Video discussion

How to Involve Students in Assessment: Interview with Natasha Jankowski

James M. Lang

James M. Lang

Natasha Jankowski

Natasha Jankowski

In this video, James M Lang talks to Natasha Jankowski, assessment expert and the former Executive Director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), about involving students in the assessment process.

– All right. Welcome, Natasha. I’m looking forward to our conversation today, and I’d like to start by just sort of inviting you to tell us a little bit about your background, how you got into the work of assessment and some of the ideas that you’ll talk about in our time together.

– Thank you so much and delighted to be in conversation with you on these topics. So my background actually came in philosophy, which is an interesting entry point into assessment. And for me, I found assessment to really be applied philosophy ’cause it’s dealing with questions of who is a learner, who gets to learn, what is knowledge, how do you know if you know? And so huge, wonderful epistemological, ontological questions that we need to engage with and deal with as professionals in higher education and with our students. And so I became really involved in assessment during my time working with the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, or NILOA, where I served as their Executive Director for a number of years, and looking nationally across the United States at how were institutions going about assessing student learning, in what ways and what worked for whom, not to put out how-to materials, but instead to say here are some questions to really think about to guide your practice. Here are resources to consider as you’re looking to support the various students that you have in mission-aligned ways and really get a picture of it. So, I get very excited about assessment and absolutely adore it and think it’s a very worthwhile conversation to have.

– That’s an unusual statement to make: I get excited about assessment. Yeah. So we’ll have a have to have a separate conversation later about like a fellow philosophy major here, but we can discuss that later.

– Okay.

– So we hear a lot about assessments and that we need to sort of think about our assessments now in different ways and try to expand our understanding of that process. And one of the pieces I think is sometimes left out is something you’ve talked about, which is the involvement of students in how we should think about our assessments. So tell me a little bit about that piece.

– Great, thank you. So oftentimes in our sort of history of our assessment practices and processes, we were doing it to inform ourselves as institutions, as faculty members, as programs. And students didn’t know, oftentimes, this is happening unless they’re sitting for some large-scale exam or sitting for a standardised test. And then, what happened to that information or what changes were made didn’t really make its way back in any meaningful mechanism to students. And so it was really done to students, not with or on behalf of. Even our learning outcome statements were really written for us and not in student-friendly or a student-facing language. One of the things that we run into with that, though, is our students leave going, “I don’t know what I got from this education,” or, “I took this class, and I’m not sure what I learned.” And they focus on the content that they remember, not the knowledge and the concepts or the learning outcomes that were really our intentional design behind it. And so, all of our sort of efforts as faculty members in crafting meaningful tasks that are well-aligned to learning outcomes or thinking about scaffolding, students learning over time becomes invisible to our students. And that hinders their sort of transference of learning of, oh, I was practicing this skill here, and I can practice that over here, as well. Instead of, I need to take this course and check off these assignments and tasks and move forward. And so, when we really think about how to get the most ourselves out of our learning information from students and how students can get the most out of it, rethinking their role in this process is key. And if it’s not a measurement-only conversation, that’s where it becomes, well, we can’t have students involved ’cause it’ll mess up our data, but a teaching and a pedagogical conversation, then student involvement is paramount to our practice.

– And so we’re all also very concerned now about equity, and so how does this tie into equity? ‘Cause like there has to be some connection here between student involvement and equity, so tell me about about that.

– Yeah, well one of the best ways that we can sort of check ourselves on biases or systemic inequities that have been built into our processes and practices, is involve our students. We really want to be sure that, when we are assessing, we’re assessing learning, and we are not assessing privilege. And, depending on how we’ve designed tasks and effort is oftentimes invisible for what students need to go through to complete something, that oftentimes, well, there are instances in which we’re not really getting at the learning. We’re getting at access to resources and materials and time.

So ensuring that we have students give us feedback on an assignment. What do you think I’m asking you to do in here when I’m giving you this task? When you look at this, what knowledge and skills do you think you’re practicing and learning? What from your life or other courses might you be able to draw from to complete this task? And we engage them in more of a reflective conversation process around our assignments and share out “here’s what I was thinking and why I’m asking you to engage in this” and “why this is a good use of your time and energy to complete this task” we make it much more reciprocal in that space and also an opportunity for students to go, “Oh, well this task isn’t really going to work for me, “but I could do this, and I can show you my learning “in this way,” and really create a more, sort of even playing field in some of the regards for that space. So equity and student involvement, in my mind, go hand in hand.

– It seems like, actually, if I’m asking students to tell me about the ways they’re reading my assignments, I might get information from them that would help me be a more equitable teacher, as well. So again, I see things kind of going both ways here, right? I mean, however I collect that information, it should inform my teaching going forward, yeah.

