Focus on the Student

Adisack Nhouyvanisvong explains how improved assessment can increase personalized learning for all students

When people hear the phrase personalized learning, it stimulates a warm and cozy feeling. If you break down the two words in the phrase, you will see that it focuses on the “person” or the “learner.” Thus, personalized learning is student or learner centered. It is the educational approach where the student drives the learning. Students take responsibility for their learning by setting appropriate goals that align with their interests and talents, monitoring their progress, and staying motivated and challenged to meet those goals. And it is those things that are student or learner centric that fill educators’ hearts with warmth and joy.

Assessment, on the other hand, is a term that does not appear to engender the same warmth and coziness. People often think of assessment as a cold and rigid process that is teacher led and teacher focused. Teachers create the assessments to measure what their students know and can do. It is all about obtaining information about the effectiveness of the instruction. Right?

Personalized learning and assessment may appear to be at opposite ends of the education continuum. But they can and should co-exist. One effective way to personalize learning is to engage students in better (i.e., learner-centric) assessment practices. Assessment does not simply have to be a summative measure of what students know and do not know. It can be a personal and introspective process in which students take ownership of their learning and responsibility for self-assessing and reflecting on it. This personalized assessment process is called better assessment or leaner-centric assessment.

Better Assessment
Better assessment starts with writing better assessment items. Quality assessment items are the key ingredients to having reliable test results that allow for valid and meaningful inferences of student knowledge, skills, and abilities. Developing assessment items is a relatively easy task. However, developing quality assessment items can be more challenging. The following general guidelines can help improve the quality of all items, regardless of item type.
Make the stem a self-contained problem. Ask a complete question with all the information necessary to answer it contained in the stem.

2. Keep wording simple and focused. This adage in effective written communication is as applicable when writing items as when writing expository essays.

3. Eliminate clues to the correct answer. Be careful that grammatical clues do not signal the correct answer within an item or across items on a test.

4. Highlight critical terms or keywords. Critical words such as most, least, and except can easily be overlooked, so highlight them for the student.

5. Review and double check the scoring key. As in any written piece of work, it is always good practice to review and double check, especially the scoring key.

Student Expectations
Teachers know that student expectations play an important role in student learning. It is important for students to set appropriately high and challenging goals. And it is the task of teachers to help all students meet or exceed those expectations.

How can teachers know what expectations students have set for themselves? One simple and effective way to gain visibility to student expectations and to personalize the assessment experience is to ask students to predict their scores on an assessment before they attempt the assessment. When students set high expectations and correctly predict their scores (i.e., self-report their grades), they have the greatest learning outcomes (Hattie, 2012).

Confidence Ratings
Another way for teachers to identify student expectations and to further increase engagement is to ask students to rate their confidence in their answers as they solve each item. The confidence ratings of students are in essence their prediction of how well they think they will do. They provide insights into the expectations that students have set for themselves.

So instead of just asking students to choose or construct the answers to the assessment items, ask them to also express their levels of confidence in their answers. This can be as simple as asking students to select from one of three options: low, uncertain, and high confidence.

Student Reflections
After predicting their performance and telling more about how they arrived at the answer, students now have the opportunity to reconcile their predictions with their actual performance. This is a key instructional strategy known as reflection. Ask students to reflect on their overall test performance, noting what they did well and didn’t do so well. Also ask students to reflect on their performance on each item, providing feedback to themselves and their teachers on whether they got the answer right because they knew and understood the concept or guessed correctly. And if they got the item wrong, they can reflect on whether they got it wrong because they don’t know the concept or because they made a simple mistake.

Reflection is also a powerful technique to help students practice and develop their metacognitive skills. In addition, the reflections allow students to provide feedback to themselves and to their teachers on their levels of understanding. This is a great way to help them internalize or personalize their learning.

Answer Rationale
Feedback that is constructive and timely is another great instructional strategy that has significant impact on student learning. When giving assessments with selected-response items, it is not only important to let students know whether they got the items right or wrong, but it is equally important to tell them why the answers are right or wrong.

This can be done easily by creating answer rationales for each item. For the correct answer choice, give an explanation or rationale for why it is right. Similarly, for each incorrect choice, give a rationale for why it is wrong. After students complete their tests, the rationales can be given to students automatically and immediately. When done in this way, the rationales serve as personalized and constructive feedback that is given to each student.

Putting It All Together in the Classroom
Knowing how to write quality assessment items is a great start. Knowing how to move beyond to using better assessment techniques is another great step. But how can a teacher incorporate all of these techniques in the classroom to help students personalize their learning and turn the testing event into a learning event?

The answer lies at the intersection of technology and assessment. Today, next-generation assessment tools allow teachers to easily engage students in better assessment practices. For example, Naiku’s web-based assessment creation and delivery platform enables teachers to easily create quality assessment items of vary types. The item types range from true/false, multiple yes/no, multiple-choice, multiple response, matching, constructed response, drag and drop, essays, and passages.

Furthermore, teachers can engage students in better assessment techniques to help them personalize the assessment experience. In an English language arts class, this might look something like this:

Variety of Item Types
Give students a passage to read. Include pictures or graphics pertinent to the passage. To test the students’ reading comprehension and language skills, include a variety of item types on the assessment. Include multiple-choice items, constructed-response items, matching items, and even extended-response items. The variation in item types will make it easier to ask questions of different cognitive complexities.

Before the Assessment
Before students start to take the assessment, ask them to predict their scores on the assessment. This is the first step to engaging students in the assessment process. It will also give you visibility into student expectations.

During the Assessment
As students begin to take the assessment and answer the questions, ask them to provide a confidence rating for each answer. Also ask them to tell you more and show their work, explain their reasoning for the answers or explain their confidence ratings. These better assessment techniques further engage students in the assessment process.

After the Assessment
After students finish the assessment and receive their immediate results, ask them to reflect on their performance. Ask them to reflection on and reconcile their actual performance with their predictions and confidence ratings. These self-assessment techniques help students develop their metacognitive skills, personalize the assessment, and turn it into a learning experience.

At Naiku, we believe that better assessment leads to better learning. Through technology and a next-generation assessment platform, teachers now have the tools to empower and engage students with better assessment techniques that can turn testing into a personalized learning experience.

Adisack Nhouyvanisvong is co-founder and president of Naiku, having devoted his career to improving student learning through better assessment theories and practices. He has taught graduate courses on assessment practice and theory. He is the author, co-author, and/or presenter of numerous papers and presentations on the subject of educational assessment and has ensured the psychometric integrity and soundness of various assessments while at the Minnesota State Department of Education, Data Recognition, and Pearson. He received his PhD in cognitive psychology from Carnegie Mellon.