How New Assessment Practices Encourage Student Intellectual Engagement Online and Beyond

Anya Goodman, California Polytechnical State University (IUSE Awards #1710538 and #1915544)

Intellectual engagement of students in STEM courses has been especially challenging in the virtual environment. Dr. Anya Goodman saw this problem and made changes to her course design to create a lasting impact beyond the pandemic.

Engaging Students in Undergraduate STEM Courses

Goals, Assessments, and Activities chart listing the components of Dr. Goodman's biochemistry course.To address the issue of intellectual engagement in online teaching and learning, Dr. Goodman used a flipped classroom approach with recorded lectures and synchronous class meetings that relied primarily on teamwork. She also changed assessment and grading in the course (from a point-based system to specifications-based grading).

For many of my students, fear seems to be the primary driving force for learning (fear of failure, of losing points, of making a mistake). I wanted them to experience a joy of success and of synergy that comes from constructing understanding together. Specification-based grading removes the need to “fight” for every point, and teamwork creates community and belonging. -Dr. Goodman

Activities and assessments that encouraged intellectual engagement include:

  • Creating learning activities that rely on teamwork such as:
  • Delivering group oral exams in addition to more traditional computer-based exams to motivate learning and engagement with the material. The group oral exams allowed Dr. Goodman to test 50 students in groups of 4-6 twice throughout the 10-week quarter during the scheduled lab meeting times.

Our team members unanimously agreed that meeting and working together regularly helped prepare us for the [group oral exam]. We all felt that the [group oral exam] was a positive experience and that we were being supported to do our best and succeed. -Undergraduate Student

Implications Beyond the Pandemic

Female undergraduate student working on an at-home lab for Dr. Goodman's courseThe challenge of intellectual engagement goes beyond the change in format to a virtual environment but may be related to what is rewarded in our educational system. While the goals of the education system are related to students’ development of knowledge and skills, the rewards are often tied directly to grades, which are typically based on accumulation of points or high scores, rather than developing deeper understanding of a subject. Dr. Goodman hopes to re-imagine the education system to one that is driven by the joy of learning and a sense of community. Here are some tips she recommends for creating a more intellectually engaging course:

  1. Using scheduled class time for team activities allows students to connect and provide support to one another. Cognitive engagement comes from the expectations that every class meeting every student will speak up, share an idea, or ask a question. In a class of 50 students, that is only possible in breakout rooms with smaller groups.
  2. Providing group oral exams gives educators a chance to engage with students to question their understanding and guide learning. Group settings (described in this article) allow for instructors to scale the assessment and encourage students to give each other feedback during the practice team activities.
  3. Switching from points-based grading to specifications-based grading ensures that everyone learns fundamentals and takes pressure off students to be perfect. For example, giving weekly graded quizzes that students can take up to five times, requiring a score of 75% or higher to pass, ensures that everyone learns fundamentals and takes pressure off students to be perfect.
  4. Providing students with multiple ways to succeed by outlining what is required for earning each grade at the beginning of the semester. This gives students more agency in their learning, a sense of control and power.

We were able to ask questions openly and expand upon concepts covered in the learning objectives. This allowed us to work on our weaker points and get over the initial camera shyness that we would have during our [group oral exam] with professor Goodman. -Undergraduate Student

Additional Links

More information on un-grading/specifications grading:

Example Case Studies:

National Center for Case Studies Teaching in Science

Molecular CaseNet:

Course Component Explanations

Practice Quizzes: Students took a quiz individually then as a team in a breakout room, and their individual and team scores are combined. If the student did not get a passing score from the in-class quiz, they had several additional attempts to successfully pass the quiz by the end of the week.

Case Studies: Two repositories, Molecular CaseNet and NCCSTS, provided engaging activities and opportunities for focused group discussion. Pre-case activities were completed individually, so students came to class prepared. The class time was used to discuss answers in small groups. After the group discussion, the class went over the answers together with groups explaining their answers and adding alternative points of view.

Virtual Group Lab Assignments: Most lab assignments were completed as a team except on oral exam days, when students worked asynchronously on individual lab assignments, while lab time was used for examination. Individual accountability was ensured by creating parallel tasks on lab report with individual attribution and by including lab-related questions on exams and projects. For example, students learned how to use simulation programs for protein purification and for enzyme kinetics as a team during lab sessions, then two of the projects relied on individual work using the same programs but in a different way.

Group Oral Exams: The group oral exams created a compelling need for individuals to discuss course concepts during team activities. Students who struggled with material had a peer group to ask questions or move the unresolved question to the whole-class discussion on behalf of the group.  Students who understood a difficult concept would take time to explain it to peers because this explanation provided good practice for the oral exam. If a student gave a partially correct or ambiguous answer during discussion, the teammates would try to clarify misunderstanding because this discussion gives everyone practice for oral exam.

Summative Assessments: The summative assessments were were based on activities developed to support course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) by two nation-wide groups: GEP and BASIL. For a 10-week quarter course, Dr. Goodman offered students six projects to choose from. The passing of one was required for grade C, two – for grade B, and four were required for grade A.