Professors – Alternative Assessment of Student Learning – Performance Assessments

By | June 6, 2023

In an age of accountability, across all disciplines and fields, being able to “perform” is a major predictor of success. Professors working to prepare students for the age of knowledge would do well to measure – and, most importantly, provide genuine, specific, and timely feedback on – students’ performances.

Performance assessment can be generally defined as “an activity in which students construct responses, create products, or perform demonstrations to provide evidence of their knowledge and skills” (Hibbard, et al., 1996, p. 277). Be aware, however, that constructing responses, creating products, or making demonstrations alone does not constitute performance assessment. Only when you build in an assessment tool and a feedback process do you have an alternative form of assessment.

There is no limit to what you might use as a focus for performance assessment – you are limited only by your discipline and your imagination. Students can write, draw, act, create, interview, dance, propose, prepare, build, evaluate, exhibit, and so on. Performance may also include providing assistance to a person or group in the community (i.e., service learning). Projects I have seen include: a videotaped orientation program for new employees in a human resource management course; a mock education summit with presentations by various stakeholders in a curriculum development course, and a costumed, choreographed skit in a leadership course.

When designing a performance assessment, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I want students to know and be able to do? (Look at your objectives and choose the ones you cannot measure using a traditional examination)
  • How will I know if they know and can do these things? (List the behaviors, the indicators, and/or the skills that you want to be able to see in their performances)
  • Can I design an assessment for a real-world situation, or will I need to set up a mock situation? (Can advertising students design an ad campaign for a nonprofit organization or do you need to set up a fake company? Can engineering students build and patent an invention, or do you need to have them build a model of an existing invention?)
  • What are the standards by which I will judge the students’ performance? (List the various levels and criteria by which you will evaluate the students’ work. What will be considered superior performance? Satisfactory performance? Unsatisfactory performance? The more specific you can make this, the better the work you will receive from students and the easier it will be for you to grade.)
  • What weight will I give each of the criteria? (Will the content of a writing assignment be worth more than the conventions? The design specs worth more than the actual object? The number of people interviewed worth more than the depth of the interviews?)

Once you have thought through these questions, you can design the assessment instrument. Most important is to create a meaningful context for the assessment task – one that is based on the real experiences, issues, concerns, or problems that students face now or will face in the future. Walvoord and Anderson (1998) recommend the use of the acronym AMPS when writing your assessment:

  • A = Audience. (Who are the students to keep in mind as they do the work? Children? Corporate executives? Out-of-work single parents?)
  • M = Main point and purpose. (What is the reason for having students do this particular assessment task? Your main point may be defined in one sentence or a whole paragraph.)
  • P = Pattern and Procedures. (What processes, steps, or parts do students need to include as they work through the assessment task? You want to be quite explicit on this portion. Do not assume that students know what you want. Tell them what you want and you are much more likely to get it).
  • S = Standards and criteria. (Write a description of the ultimate product. Let students know how you are going to evaluate their work and at what level).

The most effective means, I believe, for determining the proficiency demonstrated by students in the performance assessment projects they do is to grade them using a rubric. A rubric is a scoring device that lists the criteria on which an activity will be evaluated is nearly essential when using a performance assessment model. An effective rubric distinguishes between unsatisfactory, satisfactory, and excellent quality. The criteria on the rubric should address both content and presentation skills.

By always sharing your rubric with your students before they engage in their projects, you can have the students grade themselves using the rubric prior to turning in their work. Mature students’ self-assessment is often quite close to the professor’s assessment; less mature students are not as clear on how they are performing relative to a standard. Overall, by creating and sharing your scoring rubric, however, student achievement is much higher than without such an instrument.

Rubrics work best when they are appropriate for the task, easy to understand, and focused on the most important aspects of the project. When students understand your expectations, they can strive for quality rather than spending time second-guessing what you want. With a rubric they can constantly evaluate their progress toward the known goal as they prepare their work.

From a more practical viewpoint, having your criteria clearly delineated in a rubric will (usually) prevent students from questioning their grades. Also, the rubric will help you focus your energy during scoring, fostering greater consistency of grading across projects and reduce total scoring time (always a plus!). While developing an effective rubric requires an initial investment of time, you can leverage that investment by creating a template upon which subsequent rubrics can be built. The consistency you gain, the time you save, and the trust you build with your students all will make you more than glad you made the effort to design the rubric – and to build and assess students’ learning.