Putting Evidence at the Center

As we discussed in our page on learner-centered design, at the core of this approach is the notion that the only way to measure (and therefore adjust) what students are learning is by creating frequent opportunities for you and your students to generate evidence of their mastery. The evidence produced in this way, through in-class assessment techniques as well as low- and high-stakes assignments, provides multiple opportunities for feedback. Student work is simultaneously a means for you to receive feedback from your students, insofar as it allows you to gauge the efficacy of your teaching, and an opportunity for your students to receive feedback from you, insofar as you make graded work an occasion to update them on their progress.

As an instructor, you can elicit essentially three kinds of evidence for you and your students, each of which might be useful at a different juncture in the semester. Depending on where you are in the semester, you might want to surface:

  1. What your students already think/know/know how to do. All students enter the classroom with prior knowledge, and both you and your students need to know what kinds of prior conceptions (and perhaps misconceptions) they have at the outset of the course (or of a particular unit within it). This is called diagnostic evidence.
  2. How your students' mastery is developing; and how they can continue to develop, course-correct, and improve "in-flight." Students need opportunities to practice; these should be frequent and low-stakes—perhaps even ungraded.1 This is called formative evidence.
  3. How close your students have come to achieving mastery of one or more of the skills and concepts active in your course. Assignments testing mastery should come at key inflection points and/or endpoints within the overall scheme of the course, whether that be the end of a unit, at the midterm, or at the conclusion of the semester. This is called summative evidence.

So if you’re sold on this idea about putting evidence before “content,” there’s one more thing you have to do. You can’t generate evidence about students’ learning unless you know pretty clearly what you want them to learn. That would be like trying count something without knowing what to count. That means you need some goals.

1 Mayer, Norma, Lovette, DiPietro, Bridge, and Ambrose, How Learning Works; Healy, Clawson, and McNamara, 1993;  Martin, Klein, & Sullivan, 2007