Changing Classroom Assessments to Meet Students’ Needs

May 1, 2023

Assessments are an integral part of teaching and learning. In biology and microbiology courses, they have traditionally taken the form of tests and quizzes. But are these assessment approaches developing the skills of a scientist? Are all students learning what the instructor is trying to teach them? 

Ways to Reimagine Assessments for the Classroom 

Assessments are collective evidence of learning. Through a data-informed examination of student understanding, educators can adjust their teaching methods to meet the learning needs of their students. Brian Gentry, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at Drake University, indicated that assessments have a several-fold purpose for him, which has evolved with his growth as an educator. He stated that assessments help to determine how much the students know/understand, and how effective he has been in using materials to instruct his students. His questions now directly assess the learning objectives of his courses and, through that alignment, provide meaningful information as he continues to evaluate and improve his courses. 

While assessments are often thought of as an evaluation of learning, Bryan Dewsbury, Ph.D., an associate professor at Florida International University, is a proponent of using assessments for learning. As Dewsbury described in The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching, he uses 2-stage exams for in-person tests. Here, students have an opportunity to complete the same exam in groups after completing it individually, and the grade from the second attempt is recorded. During this second attempt, students discuss their answers and understanding with their peers to learn from each other.
A group of people working on an exam together.
Having a group of people working together on exams encourages peer-to-peer learning.
Source: Pexels

Gentry also uses peer-to-peer learning to assess students’ understanding of the immune system. For example, he replaces exams/quizzes with a more “creative” option by asking students to draw the immune response to a bacterial and/or viral infection—from the innate immune response to regulation of adaptive immunity. After the drawings are complete, the class discusses what they liked and what they learned or forgot. "I believe this is a far better learning exercise because it forces [students] to know the parts of the immune system, but when confronted with its function, they notice their mistakes and learn from their peers,” Gentry said. 

Traditional biology exams and quizzes are one way of finding out what students have learned, but the modality makes it difficult to assess important scientific critical thinking skills. Based on several presentations at recent ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE) meetings, many biology educators are now using assessments that measure student learning without exams and quizzes—some without grades at all—and are, instead, opting for “ungrading.” The ungrading approach, detailed in the book Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) by Susan Blum, is a method of structuring courses without grades but with more feedback. It puts the focus on learning, rather than sorting or judging students. Miriam Segura-Totten, Ph.D., a professor and chair of Biological Sciences at the University of North Georgia and themed section editor of Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education (JMBE), uses an ungrading approach that she said increases access and success for students with attributes that might disadvantage them in the traditional classroom. By increasing transparent assessment tactics, such as self-assessment and feedback for learning (e.g., formative feedback), educators can improve the conditions for learning and increase student success. 

Another aspect of assessments one might want to consider is whether they are inclusive and equity-minded for students. "We always think about being inclusive as some grand endeavor (and it can be, depending on your goals), but it can be simple things too,” Gentry said. For example, one of his students was a full-time student, a mom of a toddler and was working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gentry realized that class time, office hours, etc. were not conducive to her schedule, so he set up “late” office hours at 9 p.m. and provided accommodations for her exams. That way the student could focus on her schoolwork and not worry about her daughter, who was asleep by the time "late" office hours occurred.  

Assessments can evolve in your classroom in response to current developments in society and technology. For instance, James McNab, M.S., adjunct professor at Drake University, has adjusted classroom assessments to facilitate the development of skills focused on artificial intelligence (AI). “In my courses, the main goal of AI instruction is an understanding of how AI can enhance and automate various tasks,” McNab said. "This includes teaching students about the specific AI features and tools available in media creation software such as Photoshop, InDesign and Premiere Pro. I develop hands-on projects and assignments that utilize AI features so that students gain practical experience and develop skills in using AI effectively.” 

How to Get Started with Assessments 

How should one get started if interested in improving their own assessments? Gentry is a big proponent of a community-learning approach to rethink assessments because multiple brains are always better than one. The ability to discuss one's ideas and receive feedback from other educators, receive encouragement while trying something new, hear post-implementation tips and get assistance with student comments/evaluations are invaluable. While one can find a learning community through their university’s teaching and learning center, ASM is offering the Microbiology Teaching & Learning Community specific to microbiology. 
To learn more about teaching and educational assessments, research and tools, read JMBE, including the 2023 special series on scientific literacy. Or submit a manuscript to JMBE to share your own experience and research in microbiology and biology education.

Author: Rachel Horak, Ph.D.

Rachel Horak, Ph.D.
Rachel Horak, Ph.D. is a senior education specialist at ASM and is interested in helping educators design significant and effective learning experiences for all undergraduate biology students.