Guest Contributor: Bridgett McGowen-Hawkins, Senior Professional Educator, TeamUP Cengage Learning Peer-to-Peer Faculty Development.


Does this sound like you?: Each day, you walk into the classroom with a plan in mind. You know what you want and need students to learn by the end of the session; how do you know, though, if your hard work paid off, if all of the planning you put into preparing for the class was time well spent? How do you know if learning actually took place?


When I first started teaching, I thought the only way to check for learning and understanding was to plan a formal event called “test day.” And, based on past experiences as a former student myself, I thought tests needed to be administered at either the end of a chapter or a unit or at the end of the course. And the design of the test was probably the most important factor because the bottom line was …


… I had to be tough! I had to include “tough” questions if I was going to truly test if students “got it.”


My goal?


To be known as the Bad Mamma Jamma of exams on campus, one of the instructors whose tests were really, really difficult because that meant I’m serious about my class. I don’t play around! I mean business! REALLY?!


Something happened with those notions because the end result was just as tough as those test questions — tough to swallow because my goals for testing my students did not appear to serve them well. Hmm … that wasn’t quite the look for which I should aim.


Was I doing an effective job of measuring their learning? Had I provided a foundation for them that would allow them to truly show me what they had learned? I found myself having to institute curves from one student to the next, one class to the next and, as such, felt like my tests weren’t good measures of their learning. What in the world was happening?!


I showed up every day to teach class, and more importantly, students showed up every day, too! So why didn’t the test scores suggest learning had taken place? Why weren’t the tests measuring what they had learned or what I thought they had learned? Was I really teaching or just going through the book? Just whizzing through and covering the material? Just talking?


According to Angelo and Cross, the authors of Classroom Assessment Techniques, “Teaching without learning is just talking.” So I was just a mouthpiece.


In retrospect, I waited too late to check and ensure students actually learned the material. At the end of a chapter or unit, during midterm and final exam weeks was not when to check. Or at least those weren’t the only times to check, and I began to look at assessments as one might look at a three-course meal.


  1. Diagnostic assessments are the appetizer and are meant to give us an idea of what our students already know, and it’s okay if they are not extremely well-versed in a discipline; that’s why they’re in our classes. These assessments—diagnostic assessments—provide us with an idea of the direction we need to take our instruction and can give us an opportunity to whet their appetites, let them know what they can anticipate learning in the course, get them excited about what’s in store over the course of the term.
  2. And then formative assessments are analogous to the main course, the entrée; we feed the appetite and check to see if learning is taking place. This is where I fell short. We perform formative assessments to determine how our students are doing so we can make corrections in our teaching and/or so students can learn and make corrections in what they know (or think they know) before they take a summative assessment.
  3. And finally the summative assessment is there for students to show us they got it! That they’re ready to move on. That their learning for that unit is complete just as the dessert signals the completion of a meal.


I had to reevaluate my purpose for being at the front of that room, and it wasn’t just to show how witty and charming I could be in class and then slam students with a test a few weeks down the road. It was to make sure students understood the content right then and there, to make sure they actually learned. I had to rethink my teaching and student learning and adjust my paradigm. Instead of entering the classroom thinking “I need to cover X,” the focus needed to adjust to “What do I need to do to ensure they learn X?” Such a shift resulted in awakening to the fact I should assess students throughout the entire course, not just at the end.


See some of Bridgett’s other projects as well as more information on this blog topic by visiting the TeamUP Professional Development Portal and conducting a search for “assessment.”


Looking for ways to electrify your classroom? Attend the TeamUP National Developmental Education Conference in Tampa, Florida March 19-21. Learn more and register at the conference site.