Developing Appropriate Assessment Strategies

When designing a new course, it is necessary to clearly define the course’s learning outcomes.  Every course must have a set of learning outcomes associated with it that anchor its overall design and guide the learning experience.  Transformational learning experiences have aesthetic qualities that, when considered from the perspective of the learner, can aid instructional design and lead to more integrated and effective courses (Parrish, 2009).  Although design can only indirectly affect learning, it is important to make one’s course designs as user-friendly and contingency-ready as possible to provide the smoothest path from course beginning to course completion (Dimitriadis & Goodyear, 2013).  Basic learning outcomes will be essential in the creation of assessments, both formative and summative, as well as course content.  For an introductory-level philosophy course, four learning outcomes have been identified by my community college as essential components of any well-rounded survey of philosophical history:

  1. Read, analyze, and critique major philosophical texts.
  2. Demonstrate knowledge of key concepts, major arguments, problems, and terminology of philosophical discourse.
  3. Present logically persuasive arguments in writing.
  4. Demonstrate critical thinking skills in the application of concepts to various aspects of life.

These four learning outcomes are the key to successful completion of an introductory course in philosophy.  The first outcome is aligned with five levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, and Evaluate.  Critiquing philosophical texts requires the student to a) remember what has been read, b) understand the reading, c) apply the knowledge gained in d) an analysis of the text’s ideas, e) and evaluate the arguments presented.  The second outcome is aligned with four levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Remember, Understand, Apply, and Analyze.  In order to demonstrate knowledge of key ideas, students must remember the information, apply that information to new situations, and analyze the information for a deeper understanding of the material.  The third outcome is aligned with three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Analyze, Evaluate, and Create.  Logically persuasive argumentation can be demonstrated only if a student has mastered the art of argument construction, which necessitates a bit of creativity on the part of the student.  In addition, students must evaluate arguments, their premises, and conclusions after a thorough analysis of the argument’s form.  Finally, the fourth outcome is aligned with three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Apply, Evaluate, and Create.  Reflections on how the various course concepts can be detected in the course of everyday life require students to apply those concepts creatively and make judgments about whether or not those concepts have changed or remained the same over time.

Assessments for the Four Learning Outcomes

Each learning outcome has been aligned with a specific assessment strategy that will allow instructors to measure competency in a variety of ways.  The first learning outcome, critiquing major philosophical texts, will be assessed using a combination of formative and summative assessments.  The formative assessments will come in the form of discussions moderated by the instructor.  In these discussions, writing prompts will encourage students to reflect on and evaluate the arguments they have been studying in the source material.  Students would also be required to respond to at least two of their peers and further the conversation by questioning, explaining, or advocating a philosophical position.  The instructor could take a more or less active role depending on how students handle the questions posed.  The summative assessment would consist of an essay exam in which broad questions are asked about the texts that have been studied, creating an opportunity for integrated and holistic assessment of common course themes and ideas (Perera-Diltz & Moe, 2014).  Students would need to display creative insight, evaluative acumen, and analytical judgment in order to prove mastery of the learning outcome.

The second learning outcome, demonstrating knowledge of key concepts and terminology, would be assessed both formatively and summatively using a class wiki.  The wiki would be used by students to construct a class encyclopedia of all relevant course content, including but not limited philosophers studied during the semester and their works as well as the technical terms that are associated with the various schools of thought.  Students would be instructed as to appropriate roles one might adopt in the creation and maintenance of a wiki (Vonderwell & Boboc, 2013).  The initial stages of wiki construction could be used by the instructor to determine whether or not there were issues with learning basic course concepts and to make adjustments to the course as needed, as in formative assessment generally.  The final product—the wiki at the end of the semester—would also serve as a summative assessment of each individual’s contribution to the project as individual changes are tracked by wiki software.

The third learning outcome, making persuasive arguments in writing, would be assessed by a reflective journal and a term paper, the journal entries serving as formative assessments and the paper serving as a summative assessment.  The reflective journal entries would be structured to encourage students to make their own philosophical standpoints clearer to themselves, facilitating argument construction and analysis.  The term paper assignment would give students a choice between several topic questions on philosophers that had been studied and require students to closely read a philosophical text and interpret its content.

