Assessment up for discussion across the University, Dec. 10

image shows a class in the Curtis Lecture hall
Hundreds of students sit in a lecture hall and listen to an instructor at the podium

The pandemic is prompting York University to reconsider how student learning is assessed. This pan-University effort is being led by William Gage, associate vice-president, teaching & learning, with support from the Teaching Commons and its new speaker series, the Assessment Strategy Exchange, launching Dec. 10.

“Although exams have long been the dominant mode of assessment worldwide, with the pandemic, we’re in a position where we simply can’t write exams in a way that works for everyone,” said Gage.

Will Gage
Will Gage

Writing exams online can pose challenges in terms of accessibility, invigilation, privacy and time zone, Gage noted, as well concerns that are related to systemic biases in the online platforms.

“What if we could create a world without exams, but enhance our ability to evaluate learning?” Gage asked. “There have always been questions about whether exams really do evaluate learning, and there are approaches to evaluation that don’t involve exams, and many faculty members are now becoming aware of them and we’re trying to help with that.”

Although reconsidering assessment is a long-term initiative and acknowledging that some fields require more traditional exams because of accreditation requirements, Gage noted that the pandemic offers an ideal opportunity to consider some changes quickly, given the challenges of remote assessment. Until now, there hasn’t necessarily been a strong imperative to attend to it.

Gage says he is finding enthusiasm in all corners of the University for these discussions, and there is an appetite for including students in the conversation. Gage is putting together a pan-University working group to explore the issue and he has had more interest than he can accommodate.

“We’re bringing brilliant people to the table so we can tackle the problem, but we’re so early in the process that I’m not sure what the products will be yet,” he said. “The outcome could be a report with recommendations to the University, but that’s not definite.”

Meanwhile, Teaching Commons is giving the entire community an opportunity to learn more about the issues surrounding assessment through its new speaker series, the Assessment Strategy Exchange.

Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier
Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier

“Since we launched our Going Remote earlier this year, the assessment pages are among the top five most visited,” said Geneviève Maheux-Pelletier, director of the Teaching Commons. “You can adapt the classroom experience reasonably well on Zoom and eClass, but assessment is part of the teaching practice that is most challenging online and people are looking for support.”

It has been a long time coming, Maheux-Pelletier says.

“From the perspective of teaching and learning in higher education, we’ve tried to push the practice toward other forms of assessment that connect content with real-life problems, application and synthesis of information. Now, the limitations of online assessment and a long overdue pivot towards authentic forms of assessment are dovetailing.”

The Teaching Commons series is offering support to Gage’s process and inviting a broader conversation about assessment. It will be supplemented by enhancements to the Commons’ Going Remote website that include information about more than 30 alternative strategies for assessing students and by a new TC course, Rebooting Your Final Exam.

The Dec. 10 event features Professor Laura Winer from McGill University, the director of teaching and learning services at McGill, discussing Pivoting Assessment Strategies in Response to COVID-19 and Beyond, and a student panel discussing What Learning Remotely Has Meant for Me this Fall, moderated by Maureen Barnes, York’s director of student accessibility services in the morning. There will be a Lunch & Learn session at noon where faculty will offer pre-recorded short presentations about assessment tasks and strategies, followed by a live Q-and-A session with the presenters and break-out room discussions. Teaching Commons will continue this series in the winter semester with more events featuring faculty and students.

“Professor Gage’s initiative and this series will feed off each other,” Maheux-Pelletier said. “As difficult as this year has been, it’s a time when people are coming together and wanting to share.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer