Setting up effective feedback loops: The role of assessment in course transformation

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

McCarty and DeslauriersLogan McCarty, Director of Physical Sciences Education, and Louis Deslauriers, Director of Science Teaching and Learning, adopted an active pedagogy for a large introductory physics course and saw significant gains in student learning and attitudes. Assessment played a role every step of the way

The benefits: By explicitly stating the course learning objectives and designing complementary in-class activities, they created effective feedback loops – the activities helped students assess their own understanding, and according to McCarty, “more importantly, the instructors got feedback on how students are learning.”

The challenges: Defining course learning objectives can “feel awkward. It feels artificial. And the value is not immediately apparent,” McCarty admitted. “But it is essential for creating effective assessments.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Revisiting learning objectives may expose invalid assumptions. When the instructors tested an elementary concept from the course prerequisites, they found that many students did not in fact understand it – crucial feedback that, McCarty said, “in six years of teaching this subject, I had never seen before.”
  • An exam can be a powerful learning opportunity. Immediately after each midterm exam, students completed the same exam in groups of three, accounting for 20% of their score (though not penalizing those who scored higher individually). “The level of engagement is like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” Deslauriers observed. “It’s very intense.”
  • Combining active learning and feedback eliminated final exam failures, a phenomenon Deslauriers has witnessed in five similar course transformation efforts. The shift also benefited top performers (the percentage of students finishing above 90% on the final exam jumped from 5% to 12%).

Bottom line: The active pedagogical approach during lectures was the only transformation variable – homework, sections, and labs remained unchanged. To measure the impact, McCarty and Deslauriers gave the same final exam from a previous year. Students’ scores improved significantly. “Not only was our teaching transformed,” McCarty said, “but I was transformed in my own perception of what assessment means and how it can play a role.”