Equity Minded Assessment: Teaching Strategies that Prepare Students for Success

Sometimes when they think about assessment, instructors focus mainly on a few formal major assignments, exams, and projects that come at the end of a unit or the semester. However, intentional, inclusive, and equity-minded instructors tend to think more holistically, understanding the critical importance of what they and the students do on a daily basis, both inside and outside the classroom, starting on day one of the course. The way we facilitate learning day-to-day is directly related to how students eventually perform on formal assessments.

To level the playing field and provide opportunities for all students to succeed, consider the following suggestions.

Assess students’ prior knowledge at the beginning of the semester

Individual students bring different knowledge and skills, based on their varying prior education and experiences. Some students may feel confident that they already know some content, while others may feel they don’t know much; and it’s possible that some students in both groups are incorrect. Instructors also might make incorrect assumptions about what students already know, or they might penalize or embarrass them for not already knowing certain things. Our assumptions can have detrimental consequences, as a student from Bryn Mawr recounted:

I asked a professor about a formula I was unfamiliar with, the professor said ‘you should’ve learned this in physics’ in front of other students. I became hesitant to ask questions for the rest of my time in the class. It was a casual offhand comment, but I was humiliated. Taking physics in high school wasn’t an option for me because of how ill-prepared my school was to teach it. …It confirmed my doubts of being unworthy to be in such a prestigious space.” (McMurtrie)

An anonymous check of the prior knowledge of the entire class affords instructors a chance to offer resources if some students lack some important prerequisites for success. If some of the students are already familiar with the information we are passing along, it won’t hurt them to hear them again.

Such early semester check-ins are beneficial in another way. Asking students to reflect upon the relevant knowledge, skills, experiences, attitudes, and dispositions they bring effectively activates their awareness of these positive traits, promoting a sense of agency and belonging.

Teach students how to learn in your field

Instructors improve opportunities for all when they share what they know from research and experience about the reading, study, writing, or problem-solving strategies that help students succeed. Students can be confused by the different expectations they encounter in their courses, even for apparently related tasks. For example, norms for writing an essay are different in history and music, and researchers use different databases in communications and biology. In any field, students might find it difficult to read a scholarly article if they are new to the task, and the best approaches for using a textbook are not necessarily self-evident. In addition, some students may not have needed to work hard in high school, so they may not have learned what we consider fundamental study habits (McGuire).

Provide lots of formative assessment with feedback

In contrast to summative assessments, which are done at the end of a unit for a grade, formative assessment involves informal, low-stakes or ungraded activities that are undertaken for the purpose of monitoring students’ understanding while they are still in the process of learning. In formative assessment, instructors give informal feedback as quickly as they can, in order to let students know whether they’re on the right track or need a correction, change of approach, and/or more work.

Students and faculty alike tend to underestimate the amount of practice it takes for students to build in-depth understanding and repeatable skills (Ambrose, et.al.). Students who came to Elon without a lot of prior experience in our discipline will especially need that practice. In their article on “How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive,” Sathy and Hogan suggest that faculty require this practice rather than making it optional. Novices have a harder time recognizing when they need more work, and “When assignments are optional, compliance will vary and you risk exacerbating differences in study skills [and] background knowledge.”

Small group tasks are a common type of formative assessments. Instructors can give feedback as they circulate around the room, or after a group or two publicly share their work with the whole class. Other common types are poll questions, self-graded quizzes, notes comparisons, minute papers, or a “muddiest point” quick write. Nebraska’s Center for Transformative Teaching provides a database of formative assessments based on the work of Angelo and Cross, and Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center shares active learning techniques that help reveal student understanding.

Provide instruction and practice with typical test questions

Whether typical test questions are short answers, long essays, complex multiple choice, or something else, instructors can mitigate the advantages that some students have due to more experience with a certain assessment format. After first giving the whole class explicit instruction in how to approach the typical test question, instructors can give students opportunities to practice them (with formative feedback) before they are faced with a high-stakes summative assessment (Sathy and Hogan).

Help students understand what we mean by high quality work

When they are creating products or responding to open-ended prompts, students need to understand what they’re aspiring to, especially when they’re working in formats for which they don’t have a great deal of experience. They need to understand the characteristics of high-quality work and the reasons why other work is considered less effective. Novices first learn to recognize quality before they are able to create it in their own work.

There are a number of ways instructors can facilitate students’ process of understanding of quality:

  • List a set of criteria and ask students to explain what each component means in their own words.
  • Ask students to generate a list of characteristics of excellent work.
  • Share a couple of instructor-created (or anonymized student-created) examples of work and point out to the class various effective or less-effective features.
  • Annotate some sample products and post them on Moodle.
  • Provide a rubric and ask all the students during class (together or in small groups) to apply the standards to sample work, providing feedback on whether students are correctly interpreting the criteria.
  • Give students a rubric and ask them to apply it to their own drafts.

Research on metacognition and transparency makes a convincing case that alerting students to the criteria we will use to assess their work helps students understand our discipline or field’s norms and improves the quality of their work. Sharing our assessment criteria should occur before students undertake high-stakes assignments.

Elon Professor Practices: Paula Rosinski (Writing Across the University)

Different kinds of assessments are appropriate for different kinds of assignments, notes Paula Rosinski. For example, informal brainstorming doesn’t need to be evaluated; low-stakes informal writing-to-learn activities could be given credit/no credit; and formal, longer assignments usually have explicit assessment criteria because they are higher-stakes and more challenging. More equitable writing assessment approaches for longer writing assignments include contract grading, labor-based grading, portfolios, and rubrics.

Rubrics are a tool for communicating coherent criteria and levels of performance for each criterion, thereby making explicit to students what constitutes effective writing for any given assignment and how the different levels of success are distinguished.

Because rubrics clarify writing expectations and reduce uncertainty about writing assignments, using them for evaluating longer writing assignments can help create a more equitable learning environment for students. Failing to make explicit how longer writing assignments will be assessed privileges students who have had experience with that kind of writing before or who have benefited from strong writing instruction in the past.

Faculty can design the rubrics on their own or involve students in the process, adding another level of transparency and inclusion to the assessment.

Sometimes instructors worry that a rubric gives students an overly specific formula for achieving a grade, which minimizes the challenge or undercuts the importance of independent effort. However, a good rubric is transparent about the main elements of the evaluative criteria without relieving students of the challenge of meeting them. Analytic rubrics use general language to distinguish levels of quality on various criteria while holistic ones use a single description of typical characteristics for each grade. If you’re having trouble figuring out how to design a rubric that meets your goals, consider consulting with CATL or the Center for Writing Excellence.


Works Cited & Resources

Ambrose, Susan, et al. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2010. See especially chapters 4 and 5.

Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. 2d ed. Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Georgetown University Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship. Inclusive Pedagogy Toolkit: Assessment.

McGuire, Saundra. Teach Students How to Learn. Stylus, 2015.

McMurtrie, Beth. “What Students Want Instructors to Know About Responsive Teaching.” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2021.

Nicol, David J., and Debra McFarlane-Dick. “Formative Assessment and Self-Regulated Learning.” Studies in Higher Education 32, 2 (2006).

Sathy, Viji, and Kelly A. Hogan. “How To Make Your Teaching More Inclusive.” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22, 2019.

TILT Higher Education: Transparency in Learning and Teaching.