Backwards design: Where clicker questions fit into a framework of assessment

by Stephanie Chasteen on September 14, 2014

This is a repost of my work on the iclicker blog.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about the purpose and approach that we take in various forms of assessment. Today I’d like to step back into a little bit of theory-land, and consider a broader framework of assessment, and the ways that clickers fit into that broader framework.

Point 1: There is a disconnect between how we see a course, and how our students see the course.

As instructors, we have strongly-held values about what our course is about, and why it’s important. But we don’t always teach for what we value. Sometimes we cram in content because it’s interesting, even though it doesn’t serve our broader purpose. Sometimes we think that the ultimate point of our instruction is clear through our activities and assignments – but that is not always the case.

Students operate in a different reality from us. Because of this, and the fact that our course goals are not necessarily as transparent as they could be, it is critical to be explicit about our expectations for students, and the connections between our instruction and the course goals.

What does this have to do with clickers? Hang on, I’ll get there.

Point 2: Designing a course around core objectives provides clarity – for instructors and students

One way to address the mismatch that I talk about above is to explicitly design our course around learning goals that are identified in advance. This isn’t how we usually design our course – a common approach is that we decide what goes into our course by finding some activities that we think will be fun and interesting to students, and building the course around those. Instead, consider starting with your goals, in an approach called “Backwards Design”. Backwards Design isn’t a prescribed set of steps, but rather a philosophy of education. First, we define explicit learning outcomes, such as “Students will be able to recognize equilibrium points on a graph.” You can read more about learning goals here. Then, determine how you will assess that outcome, such as having students use graphs to predict the behavior of objects. Then, LAST, you identify the instructional approaches that will help students be successful on those assessments – perhaps, working in groups on a tutorial on equilibrium, and getting more practice on their homework.
Backward Design: Start at the End
Backwards Design & Alignment: An example

Point 3: Frequent assessment gives powerful feedback as to whether students are achieving your goals

So, now that you have your clearly defined objectives, how do you know whether students are making adequate progress? How do your students know whether they’re on track? Assessment is a critical piece of instruction – it’s not just about finding out whether students got the message at the end of the day; assessment is about continually evaluating and giving feedback to students on where they stand. In fact…

Rapid, targeted feedback is perhaps
THE most important element of learning.

Without feedback, we can’t improve. This kind of feedback is achieved through the use of“formative assessment” – or “Assessments that provide information to students and teachers that is used to improve teaching and learning” (NRC, 2001). Compared to exams and other end-of-instruction exams (termed “summative assessment”, formative assessments are low-stakes, and aimed at helping students improve, and helping teachers appropriately target instruction, before that exam. Another way of looking at it is that formative assessment is “When the cook tastes the soup,” and summative assessment is “When the customer tastes the soup.”

Point 4: Clickers are an excellent form of formative assessment, to student and teacher

So, here’s where we get to clickers. Clickers and peer instruction fit perfectly into the formative assessment model – clicker questions are low-stakes, rapid, ongoing opportunities for students to find out how they’re doing, for instructors to see how the class is going, and for both students and instructors to redirect their efforts based on those results.

Point 4: Align your clicker questions with your goals for students

This is important! Too often, we write clicker questions that simply test students’ ability to recall basic information. Those are, after all, the easiest questions to write. But if our goals are that our students be able to evaluate information, or analyze pieces of an equation – we had better be asking those kinds of questions through our use of clickers, for two reasons: (1) to give students practice in achieving our goals, and (2) to appropriately communicate our expectations to students. Otherwise, students may not find out what’s important to you until the exam, when it’s too late. Clickers define for students, continually, what it means to you to “understand” a topic. See my previous post on “Bloomifying Up” your questions for more tips on this.

Backwards Design: Alignment
Photo caption: Align your goals, instruction, and assessments

So, in summary:

  • Write learning goals for your courses
  • Use clickers to assess student achievement of those learning goals
  • Make sure your clicker questions are aligned with your actual expectations for students.

In the next post I’ll write more about how clickers tie into the research on effective forms of feedback.

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