Reflecting Diversity in Assessment
“It’s not about making accommodations; it’s about making learning accessible” –Dr. Ania Harlick
Dr. Ania Harlick is an instructor in the department of Physics and Astronomy who teaches several courses, including PHYS 321: Harmonic Motion, Waves and Rotations. More information about the course is found in the course outline. Students who take this course come from a variety of backgrounds, including geophysics, chemistry and computer science. These students all have different strengths, weaknesses and experiences. Ania tries to make the course material accessible to everyone. She was inspired to do so early in her career when she taught a student with dyslexia who struggled on written tests, but excelled in oral presentations. When this student was able to talk through problems, she could apply course concepts and demonstrate her understanding better than many of her classmates. Since then, Ania has found ways to implement as many different assessment methods as possible to support students are they get chances to flourish and be challenged throughout the course.
Ania puts a lot of time and effort into determining the breakdown of grades in PHYS 321. She divides the course into many different types of assessments, which she refers to as “shredding” the course. She believes that students should be able to do well in the course even if they have a bad day on one of the assignments or exams. She breaks down the course as follows:
- Online Assignments (6, worth 15% total)
- Mini-Quizzes (5, worth 10% total)
- Activities (In class and at home, 10% total)
- Midterm (25%)
- Final (35%)
- Presentation (5%)
While a large portion of the final grade come from exams, all of the other assessments assist student in preparing for them. The course’s major focus is on problem solving. Students are encouraged to think logically and critically in a variety of different ways and present answers in a variety of different mediums. Students get to do assessments that use their strengths and their weaknesses, so they get to shine in some areas, and develop new skills in others.
Some of these assessments are very standard and students are comfortable using them. Students are very familiar with exams and assignments. PHYS 321 uses the platform Mastering Physics for its assignments, which students have used in their junior-level physics courses too. It is easy to use but since so many schools use the same platform and questions, there are solutions and answers posted online. To discourage cheating, Ania gives mini-quizzes in class the day after each assignment is due. The quiz questions are selected directly from the assignments, with small changes made. These questions help students practice solving problems with full solutions and explanations. Ania has noticed a strong correlation between student performance on the mini-quizzes and performance on the larger exams. Practicing answering exam questions in a low-stakes way helps them do better on higher-stakes exams.
One of the more unique assessments in PHYS 321 is the presentation. Students schedule a time to meet with Ania and do a five-minute presentation about how a topic of interest relates to the content of rotations, waves, fluids, or oscillations. The only aid they can use is a whiteboard to draw diagrams or write out calculations. Students have a huge variety of interests, so their presentations all look completely different. They all manage to find connections between physics and the real world. Some students talk about a sport that they do, like discussing the rotational motion of snowboarding flips. Others discuss how oscillations are required for their favourite musical instrument to work. Students are able to re-do their presentation if they are not satisfied with their grade, but most students put a lot of effort into the presentation and do well. Some of the more introverted students are nervous to do an oral presentation, but since it is short and on a topic they care about, most have a positive experience. There is a sense of accomplishment when they do well on an assessment that they normally do not like.
Ania believes that being in class should be rewarded, so she bases several exam questions each year on in-class activities, simulations, and experiments. There are many activities spread throughout the course, many of which are done in small groups. These assessments are graded half on participation and half on correctness. Ania tries to put an emphasis on group work and collaboration, since these skills are important for all aspiring scientists. Not only can students can learn from one another’s different learning styles and perspectives, they can start to build networks and connections that last beyond the course. Students work together on their activities, but also study together, work on other courses, give each other advice, and share their different university experiences. While networking is not a course objective, it is an added benefit of the group work.
There is also an opportunity to earn a bonus 2% for completing problem-solving activities during tutorial sessions. A set of exam-style questions are presented in each tutorial and students work in groups to solve them, using notes and asking questions if needed. At the end of the session, a similar question is given under exam conditions. Students work individually without any aids. Ania breaks down how she would grade the different components of the question, so students can see how well they would do if it were on an exam. Just completing the question gives students full marks for that session. The grading is just for learning purposes.
Most students like that there are different types of assessments because they get opportunities to do things they are comfortable with and try new things. All of the assessments have benefits and challenges. The presentations are time consuming for Ania to do for all fifty students, and for students to plan and execute for only 5% of the grade. However, it is such a good experience for so many of them. It also takes time to grade all the mini-quizzes and in-class activities, but they help students learn the content through application and practice. The bonus marks are also beneficial for students. Putting in extra effort and attending all the tutorials can make up for lost marks on quizzes or exams. It also gives them more practice opportunities.
Ania taught the course in the Taylor Institute Learning Studios for the first time in 2018. It fit well with the group assessments in particular, so she will be teaching in the TI again in 2019. Students are able to discuss problems easily because they sit in groups at tables, and can work collaboratively on questions using the whiteboards, which fit group work much better than regular papers. They can also use the touch screens to run online simulations. The overall course experience is positive. Students know that if they are willing to dedicate time and effort into their assessments, they will do well. Ania tries to be supportive throughout the entire process and help students with their learning. She will use student feedback and her own experience to improve the course and make small changes to the assessments and weightings each year. She sees her courses as dynamic and ever-changing, just like her students.