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Assessments, But Then Make it Universally Designed

Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau
November 1, 2020

Can you Really Universally Design an Assessment?

I’d like you to think back to your former school years. How many of you remember your teacher announcing that there would be a pop quiz? Maybe some of you felt prepared and actually enjoyed this type of announcement but my guess is, many of you went into full panic mode.

The reasons for those feelings are deeply rooted in our past experiences with assessments.  If you were “good at school” and “good at testing” you probably didn’t panic at all.  However, if you were not “good at school” or not “good at testing” you remember all too well that those words were the start of a bad day for you. Assessments were likely something to be dreaded and feared. And, regardless of success or failure, does anyone ever remember what they learned from those pop quizzes or any of the other quizzes, tests, or exams they took?  That’s right, I did say learned from the assessment.  Is that a concept that is part of your practice?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is all about using firm goals and flexible means to help our students become expert learners.  An expert learner is able to learn from all parts of their educational experience and an expert teacher is all about using every part of the process to help.  That means that we have to use assessments as not only an evaluation tool but as an integrated component in the process of learning.  This might be a new idea for some but it is a practice that has been growing since Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam wrote the article, Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. This researched-based article promoted the idea of using assessments, specifically formative assessments, as a key component of improving student performance and raising standards. 

“Teachers need to know about their pupils’ progress and difficulties with learning so that they can adapt their work to meet their needs—needs which are often unpredictable and which vary from one pupil to another.”

-Black and Wiliam, 2001

Their whole argument fits into UDL and expert learning, and it is something that we really need to consider in our practice.

Their concept was further developed by Lorna Earl in her article, Assessment For Learning; Assessment As Learning: Changing Practices Means Changing Beliefs. Earl states that: 

“The primary aim of assessment for and assessment as learning is not summative, for grading or reporting; it is formative, to contribute to students’ learning.” She goes on to say that, “Incorporating assessment for and assessment as learning into practice requires a fundamental shift in the way teachers think about the nature of learning and the rhythm of interactions in classrooms.” (Earl, 2010).

A fundamental shift may sound radical, but, considering that most teachers are already using some form of formative assessment, I think that this is something that we can all embrace. 

“Assessment as learning, in particular, is founded on a belief that for students to become self-motivating and able to bring their talents and knowledge to bear on the decisions and problems that make up their lives, can’t just wait for the teacher (or politicians, or salespeople, or religious leaders) to tell them whether or not the answer is “right.” (Earl, 2010).

We can embrace this because putting this all together and integrating it into our practice, doesn’t mean that we have to change everything to make this work or start from scratch. Sometimes, the changes we have to make are very simple. UDL is a great help in the process. Maybe, we just have to make the formative assessments (that we already do) more visible and transparent. Maybe we have to spend more time after an assessment to make sure that the students understand why they were right or wrong and how they can change their study habits, or what they study to do better the next time. Maybe, we need to make minor (but significant) tweaks in the way students take an assessment.  Maybe, we need to give them more support in the process and more practice with assessments or exemplars.  Maybe, we just need to allow them to use different ways to show us what they know.  

Where can you begin?

Begin with the creation of your lesson and the use of UDL throughout the entire process.  As reader Amy Leach suggested in a comment to an earlier version of this blog, we have to use precisely defined constructs, make sure that everything is accessible, and use non-biased items.  We have to make sure that we are amenable to accommodations when appropriate.  We have to use simple, clear, and intuitive instructions and procedures; maximum readability and comprehensibility; and, maximum legibility.

Before you design your next assessment, you may want to review the following resource which helps you to create an assessment that is goal-directed, accessible, and universally designed. This tool, created by Katie Novak, gives you a five-step process to rethink and rebuild your assessment. 



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