The fourth learning outcome, demonstrate critical thinking skills in relation to the subjects studied and everyday life, would be assessed by an initial report on how the ideal of equality, from the subsection of the course covering the history of philosophy, has survived in contemporary culture and society.  This formative assessment would serve as a starting point for further reports on other concepts of philosophical history and their survival into the present day.  Students would be asked to read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on their chosen topic (http://plato.stanford.edu/) before writing their reflections.  Finally, a summative assessment in the form of a research project on one or more philosophical concepts would be assigned to students.  By explicitly linking the wiki activity with the research project, the responsive instructor could weave all of these assessments into a coherent whole with a little bit of preparation and organization.

Storyboarding the Assessments

The next task in creating a new course is to storyboard the steps that students take when experiencing the course content.  This can be done by applying Gagne’s nine events of instruction to the administration of the formative and summative assessments that have been aligned with the course’s learning outcomes.  What results is a series of interrelated activities that display a constant flux of assessment and feedback.  A basic storyboard for this course is presented on the following page for easy reference.  The basic storyboard is not designed to capture the specific details of the course design, but instead is a model of a developing series of curricular interventions that pass through formative assessments and culminate in summative assessment.  For each of the four learning outcomes, the nine events of instruction will play a role in how the course content is experienced by students.  How the course’s learning outcomes will be assessed will now be illustrated in more detail.

Learning Outcome 1: Critiquing Philosophical Texts

The first learning outcome starts with an attempt by the instructor to gain the attention of the students.  This attempt to gain attention can come in the form of an image or an event.  Whatever choice is made by the instructor, the focal point for the students’ attention should be anything that inspires wonder or anything that the students already know something about.  This introduction to the subject matter of the course could potentially be coupled with a short reflective paper to help organize students’ ideas in preparation for a class discussion.  Thus, formative assessment of student learning can begin as early as the first event of instruction.

Next, the instructor presents the learning outcome of critiquing philosophical texts to students explicitly.  Then the instructor facilitates a brainstorming session in which students recall previous knowledge that might be useful in the current course.  For example, the instructor might present students with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence that are particularly relevant to philosophical thinking and ideas.  The students would spend some time thinking about what they already know and making such knowledge explicit by writing it down.  Next, the instructor would present the content of the lesson by examining various philosophical texts such as Plato’s Apology of Socrates or Descartes’ Meditations, perhaps asking students to reflect on how the knowledge they had previously acquired fits into the context being developed in the course content.  Another formative assessment might take place at this juncture, possibly in the form of a wiki assignment.

The fifth event of instruction is providing “learning guidance” to students.  This can be accomplished by providing access to alternative viewpoints on the topic.  For instance, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains an entry on the Enlightenment that could provide a counterbalance to the instructor’s perspective of the era.  The sixth event of instruction is eliciting a performance or practice from each student.  This event provides another opportunity for formative assessment in that students can present their analysis of the texts under discussion for peer review and critique.  Students not only practice using the knowledge they gain from the course, they also practice the art of self-critique by taking on the role of the instructor in relation to their peers.

The seventh event of instruction is to provide feedback on the performance that has been elicited.  This event is key when attempting to tie all of the assessments together.  The instructor would, in this case, provide written feedback on the quality of the presentation in terms of accuracy, argumentation, and depth.  The eighth event of instruction involves a summative assessment of the first learning outcome and could be implemented by designing a written exam whose questions asked students to analyze and evaluate the key works read during the semester.  Finally, the ninth event of instruction simply calls for instructors to help ensure the retention of the knowledge gained during the semester as well as its transfer to other domains of activity.  The best way to handle this last event might be a return to the reflective paper written at the beginning of the course and a re-evaluation of its content.  The task might be to re-write the reflective paper in light of what students now recall and understand about the topic.  Thus, we come to the end of the cycle of instruction and begin again with a new learning outcome.

Learning Outcome 2: Demonstrate Knowledge of Philosophical Concepts

The second learning outcome also begins with an attempt to gain the attention of the students.  This can be accomplished by presenting familiar philosophical ideas (being, ethics, ideas) to students and asking them to reflect on what those concepts mean in a short paper.  Explicitly stating the learning outcome for students is up next with recall of previous knowledge following close behind.  We then come to the fourth event of instruction, which is the presentation of the concepts, arguments, problems, and terminology of the Enlightenment in a clear and consistent manner.  The fifth event of instruction can be fulfilled by having peers review each other’s lecture notes.  The sixth event of instruction might consist of a standard multiple choice/matching/fill-in-the-blank quiz to test recall of the information imparted during lessons.  Feedback would then be provided by having students grade their own quizzes.  The assessment of the quiz would be recorded by the instructor after careful examination and correction of where students had gone wrong in their answers.  Finally, the ninth event of instruction would be cemented by asking students to evaluate their newly-formed understanding of Enlightenment by examining American political ideals and their relation to the course concepts.

