Assessments have much wider implications than just being a tool to judge attainment and progress. Good assessments drive independence and learning, as well as motivate and shape students into being receptive and responsive to feedback. Bad assessments can embed fixed mindsets, negatively affect confidence, and result in a loss of trust.
It’s important to prepare our students for challenging assessments by teaching them the necessary skills for success. In this article, I discuss some steps that middle and high school teachers can take to plan purposeful and motivating assessments.
7 Tips for Improving High School Assessments
1. Secure success by making it achievable: Student learning has been affected by the pandemic, with learners who need additional support being most negatively impacted. As a result, these students are now trying to build new knowledge and skills on shaky or absent foundations. Of course, we try to adapt our classroom teaching to account for this and support our students as best we can. So it follows that we should also adapt our assessments with student success in mind.
Assessments that students score poorly in can be hugely demotivating, resulting in negative associations with the subject, as well as embedding fixed mindsets—we have all heard students say things like “I just can’t do it” and “There isn’t any point in trying” after doing poorly in a test.
Research shows that a success rate of 80 percent is optimal for learning—it motivates students by helping them to feel successful. It gives them confidence and shows them that there is still room for progress in the future. Designing our assessments with this 80 percent benchmark in mind may require us to increase the accessibility for students by reducing the challenge until they’re ready to tackle more complex questions and tasks.
2. Make sure your students know how to study: As we make our way through the ceaseless curriculum, we sometimes overlook the importance of teaching students how to study independently. Prioritize teaching study skills—whether you spend a small chunk of a time here and there or devote whole lessons to it. It will probably be more impactful in the lives of your students in the long run than the depth of content you might have to sacrifice in that period of time.
In my own practice, I teach a unit of work, which usually comprises around 10–15 lessons, following which I give students an end-of-unit assessment. About a week prior to this assessment, I will devote an entire hourlong lesson to study skills and revision. This can include, for example, modeling how to construct a concept map, revision games, showing students where to find study resources such as Quizlet, and encouraging them to share ideas and practice using new learning techniques in a supportive and safe environment.
3. Make sure your students know what to revise: Prepare a list of topics that might come up in the assessment, and share it with your students. If you have a class that is struggling with confidence, the more detailed you can be with this study list, the better. Help them to feel that their time spent studying is worthwhile in order to build them up to a place where they have the motivation to study on their own, even when they know not every topic will be assessed.
4. Complete the assessment yourself first: It goes without saying that you should proofread assessments before students take them, and it’s even better to complete the assessment yourself. I find this most useful for open-ended assessments that I’ve written myself, as it allows me to put myself in the student’s place. I can assess whether it’s clear or confusing, and if it has covered an appropriate range and depth of topics on the study list.
I’ve found that doing this has been really important in reducing the stress and frustration that my students might feel when they’re given a suboptimal assessment, and it has strengthened their trust in the assessment process.
5. Model and scaffold: When completing your assessment, make a note of the skills and exam techniques required to answer the questions. Then consider if you and your students have covered these techniques in enough detail. Just like with the content of the test, there shouldn’t be any surprises. For each skill and technique, make sure that students have been exposed to models of good work, so that they know what success looks like. They’ll also feel more confident during future assessments if they previously had the opportunity to apply these skills and techniques in a supported environment so that they know that they’re capable of achieving success.
6. Allow students to make mature decisions about the assessment date: When assessment dates aren’t fixed, give students some options for dates and times. You can also encourage students to take more responsibility for organizing their time in the run-up to the assessment by asking them to point out potential clashes with other deadlines or important dates.
7. Factor in choice within the assessment: Within the assessment, you might be able to provide students with a choice of questions to answer or tasks to complete. I usually give my high school students a choice of two extended-answer questions to complete in their end-of-unit assessments. I then set the question they chose not to answer as an open-book homework task.
The downside of providing choice within an assessment is that it can be harder to standardize, but the upside is that you confer a much greater feeling of control to the student, which in turn can be highly motivating.