Four High Impact Practices for Designing More Equitable Assessments

By Annie Soisson & Carie Cardamone, CELT 

Assessment, if not done with equity in mind, privileges and validates certain types of learning and provides evidence of learning over others, can hinder the validation of multiple means of demonstration, and can reinforce within students the false notion that they do not belong in higher education.

 Montenegro and Jankowski, 2017 

Assessments are a critical component of course design and shape students experience of the course. From small in-class activities and homework assignments to big exams and projects, assessments provide opportunities for students to consolidate and apply their learning, motivate creativity, increase self-efficacy and incentivize effective learning habits.  To design equitable assessments in our courses, we need to understand that equity and equality are not the same thing.  Equality assumes that the playing field is level for students. Equity is about fairness and justice; it requires that we understand philosophically and practically that one size does not fit all when it comes to learning and assessment.  While there are many practices that can improve equity, today we will focus on four high impact practices that you can implement readily.  

Create transparency 

While some students may intuitively understand your expectations for quality work, others may not. Discerning what is needed to complete a particular type of assignment, and what a successful example would look like presents an inequitable barrier for our students.  Reduce this barrier by building in transparency to your assignments.  Some suggestions to put this into practice in your course: 

  • Share examples of student work, both good and bad and have students in small groups or pairs evaluate the examples for their strengths and weaknesses. Debrief as a class and add some of the criteria they may have missed. This helps develop analytical skills in addition to demystifying assignments. 
  • Elaborate on an assignment’s purpose, process and criteria for success. What is apparent to you is not always apparent to students. You have an “expert blind spot.” This simple intervention has been shown through research to benefit marginalized students through the Transparency in Learning and Teaching project (TILT.) 
    • Purpose: What are the skills the students are applying, what knowledge will they gain through the assignment? 
    • Task: What students will do, how will they do it (steps to follow, things to avoid)? 
    • Criteria for success: Create a checklist or rubric in advance so students can self- and peer-evaluate.  

Provide early, regular, and targeted feedback   

Early and regular small assessments with targeted feedback can give students a sense of how you interpret their work and help them understand their strengths and areas to focus on for improvement. These opportunities for retrieval and skills practice also allow students to integrate their knowledge over time and increase the likelihood of moving knowledge into long-term memory. Some suggestions to put this into practice in your course: 

  • Conduct a pre-assessment when introducing a new topic to learn what students already know.  This activity can activate student prior knowledge and can inform them and you as to where there may be gaps so you are not building on sand. For example, have students draw a concept map of what they know already about the concept, or list questions that they have (For more examples see How to Assess Students’ Prior Knowledge from CMU’s Eberly Center).  
  • Provide low stakes opportunities to stumble to offer students the opportunity to calibrate their study and preparation practices. For example, offer a practice quiz for minimal or no points or let them drop their lowest grade. 
  • You don’t always have to do all of the work. In fact, it is better not to! 
    • Ask students to diagnose their own errors to build self-regulation skills and create motivation and confidence that they are able to be successful.  
    • Create opportunities for peer feedback and engagement to build connections and a supportive learning community while developing critical thinking. 
  • Single Point Rubric can be a very useful tool for targeted feedback, a way de-center grades while lifting reflection and learning, and offer the opportunity for students to set learning goals.  

Use varied assessments  

For equitable assessments, one size does not fit all.  Design assessments to leverage students’ individual strengths and to take into account their varying backgrounds, motivations, and approaches to learning. This strengths-based approach to learning allows the instructor to maintain high standards and help all students achieve them. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is grounded in the knowledge that any single form of delivery, expression or engagement will not work for all students and advocates for designing a variety of assessments (e.g., writing, drawing, presenting, taking quizzes, etc.).  Some suggestions to put this into practice in your course: 

  • Use a variety of different kinds of assessments within a course.  For example, having small quizzes, group projects, and reflective writing activities instead of a single exam format. 
  • Allow students to express their knowledge in a variety of ways.  For example, students could  choose between creating an essay, a video, or an infographic to present the results of a final project. 
  • Create opportunities for students to connect activities to their own interests and goals.  For example, allow students to select the topic of a research project that is most relevant to their own interests and builds on their experiences.  This can be a very motivating factor for all, but especially marginalized students.  

Maximize learning from big assessments 

Large assessments, such as the midterm and final paper or exam, can be stressful for students because they see summative high stakes, graded work, as a judgement of their ability, and not as an opportunity to learn.  Building in opportunities for practice, incentivizes and requires students to use feedback for learning and can help break down barriers so that all students can be prepared for success in large assessments. Some suggestions to put this into practice in your course: 

  • Have students, individually or in small groups, identify patterns of error on exams, papers, presentations, and give them an opportunity to share that back with you for small points. 
  • Use “exam wrappers.” The three most common questions are: How did you prepare for the exam?  What kinds of errors did you make on the exam?  What could you do differently next time? 
  • For papers, presentations, creative projects, use rubrics or checklists for students to be able to self-assess the specific areas where they can most improve.  
  • Provide “scaffolding” for larger papers and projects. For example, students working on a project over the course of a semester could share and discuss draft thesis statements (or draft hypotheses), then write a paragraph expanding on these ideas, etc.  Each stage encourages ongoing work over the course of the semester keeping students on track, provides practice opportunities and allows students to better understand the components of successful work through conversation with their peers. 

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