– Yes, yes. Definitely agree. Getting into conversation with students, even. Do my instructions make sense? You know, we write up an assignment task or a prompt, or we’re like, this will get at the learning in this way. And we’re very familiar with it and we sort of forget expert knowledge versus novice knowledge in looking at something. And you could go, “I have no idea what this language is,” or why it’s worded like that, or more context might be needed. And we don’t know unless we engage in that conversation with students, and they’re like, “This paragraph here makes no sense, and I have no idea “what you want me to do, and I’m going to guess.” And that makes our grading easier. So if we’re getting something that’s actually more aligned with what we were asking for, yeah, that helps me, that helps students, and it’s not too heavy of a lift to engage in that kind of educational dialogue.

– Okay, so I’m going to put these ideas here into sort of practice and give you sort of a test question here, coming from my experiences of being a frustrated parent of a college student right now. And my daughter is in a course in which the faculty member has sort of given her assignment which just says pick one of the themes that we’ve talked about and write an essay about it. And you know, my daughter’s coming from, she’s a pandemic student and coming in with some of that learning loss, and she’s really struggling with these kinds of assessments. And you know, I kind of want to understand maybe what could that teacher do differently to help or support her, or, I don’t know, bring her into the conversation. Give me a little bit more like help. As a working teacher, what do you would recommend that person do?

– Yeah, so this is where those three, the transparency, student involvement, and equity, are really important. So if I’m a professor, and I go to a professional development event, I may have heard, like, student choice or freedom and choice is really helpful and something that you should consider. And so I go, okay, I’m going to build it in. But that’s only one part of the other two pieces. So one needs to say, if I am putting an assignment out there where I expect you to struggle, it’s going to be hard, and I’m not going to give you direction, I need to be transparent about that and explain why. So, if I’m going, okay, I’m going to give you these options to choose from because I want, why am I giving you choice in the first place? What is the purpose of that, and why does that happen? Likely you will struggle in the following ways, and that’s okay. So either normalise it and tell me what to expect or give me… In the past, students have done these things to address it and prepare for it.

So, we need to think about how are we scaffolding them for success on the task and being clear about why we’re engaging in that. And then, what am I supposed to take away from that as a student? And so engaging in this exercise, in doing this, will help me. “Students, do you agree, or do you see some other way, “or are you feeling supported, and what else do you need?” And so, adding that transparency and that check-in with the students moves that assignment from, oh, it’s equitable to give students choice and freedom in how they want to do an assignment, where then students are going, “I don’t know what to do “with this task,” or, “What you want, “and I’m not sure what you’re looking for,” or, “This feels really overwhelming to me.” Those other two pieces brought to it really set a student up for success or provide a quality check to say, okay, they’re not ready at this level, but I can can save this for another class, or I need to put these things in place leading up to this task so that students are able to complete it and not be stressed about it. The hardest part should be the learning, not understanding what your task is.

– Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. I’m going to have you call that teacher and explain to her what she should be… No, but actually, I mean you raise an interesting point, again from like a philosophical background. There’s competing goods here, right?

– Yeah.

– The competing good on the teacher’s perspective is I’m giving students a choice, right? On the other hand, though, the competing good for my daughter is she should learn from this process and has to learn new skills and everything, but she’s not really getting that. So like these things are kind of… But I think you’re giving a good path forward to say there’s a way to bridge those goods. You get some choice, but you also get some scaffolding and some help to get to that sort of, that other competing good, right? So yeah. All right, thank you. This is a great conversation, and I’ll have to think about all these things in relationship to my own assessments, and I’m looking forward to learning more about your work.

– Great. Thanks so much for taking the time.

In this video, James M Lang (Author and Higher Education consultant) talks to Natasha Jankowski, (New England College, USA) about ways educators can involve students in the assessment process. Natasha is a higher education and assessment expert and the former Executive Director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), USA. In the video, Natasha shares some useful questions to inform our assessment practices and talks about the three key factors to successful assessments: transparency, student involvement, and equity.  

Consider these questions for sparking reflection and discussion with college students about their assignments:

  • What do you think I’m asking you to do with this assignment? 
  • What skills and knowledge do you expect to practice and develop with this task? 
  • What experiences from your life or other courses do you think you might draw on to complete this task? 
  • Can you identify any real-world applications or scenarios where the skills gained from this assignment might be valuable? 

Useful recourse:  

Jankowski, N. A., Baker, G. R., Brown-Tess, K., and Montenegro, E. (Eds.). (2020). Student-Focused Learning and Assessment: Involving Students in the Learning Process in Higher Education. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.


Do you currently evolve your students in the assessment process? If yes, in what ways? If not, where do you think you could start?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.