CSTA Classroom Science

Learner-centered Classrooms: Getting Students Involved in Assessment

By Lysa Munson

 Do you remember cramming for exams as a student? I rarely took part in cramming sessions but I remember these were the norm amongst my fellow high school and college students. I couldn’t understand why people would do that; it seemed so much easier and less stressful to do the reading and work throughout the semester. I was a highly motivated learner, and found my field of study fascinating, so it was easy for me to focus. I sometimes had difficult situations in my life, but for me school was a blessed escape from the daily grind, not the daily grind itself! Thinking back on the midterms and final exams from college, I can only remember a few-- one I did poorly on only to find my 27% was ten points higher than the mean, and another I did brilliantly on and was proud of my accomplishment. The final exam I remember the best was a take-home exam, which  was tough! How much detail, citation and rigor was enough when I had all the materials at hand? It took me hours, and I will never forget the principles of ecology I wrote about that week. I spent hours on it, which I could ill afford at the time since I had a toddler at home and was working part time.

As a student, I was far more engaged in the take-home final I worked on than any of the multiple choice and essay exams I took over the years. Cram sessions or not, those exams haven’t stuck with me, neither the experience nor the material. The reality is that memorizing information isn’t very memorable! As a teacher, I now understand why a lot of the information from my classes isn’t easy to access in my memory. I was not asked to engage with it at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Remembering was the norm, some applying was asked for, even analyzing was rare. The professors told me things and I remembered them. The tough subjects that required problem solving have stuck with me more. Why? Because I was fully engaged as I worked to solve chemistry or physics problems. 

When my ecology professor gave us a take-home exam my classmates were relieved. They felt as if they were being left off the hook. We were being asked to engage with the assessment on a higher level: a level which took more mental effort. Learner-centered assessment requires students to engage with the material at the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy, and engages the student and reveals their level of understanding more clearly.

Change isn’t easy!
Schools and school systems are difficult to change. Some protest changing what they feel has been working for a long time. As a teacher attempting to implement evidence-based strategies in the classroom, I often have a hard time convincing coworkers or administrators that change can be good. As I try to make my classroom more and more student-centered, I have seen how powerful student-centered approaches can be. They can be difficult to implement and require consistent effort and intentionality.

This year I have been dedicated to making my assessments more student-centered or learner centered. I replaced selected response items with constructed response items on summative assessments and tried to create performance tasks that had students engage at the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Recently, I created a checklist to help ensure my assessments were learner centered. The checklist was very helpful to me in planning some end of the year assessments and I am sure I will use it in the future. The criteria I used in the checklist were gleaned from experts and their evidence-based statements in peer-reviewed articles. If you are wondering how to get students involved in their own assessment, here are some ideas to get you on your way to learner-centered assessments in your class.

Learner-centered assessments
First, criteria for learner-centered assessment include that learners are active participants in their learning instead of passive consumers (Bayat 2012). Secondly, students collaborate with each other and the teacher in the creation and use of assessments. Third, learner-centered assessments must contain clear success criteria and learning targets, including examples and non-examples. Through these targets and success criteria, these assessments help students see what they have successfully achieved, where they have gaps, and how they can fill those gaps, thus giving a sense of optimism as they can see a way forward (Stiggins, 2005). 

Learner Centered Classrooms.jpg

Learner-centered assessments must be reflective and allow students to work with peers to evaluate and revise their own work. Additionally, teacher feedback is descriptive, not evaluative. For example a teacher may comment, “Your article about threats to ferrets in the wild was interesting and well-written but you only mentioned one type of threat. Are there others you need to include?” but not comment, “Good job, that is B-level work.”  Descriptive feedback is more useful to the student and will help them progress to a higher level of skill and performance. The hope is that students will learn to internalize descriptive feedback and be able to assess and improve their own work more effectively in the future. Finally, learner-centered assessment must be engaging and interactive (Pitas, 2000). From these criteria, a checklist was created to use in order to to help evaluate assessments and assessment activities. See Table 1 below. For each criterion, the assessment designer rates the assessment on a scale of 1-5, with 1 signifying the criterion is not met and 5 signifying the criterion is fully met.

Learner-centered Assessment Criteria Checklist

Table 1
Criterion Rating 1-5 Description of how the assessment fits the criterion
Students active, not passive consumers.    
Students collaborate with others and teacher to create and use assessment.    
Clear, comprehensible learning target.    
Clear, comprehensible success criteria.    
Opportunity to receive descriptive teacher feedback.    
Reflective, opportunity for peer and self-assessment and revision.    
Engaging and interactive.    

Share the success
Once you have had a successful experience with learner-centered assessments, it is important to share your success with your colleagues. I was so astounded at the results of my students’ final project this year in both my physiology and biology classes, that I couldn’t help but share them. The response from colleagues was positive and some will adopt the same assessments for their classes now that they’ve seen the results. Surprise! Evidence-based practices really work!

Bayat, A., & Naicker, V. (2012). Towards a learner-centred approach: Interactive online peer assessment. South African Journal of Higher Education, 26(5), 891.

Buskirk-Cohen A. & Duncan, T. (2011). Exploring Learner-Centered Assessment: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Vol. 23 n.2 (p. 246-259)

McMillan, J. H., & Turner, A. B. (2014). Understanding student voices about assessment: Links to learning and motivation. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (pp.1-48)

Paris, S. G. (1998). Why learner-centered assessment is better than high-stakes testing. In N. M.  Lambert & B. L. McCombs (Eds.), How students learn: Reforming schools through learner-centered education (p. 189–209). American Psychological Association.

Pitas, P. A. (2000, Winter). A model program from the perspective of faculty development. Innovative Higher Education, 25, 97-110.

Rick Stiggins. (2005). From Formative Assessment to Assessment for Learning: A Path to Success in Standards-Based Schools. The Phi Delta Kappan, 87(4), 324.

Lysistra “Lysa” Munson teaches biology and physiology at Cosumnes Oaks High School in Elk Grove Unified School District and serves on the Student Equity Council



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