Learning Outcome 3: Make Logically Persuasive Arguments in Writing

As expected, the third learning outcome needs to establish itself by gaining students’ attention and drawing them into the topic.  The instructor for this course could decide to present the Declaration of Independence or the Second Treatise as arguments with the idea of the philosophy of the Enlightenment as a binding concept.  Students would be encouraged to reflect on what the justification for Enlightenment thinking is for Thomas Jefferson or John Locke.  This formative assessment of skills in argumentation would provide the instructor with a wealth of information about where students stood with regard to logical argumentation and persuasion.  Making the task of logically persuasive argumentation explicit is necessary for the students to understand what is being asked of them.  The third event of instruction would then require the instructor facilitate the recall of previous knowledge concerning persuasive argumentation.  This might be best done by having students report the conclusions of a text by reconstructing the argument in a simplified form.

The fourth event of instruction simply calls for the instructor to present the course material, which would (mainly) consist of technical terminology for logical argumentation and persuasive writing.  This time around, the fifth event of instruction could be fulfilled by having students read additional texts on the nature of argumentation that provide examples of argumentative techniques.  And the sixth event of instruction, eliciting performance or practice, could be organized around a student debate: one student takes the side of the author while another student takes the opposing viewpoint, both mustering as much evidence in favor of their respective viewpoints as is possible.

The seventh event of instruction, or feedback, could be incorporated into the lesson plan by having students critique each other’s debate performances.  The eighth event of instruction, or summative assessment, would most likely come in the form of a comprehensive essay exam where students would be asked to defend or critique a philosophical position based on their understanding of the course concepts.  Finally, the ninth event of instruction could be a call for students to find arguments in contemporary political discourse that reflect Enlightenment thinking.

Learning Outcome 4: Demonstrate Critical Thinking When Applying Philosophical Ideas

For our last learning outcome, the need to engage the attention of students prior to direct instruction is of utmost importance.  The instructor of this course on philosophical history might draw upon contemporary iterations of philosophical ideas as a way of introducing this last outcome.  Thus, students would be engaged by the revelation that the course content was not merely applicable to the course itself, but to things and events outside of the course as well.  After being informed as to the nature of this last learning outcome, students would then be asked to come up with a list of contemporary events and things that reflect the history of philosophy.  Being able to identify philosophical ideas and effects is an extremely important skill for students to master and can be done through a process of brainstorming, peer review, and instructor feedback.

The recall of previous knowledge that occurs during this last phase of the lesson for the fourth learning outcome can be put to good use when direct instruction in the effects of philosophical ideas is discussed explicitly.  The fifth event of instruction now comes into play with students receiving instructor-annotated readings on contemporary events with links to philosophy (such as events concerning economics or psychology).  The sixth event of instruction, or eliciting performance, is achieved by hosting the initial conversation of current events on a class discussion board.  The seventh event of instruction has already been partially addressed using peer and instructor feedback in the original attempt to think of contemporary events and things that might have some connection to philosophy.  This step would merely be an amplification and adjustment of the feedback to suit students’ needs.

Finally, the eighth and ninth events of instruction would be realized through a summative assessment in the form of a term paper or research project that encourages students to both understand the creation of philosophical ideas as historical events as well as continuing influences on contemporary society.  One suggestion for technologically-enhanced classrooms, including those that are fully-online, is to utilize PowerPoint’s multimedia features to allow students to create engaging content of their own that brings the course material to life (Morrone, 2012).

References

Dimitriadis, Y., & Goodyear, P. (2013). Forward-oriented design for learning: Illustrating the approach. Research in Learning Technology, 21. doi:10.3402/rlt.v21i0.20290

Morrone, M. (2012). Storyboarding with PowerPoint to bring cases, case problems, and course content to life. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 1(1), 61-62. Retrieved from http://jotlt.indiana.edu/index

Parrish, P. E. (2009). Aesthetic principles for instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 57(4), 511-528. doi:10.1007/s11423-007-9060-7

Perera-Diltz, D. M., & Moe, J. L. (2014). Formative and summative assessment in online education. Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching, 7(1), 130-142.  Retrieved from http://www.nu.edu/OurPrograms/ResearchCouncil/The-Journal-of-Research-in-Innovative-Teaching.html

Vonderwell, S., & Boboc, M. (2013). Promoting formative assessment in online teaching and learning. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 57(4), 22-27. doi:10.1007/s11528-013-0673-x

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