How to increase learning outcomes?

October 07, 2020 •

7 min reading

How to increase learning outcomes? Micro-assessments Vs final exams

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This article sees micro-assessments and final exams go head to head. Among new trends in education, such as active learning and personalization, micro-assessments have made themselves very at home. Yet at the same time, the old school final exam - despite its occasional bad press - still has a role to play in today's teaching and evaluation methods. 

Why micro-assessments?

Micro-assessments gauge students’ status quo at regular intervals and are often specific to a certain learning goal. They may take the form of end-of-class miniature essays (see one-minute papers), reporting on lessons learnt and areas to be clarified. Or questionnaires (see critical incident questionnaires), asking students how they are finding a course, using open questions to canvas issues relevant to learning to gather data for later interpretation and action. Micro-assessments might just as easily be interactive in-class activities (group activities, presentations, etc.) to be monitored by teachers, informing on student learning progress. Interim insights can also be gained by having students hand in draft submissions or progress reports, for instance.

While there are many different ways of putting micro-assessments into practice, the underlying emphasis is on tuning into students’ wavelengths, seeking to understand whether course content is sinking in and listening intently to feedback. In brief, going the extra mile to get to the root cause of any lack of understanding and being prepared to react accordingly.

Sounds commendable, does it not? It also sounds like a lot of work, and it is. So how do traditional final exams measure up? Established over eons, end-of-term exams loom like tombstones on the academic calendar. Surely there must be good reason for their longevity? 

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Impact on learning outcomes

One of the key advantages of micro-assessments is that they allow teachers to better understand the individual learning requirements for each student and accommodate them more quickly. By tweaking their instruction strategy and molding input to students’ learning styles, teachers are able to optimize learning experience and outcomes.

Not only, teachers can further instrumentalize micro-assessments to identify and remedy weaknesses; students’ attention, too, is drawn to any areas that require more work while the topics are still fresh in their minds. Students also have the opportunity to contribute to course design by voicing their opinions at a stage early enough to benefit themselves from any course correction.

By their very nature, final exams take place as if to round off the learning process, drawing a closing line under course content. It is not always the case that students are given the chance to take a look at their errors to learn from them, effectively capping learning the moment the exam is handed in. Even if they are, motivation to do so may be limited, as there is no further potential to improve their grades.

Some opponents argue that final exams trigger superficial learning, with students studying just enough to pass. While learning-to-the-test is undoubtedly a wide-spread phenomenon, the extent to which superficial learning will suffice depends greatly on the exam format. Exams that require students to apply their knowledge to a certain scenario, for instance, require content to have been digested. Indeed, different types of questions can be implemented to assess different skills or knowledge.

The usual cramming sessions before final exams may see students rely overly heavily on their short-term memory. Naturally, teachers would prefer content to be absorbed into long-term memory. However, memory training of this kind is not to be underestimated in that quickfire recall can be a useful skill and knowledge memorized once may be easier to reactivate in later professional life.


Success dependent on attitudes and aptitudes

Following directly on from the perks of memory training, it is worthwhile to note that the beneficial effect of studying varies greatly from one student to another depending on their disposition. Methodical students who like to plan for repeat revising or write their own summaries may be at an advantage when taking final exams, for example. Meanwhile, social learners who form study groups and ask each other questions may be more likely to draw parallels within study materials, engaging with the topic on a deeper level. You could argue prepping for a final exam forces students to consider course content as a whole, gaining an overview and exercising prioritization skills.

While micro-assessments can be student self-assessments and some students may be more diligent than others about taking appropriate action in response to these, the beneficial effect of micro-assessments is arguably more dependent on teachers’ attitudes and aptitudes.

Micro-assessments are an excellent opportunity for teachers to practice meta-reflection, but this can only bear fruit if teachers are willing to question and alter their approach. Those who document their insights, course design adjustments, implementation strategies and review outcomes may achieve greater results in the long term, as this facilitates a consolidation of invested effort. Those willing to be open and overcome some vulnerability by drawing on the opinions and advice of peers may find their teaching the most enriched.

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Standardization in grading criteria

If we take the subjective dependency on attitudes to the other extreme, we arrive at standardization. The fact remains that a certain syllabus has to be covered over the course of a term or semester and students’ ability to recall the respective information has to be verified. With this in mind, the efficiency of final exams in testing entire classes against the same bar in one go has value. As does the resulting recognizability and comparability for external parties, such as post-graduate admissions officers or recruiters.

An additional argument in favor of final exams may be that they are harder to cheat in compared to other forms of assessment – e.g. essays that risk plagiarism or ghost-writing. The downside of standardization is, of course, that routine final exams can feel like a formality, which is, in turn, unlikely to spark enthusiasm for learning.

Contrary to this, micro-assessments tend to encourage deep, rich learning. They may evaluate one student at a time or be selectively consulted. Closely related active-learning activities, such as project-based work, cultivate higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and decision-making. Achieving standardization in this framework may prove more complex, requiring grading rosters with criteria marked on clearly defined scales, for example.

Stress management

No discussion of evaluation formats would be complete without consideration of student exposure to stress. Final exams are a notorious source of pressure, with some students experiencing a significant impact on their mental health or exhibiting physical symptoms. Exam stress can cause students to lose confidence in themselves or interest in their studies. Struggling students may find their negative experience exacerbated by the exam process, as a 180-degree turnaround in performance is unlikely. Stereotypically “good” students, who may be both intelligent and hard-working, may not respond well to the exam setting either, leading to a disconnect between student performance in general and exam results in particular.

Allowing students sufficient time to study and providing them with appropriate guidance may help alleviate some of this pressure. Conversely, living through and overcoming stress of this kind may help build resilience. Some students may thrive on the spirit of competition inherent in tests, successfully pushing their limits.

Micro-assessments can prove stressful in other ways. Students may have to overcome their inhibitions to participate in the respective in-class activities or when submitting feedback. Successful micro-assessments must therefore be approached with care to avoid any ethical and/or confidentiality pitfalls. They are reliant upon a positive learning environment, characterized by openness and honesty, mutual respect, fairness and acceptance of varying student opinions and experiences.

The best of both worlds

In sum, micro-assessments and final exams have largely opposing pros and cons. Ideally, both evaluation formats would be implemented in harmony. This could mean conducting micro-assessments and a final exam within one and the same course, or designing a course to be constituted of a passive-learning lecture with final exam and active-learning seminar or lab with micro-assessments – potentially with different teachers, each playing to their strengths.

Either way, teachers should not feel compelled to incorporate micro-assessments simply because they are a trend in education. Instead, they should be motivated by the didactic advantages of a cohesive, symbiotic approach which sees course materials, activities and exams all aligned with the intended learning goals and conducive to real-life application. Because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing: for our students to reach their academic goals and realize their potential in the big wide world beyond.



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