Assessment: Seeing the Forest Despite the Trees

Assessment: Seeing the Forest Despite the Trees

By: Heather Kretschmer

In my last year as an undergraduate, I was an exchange student at a German university. One of the first courses I took was a German literature survey course. The course gave a broad overview of German literature from the Middle Ages to the present. It was targeted at German Studies students who were just beginning their university journey. I used all the study strategies that had worked at my home university in the United States: I went to every lecture, prepared for the weekly topics on the syllabus by doing background reading, and learned everything in my notes. Since German is not my native language, I asked the professor for his permission to tape record his lectures. I used the recordings to listen to the lectures a second time to confirm I had understood everything and make sure my notes were complete. From my perspective, I had gone the extra mile to learn as much as possible and pass the class.

At the end of the semester, we took the exam, the sole determiner of our grade. In 90 minutes, we scribbled down our answers to four or five questions. I read and understood those questions but had no clue what to write down or even how much to write. At my home university, professors teaching introductory lecture courses only required us students to show we understood the content of the lectures and readings, but my German professor asked us to apply what we had learned on his exam. And he never breathed a word about the exam during class. Drawing on a very different exam experience from the US, I felt there was a mismatch between my German professor’s lectures and the expectations he required from us on his exam. So, in that first exam experience in Germany, I simply jotted down what I remembered from my notes and hoped for the best. For me, taking that exam was equivalent to helplessly wandering through a labyrinth, not knowing which way to turn at each juncture.

To my relief, I scraped by with the lowest passing grade.

In retrospect, I should have approached other students in the course early in the semester to ask if I could study with them. Had I done so, I would not only have made some friends outside the dorm but also learned that students circulated exams from previous semesters amongst themselves. Looking at previous exams would have given me a clearer idea of the kinds of questions I could expect on the exam I would take. And yet, I still would not have known what answers the professor wanted to see.

Assessment involves gathering evidence of students’ progress towards meeting learning goals. When we look at my first German exam experience through the lens of the brain and how we learn, I think we can improve upon this very traditional model of teaching and testing. First, my professor only gave us one opportunity to check our knowledge, and that was at the very end of the semester through the dreaded final exam. Far too late and far too high stakes. To be sure, summative assessment, like a final exam, is an important tool teachers can use to gather evidence of how well students have learned something. This is assessment of learning. But to check how well students are learning new material and developing their skills, formative assessment is key. In any class—even in large lecture classes—the instructor can take a break from lecturing to find out how students are grappling with new knowledge. This can be done through classroom assessment techniques (CATs), such as online polls or Think-Pair-Share tasks. These are just a few examples of assessment for learning. In his article, André Hedlund really explores the differences between assessment of learning and assessment for learning. He also delves into assessment as learning, which promotes self-efficacy and metacognition. Indeed, metacognition is such an important tool learners and teachers can use to evaluate the learning process as Martin Friel so beautifully attests in our PLUS section.

No-stakes formative assessment tasks are so important because they allow students to make mistakes and learn from their mistakes without being punished. As neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene reminds us in his book, How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain (2020), when we make a mistake and receive feedback, the brain learns and adjusts. “Generating a prediction, detecting one’s error, and correcting oneself are the very foundations of effective learning” (p. 209). How can we get our brains and our students’ brains to go through this learning process? Dehaene (2020) highly recommends using testing. The kind of testing he encourages us to use is retrieval practice and spaced practice,[1] both of which fall firmly in the category of formative assessment.

[1] For more information on retrieval practice and spaced practice, and lots of practical tips for the classroom, see our May 2021 Think Tank issue on evidence-based strategies.

When choosing formative and summative assessment tasks, teachers need to have a clear idea of the destination of the learning journey, as Dylan Wiliam emphasizes in our More video, What Formative Assessment Is and Isn’t. We can ask ourselves: What do we want students to be able to know or do by the end of the course? By taking the end goals as our starting point, we can select and develop suitable assessments and classroom activities. This is what is known as backwards design.[2] And as Dylan Wiliam aptly puts it in our Deep video, What Every Teacher Needs to Know about Assessment: “assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning.”

[2] I recommend reading more about backwards design in Tracey Teaches Us Instructional Design in our September 2021 Think Tank issue.

When we start critically examining this bridge between teaching and learning—AKA assessment—we might notice we have adopted practices we learned at school and university. Are we using these assessment practices because they are convenient? Because that’s the way assessment has always been done? Because other stakeholders, like supervisors, parents, and students, expect these kinds of assessments? If what we’re currently doing does not foster learning, then it’s probably time to see what changes we might make to our assessments.

As we start to question the status quo, it’s worthwhile to consider alternative ways of assessing student work. In his article, Tony Gallucci explains how his frustration with assessment practices in his teaching and testing contexts prompted him to experiment with integrated testing. He elaborates on the advantages and disadvantages of integrated testing.

Tony’s article gives us an enticing taste of what we might do differently, and Laura Gibbs explores something a little more radical in her article: ungrading. I suspect many of us are dismayed by students who prioritize attaining a certain grade over learning. As we know, a grade (A, B, C, …, 1, 2, 3, … or whatever grading system a school uses) only gives an indication of how well a student has performed a task. A grade does not tell us anything about why a student made a mistake or how that student can do better the next time. Grades are not good measures of learning. Dehaene (2020) notes that the “quality and accuracy of the feedback we receive determines how quickly we learn” (p. 201), and he points out that grades are very poor feedback that doesn’t help the brain to adjust and learn from mistakes (p. 211). In recognizing the issues with grades, some teachers, like Laura Gibbs, have turned to ungrading. Ungrading is a pedagogical mindset that aims to separate grades from the learning process so that students and teachers can focus on learning. Ungrading can be done in various ways, and Laura Gibbs outlines how she made a strong case for growth mindset[3] and shifted her students’ attention from agonizing over their grades to improving their writing.

[3] To learn more about growth mindset, I recommend watching Carol Dweck’s TED Talk and reading two Think Tank articles on mindset: Alessandro Grimaldi’s article in October 2021 and Glenn Magee’s article in January 2020.

The authors in this issue are beacons of light, shining to different directions assessment can take. Recently I attended a Virtual Institute on Alternative Assessment in Higher Education. While I learned about many interesting developments in alternative assessments, Maha Bali’s keynote really resonated with me. She spoke about how we can make alternative assessments inclusive and equitable. For example, she recommends giving students options while still providing them with a structure. Co-creating assessments with students is one way to give students choice and agency while still ensuring that no one group is disadvantaged or excluded. In many schools, students who have medical issues that would negatively impact their exam performance are granted special accommodations. Although I feel granting special accommodations is one route to inclusivity, I think it would be more advantageous if the assessment format itself catered to all students’ needs. Maha Bali points to a practical way of doing this by designing assessments together with students. I find this approach appealing because students can demonstrate their skills and knowledge without being forced to reveal a medical issue.

As we start thinking about all the different ways we can assess student learning, it can be pretty hard to see the forest for the trees. In last month’s issue, Julia Daley rightly points out that “there’s no one-size-fits-all assessment that will work perfectly with every student in every context.” My advice is to consider the different possibilities and select the ones that best suit your teaching context. Assessments—whether formative or summative—are tools for drawing inferences about what our students know and can do. Keeping the learning goals firmly in mind helps us design our assessments of learning and for learning. What we learn from the results of these assessments enables us to tailor class activities to our students and their needs. By aligning learning goals, assessments, and instruction, we can offer our students a far brain-friendlier learning environment than the one I experienced so many years ago in my German literature survey course.


  • Dehaene, S. (2020). How we learn: The new science of education and the brain. Penguin.

Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.

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