Appendix C

More on assignments and assessment

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This appendix elaborates the discussion of assignments presented in the section “Using the DQP to develop assignments and assessments” and is based on a NILOA Occasional Paper on developing assignments within the context of the DQP written by Peter Ewell. (Download Latest Occasional Paper here.)

Assignment prompts should give a student maximum information about what a good response ought to look like. This means that faculty members need to think carefully about the specific properties of an appropriate answer and write the assignment prompts so the student has adequate information about what is being asked. Consequently, a good assignment should identify: a) the central task or tasks to be undertaken, b) how the student should broadly undertake the task(s) and communicate its results and, c) how extensive or evidential the response should be.

Combining all three elements yields something like the following: “Compare the substance of [argument X] with [argument Y] by means of a written essay [of Z length] that cites at least three examples of important ways in which the arguments differ.” This basic approach can be used to construct assignments in virtually any field of study that combines one or more DQP proficiencies with explicit content knowledge. Examples of assignments consistent with these principles are provided below.

Bachelor’s level, Applied Learning, Global Learning

Suppose a new form of absolutely clean energy were developed that would have the side effect of slowing the rotation of the Earth from 24 to 26 hours per day. Before the switch can be flipped, an environmental impact statement must be filed and widely reviewed. Outline the chapters and subchapters of such a statement.

Associate level, Specialized Knowledge

The student is given a diagram of a cell not at division stage with various structures labeled. Describe the cell in terms of a) its current stage, b) its morphological signs of activity, and c) the structure that addresses the formation of its nuclear envelope.

Associate level, Broad and Integrative Knowledge

Prepare an exhibit of not more than five discrete two-dimensional pieces illustrating the range of chaos in color, drawing on at least two of the major color theory sources; e.g., Goethe, Kandinsky, Chevruel, in a 3-5 page catalogue of your exhibit. You are not required to present in the same two-dimensional medium across all five pieces. The class exhibits will be displayed from April 1–30. It is now January 15. (At the bachelor’s level, this assignment would ask also that the catalogue contain a section discussing the ways chemical and digital technologies have changed both the palette and range of color chaos.)

Master’s level, Specialized Knowledge, Applied Learning

Choose one of the following mature companies for both PEST and SWOT analyses: Starbucks, IBM, Toys-R-Us. In each case, a discrete challenge is presented as a prod for both types of analyses. Fill in the classic matrices for both analyses, and accompany those documents with a 10-15 page paper that defends your selection of the best corporate opportunity under each challenge scenario. Your products are due in 10 days.

Starbucks: Spreading business risk.

IBM: Rectifying thin supply chain.

Toys-R-Us: Overcoming niche demography.

The creation of assignments consistent with DQP proficiencies, which assumes the faculty’s collective ownership of the teaching and learning process, thrives on collaboration as it invites faculty to be much more systematic and intentional than is often the case. Considerable planning and attention are required to ensure that the appropriate proficiencies at the proper levels are developed or demanded across course sequences. Meanwhile, assignments should be carefully scripted to elicit the proper kinds of student responses and to enable evaluation of their adequacy.

Implementation of this approach at scale will require institutions to make two strategic investments:

  • In opportunities for faculty members to examine the entire instructional process from the inside out — starting with a priority on students and what they learn.
  • In a reliable and accessible record-keeping system for posting, housing and manipulating data about learning. An appropriate electronic record-keeping system of this kind resembles a conventional student registration system but is structured so that proficiencies are the unit of analysis, not courses.

Curricular mapping

To develop appropriate assignments to assess DQP proficiencies, faculty must determine where and how particular proficiencies are expected, enhanced or tested across courses in a curriculum — a process known as curricular mapping. At its most straightforward, a “curriculum map” is a two-dimensional matrix which arrays individual courses on one dimension and DQP proficiencies on the other. Entries within each cell can be constructed to communicate many things, including: a) whether the proficiency is taught in the course; b) the level of proficiency that is required to effectively engage course material; c) whether or not the proficiency is directly tested or evaluated as part of the course (and by what means); and d) the level of proficiency at which the student exits the course if it is passed.

The resulting map aids in identifying gaps in curricular coverage with respect to DQP proficiencies and points to where particular assignments might most profitably be located. Curricular mapping also enables a program to readily discern whether students have met program expectations through out-of-school learning experiences such as work-related training and accomplishment.

Mapping is usually done for all general education courses and selected courses in each major field of study, beginning with those most commonly taken. Curricular mapping is only a first step, however. Too many institutions stop short of the collaborative work of developing the assignments, examinations and projects that enable meaningful evidence of student proficiency to be collected across a program of study.

Rubrics

Even the most thoughtfully designed assignments can fail to support assessment of DQP proficiencies if there is significant inconsistency in faculty judgments about the quality of a student response. Faculty members can address this issue by developing “rubrics,” i.e., detailed scoring guides that track detailed descriptions of student work according to several dimensions. A rubric should represent a mirror image of the assignment design.

For example, if the design prescribes a response with “at least three examples,” the associated rubric will reflect this prescription by awarding a full score for a response that indeed has three examples and partial scores for responses that have fewer. An additional dimension of the rubric might enable the scorer to evaluate any comparison of two arguments within the answer in terms of their respective clarity and supporting evidence. A third might provide a metric to evaluate components of the written essay. Is it of the required length? Is its analysis sophisticated and relevant? Is the language used consistent with standards of academic discourse? Examples of effective faculty-developed rubrics at the baccalaureate level may be found on the web page maintained by AAC&U for VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education).