating the significance of learning and its measurement to students. The single-effort attempts at addressing and embracing learning, as described by the participant in my study, cannot ever be as effective as a holistic culture shift in the way that we integrate learning, as a construct, into the experience of our students. The implications of this plea are far-reaching; learning outcomes and assessment of those outcomes should be not only explained to students as part of a grade but emphasized as a metric of their success. An institution’s commitment to learning should be articulated to students in an introductory events or orientations. This articulation should include the reasons behind any existing institutional outcomes and how students can expect program and/or course outcomes to be present. Key to this articulation is the idea that education provides value by imparting students with knowledge, skills, abilities and dispositions—and these are encapsulated by those outcomes. Student should also be explicitly introduced to the idea that assessments are the compass to navigating their achievement of these outcomes. More than serving as an input for a grade, they need to understand that these assessments play a crucial role in helping students gauge their progress towards and mastery of these outcomes.

The ultimate benefit of this approach is that students will have a coherent narrative about exactly what they have gained from their education. Students in competency-based education (CBE) programs—such as those offered by institutions such Capella, Western Governors University, and University of Maryland University College—can already do this because of the nature of CBE. However, all students in higher education should understand what they will gain or have gained from a course and/or program of study. By being able to articulate the net benefits of their education, students will be better prepared to meet professional and personal challenges in their lives. This, ultimately, is the goal of higher education and a critical piece of placing students at the center of everything we do.

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[1] Robert B. Barr and John Tagg, “From Teaching to Learning—A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change 27, no. 6 (1995): 12, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 7, 2017).

[2] Alan E. Guskin, “Restructuring the Role of Faculty,” Change 26, no. 5 (1994): 16, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 7, 2017).

[3] John Biggs, “Enhancing Teaching through Constructive Alignment,” Higher Education 32, no. 3 (1996): 347-64,

[4] Alan Cohen, “Instructional Alignment: Searching for a Magic Bullet,” Educational Researcher, 16, no. 8 (1987): 16–20,

[5] Andrea Martone and Stephen G. Sireci, “Evaluating Alignment between Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction,” Review of Educational Research 79, no. 4 (2009): 1332-1361,

[6] Maureen Tam, “Outcomes-Based Approach to Quality Assessment and Curriculum Improvement in Higher Education,” Quality Assurance in Education 22, no. 2 (2014): 158-168, doi:

[7] Gavin Brown, Conceptions of Assessment: Understanding What Assessment Means to Teachers and Students (New York, NY: Nova Science, 2008).

[8] Heidi Grunwald and Marvin W. Peterson, “Factors that Promote Faculty Involvement in and Satisfaction with Institutional and Classroom Student Assessment,” Research In Higher Education 44, no. 2 (2003): 173, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 7, 2017).

[9] John F. Welsh and Jeff Metcalf, “Faculty and Administrative Support for Institutional Effectiveness Activities,” Journal Of Higher Education 74, no. 4 (2003): 445, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 7, 2017).

[10] Gavin Brown, Lois Harris, and Jennifer Harnett, “Teacher Beliefs about Feedback Within an Assessment for Learning Environment: Endorsement of Improved Learning over Student Well-Being,” Teaching and Teacher Education 28, no. 7(2012): 968–978,

[11] Richard Fletcher et al., “Faculty and Students Conceptions of Assessment in Higher Education,” Higher Education 64, no. 1 (2012): 119-133, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 7, 2017).

[12] John F. Welsh and Jeff Metcalf, “Cultivating Faculty Support for Institutional Effectiveness Activities: Benchmarking Best Practices,” Assessment & Evaluation In Higher Education 28, no. 1 (2003): 33, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 7, 2017).

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