Equity-Minded Assessment: The Types of Assessments We Use

As we consider what kinds of assessments to use, instructors in the Columbia “Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom” course encourage instructors to ask themselves important questions, such as:

  • Why do I rely on certain forms of assessment? Are those types truly foundational to my discipline and to a student’s future success in it, or are they simply ones I’m accustomed to using?
  • Do my assessments measure the specific kinds of learning I want (not content-irrelevant factors)?
  • How have students performed on these in the past – including students who I know worked quite hard? Are there patterns in the types of students who don’t perform well?
  • What do my students think about these assessments? Do they find them to be fair, reasonable, effective at allowing them to show what they know, meaningful?

Strategies for Equity-Minded Instructors to Consider

Create transparent assignments

Sometimes students don’t have a firm grasp on what they’re being asked to do in our assignments and projects, which can result in work that is disappointing to them and to their instructors. Sometimes the problem is due to students not reading the assignment thoroughly enough or soon enough or not asking enough questions about it. Unfortunately, a large multi-institutional and multidisciplinary research project suggested that student confusion is sometimes because instructors haven’t made the assignments as clear as they could be.

The good news is that the same study (TILT Higher Education) revealed that instructors making small revisions led to wonderful outcomes that included better quality work, and students having a better awareness of the skills they’d learned, more academic confidence, and a greater sense of belonging. All students benefitted from greater clarity, but the benefits were especially impressive for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students.

Instructors made their assignments more transparent in three key areas – the purposes, tasks, and criteria with which the work would be evaluated. TILT Higher Ed offers a template, a checklist for instructors, and examples.

Instructors benefit from another set of eyes looking at their assignments, whether that be from an exchange of assignments with colleagues, using the Get Feedback on Your Writing Assignments service from Elon’s Center for Writing Excellence, or a consultation with a CATL faculty member, available at (336) 278-5106 or catl@elon.edu.

Offer some variety in the types of assessments used

Elon faculty are often willing to think beyond the traditional formats of tests and papers, and that’s wise, because the demands and benefits of any one form of assessment vary for different students. In one study, utilizing mixed assessment methods improved women’s overall performance in STEM fields and decreased the performance gap on exams, too (Addy, 129).

Projects, problem sets, oral presentations, group activities, case studies, skills demonstrations, (group or individual) quizzes, written reflections, reading summaries, critiques, annotations, and many other types of assessment can be valuable and intellectually sound if they are closely aligned with our learning objectives. A CATL page on Assessment describes some examples of assignments to meet different objectives.

Assess students in ways that are “authentic”

Graduates working in most fields won’t be asked to take tests or be given multiple choice questions. Instead, they’ll be problem-solving, writing, researching, creating, analyzing, and reflecting, among other things. Dee Fink encourages instructors not to simply use “backward looking” assessments that assess whether students “got” the material, but to use “forward-looking” assessments that determine whether students are ready to perform intellectual work in the future. An authentic assignment puts students in a real or realistic situation where they must use the knowledge and skills they are learning in your course in order to help a specific audience different from their instructor.

Offer some choice in how students might demonstrate their knowledge and skills

One of the key elements of Universal Design for Learning is to provide multiple means of action and expression. Students may benefit from communicating in ways beyond traditional academic writing for a portion of the course grade. They might demonstrate their knowledge in digital, oral, visual, or multimodal products such as podcasts, brochures, posters, memos, website, videos, cartoons, digital stories, learning/metacognitive journals, outlines, concept maps, etc. Students respond positively to the opportunity to express their knowledge in diverse ways; they experience of lower stress and increased success (Georgetown). New kinds of assessment may lead to new kinds of learning.

Allowing different ways for students to express themselves is respectful of the different strengths and prior knowledge that students bring with them to our courses. In addition, it signals an instructor’s openness to “non-dominant cultural ways of knowing, being, and making sense of the world.” Aiming for anti-racist assessment, Escayg developed a model that uses some traditional academic methods (e.g., locate and analyze scholarly articles) and also creative and practical ones (e.g., create a lesson plan for young children that applies class concepts).

