Assessment: Outcome-Based Competencies

How do we know a student has grasped the material of any given course? We can test them…my least favourite form of assessment, and one I prefer to avoid. We can have a written or orally-presented project. We can use multiple methods of assessment all geared toward ensuring students meet the course learning outcomes…that set of standardized outcomes that guide the curriculum and which, when achieved, demonstrate mastery.

The way a course is set up most of the time, students have very clear parameters. This quiz 5%; this paper 15%; that test 10%; that project 20%. But what if in week 6, a student’s assignments do not show mastery of a key learning outcome, but in week 14, they incorporate mastery of that outcome into a final assessment? How is that reflected in their grade?

More and more, I find myself teaching recursively, building on concepts and ideas and revisiting them throughout a course. As a result, a student who cannot grasp APA citation (for example) in their first assignment gets many opportunities (some graded, some not) to practice over the semester, and possibly ends up demonstrating mastery of it…or at least competency…in a later paper.

And yet…and YET…the student’s previous grades will bring down his or her overall final mark, even if by week 15 the student is able to show that they can meet or exceed all the course learning outcomes.

There is also an alternate perspective. A student taking a required course completes an assignment and demonstrates mastery right away of all the learning objectives. Unlikely yes, but I can think of a few possible scenarios where it could happen. Surely, if a student does this, their taking the entire course is unnecessary? But they should still be able to get full marks despite not completing certain later assignments.

Having outcome-based assessments is just an idea I am grappling with. I like the concept, but struggle with how to put it in place in a way that is equitable and realistic, and without sacrificing the quality or in any way diminishing or undervaluing critical course material.