Elon Professor Practices: Vanessa Drew-Branch (Human Service Studies)

Vanessa Drew-Branch aims to incorporate liberatory practices in her teaching, decolonize traditionally elitist higher education, and honor authentic and indigenous voices.

With the goal of offering students opportunities to leverage their strengths and demonstrate their understanding in effective, culturally comfortable, and powerful ways, Drew-Branch gives students some choices in the formats for some assignments, including oral and visual ones. They might create digital stories, podcasts, or a narrated Power Point, for example, and she mentors them through the process of creating them.

Because the ability to communicate orally and work with others is so important in Human Service Studies, the students often work in teams on professionally relevant tasks, such as doing research and then creating a map of community anti-poverty resources for a NC city.

Drew-Branch recognizes that academia traditionally has recognized only one mode of communication (formal academic essay writing) as the norm. This puts some students at a disadvantage from the outset – those from non-majority backgrounds who speak a different native language, who have to code-switch in order to be accepted and be perceived as intelligent and capable of doing rigorous work.

Out of her desire for inclusion, Drew-Branch doesn’t want those students to have to code-switch in her classroom. She wants them to have the space to speak authentically in the style of their own culture, and she also wants all the Human Service students in her courses to have the opportunity to interact with many different kinds of people being themselves – so they are better prepared to serve their clients.

Offer some choice in topics

Choice increases motivation for all students. Just as students learn more effectively when they are engaged and motivated, their performance on assessments can be enhanced by increasing their sense of the assignment’s relevance and value (CAST, Ambrose). For students who don’t see people like themselves in traditional course materials or who are concerned about issues the course hasn’t focused on, choice may be even more important to their finding a sense of belonging in the field and seeing the field as relevant. Choice can be given in project topics, essay prompts to answer, or data sets to analyze.

Balance variety in formats with some consistency

While variety may offer opportunities for inclusiveness, there can also be some value to repeating the same format for some assessments. This gives students who are new to a field or format the chance to become accustomed to it, practice, and improve at it.

Aim for Inclusion in Exam Design

Use exam questions that assess higher order thinking and give students a chance to demonstrate their understanding. Relying solely on multiple choice items can be problematic because they do not reveal the cognitive processes behind an answer; sometimes students can guess the correct response and sometimes they chose the wrong answer but understood some of the concepts (Calder and Steffes). Open-ended questions are better for revealing students’ cognitive processes. When designing questions, aim to prompt thinking in a fair manner rather than trying to trick students.

Think about the conditions under which students take exams

Students with some types of disabilities may be entitled to accommodations such as include extra time and a quieter testing environment. Universal design encourages us to think about all our students. Are they (regardless of whether they have diagnosed learning needs) able to do their best work on our assessments? Is it necessary or authentic for students to do their work in a short period of time where they may feel rushed and stressed? Are there ways to balance the needs of academic integrity and facilitating student success?


Works Cited & Resources

Addy, Tracie Marcella, et. al. What Inclusive Instructors Do. Stylus, 2021.

Ambrose, Susan, et al. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2010. See especially chapter 3.

Calder and Steffes, Measuring College Learning in History. Social Science Research Council, 2016.

CAST. UDL and Assessment. Universal Design for Higher Education.

Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning. “Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom.” EdX course.

Escayg, Kerry-Ann. An Anti-Racist Form of Assessment: The C.A.P Model: Creative. Academic. Practical. Faculty Focus, November 20, 2020.

Fink, L. Dee. A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning.

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

Tobin, Thomas J. and Kirsten T. Behling, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design in for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press, 2018. See chapter 7.

TILT Higher Education: Transparency in Learning and Teaching.

Winkelmes, Mary-Ann. “Benefits (some unexpected) of Transparently Designed Assignments.” National Teaching and Learning Forum 24, 4: May 2015.