Are your assessments SMART?

I’m helping with a colleague’s class today and providing some technical advice to her students as they complete a digital storytelling project.  She sent me a copy of the assignment and I was really impressed by the project.  The directions were clear.  The grading guidelines were coherent and well developed.  My colleague is a great teacher, so I’m not really that surprised that the assignment was so strong.  Beyond being clear and understandable, however, the assignment lived up to one of the gold standards of assessments.  It was SMART.

Before readers start thinking that I’m evaluating the intelligence of my colleague or her assignment, SMART is an acronym that’s used to describe pedagogical processes like assessments and objectives.  SMART is a useful target for instructors as they start thinking about what they want their students to do and learn in their classes.

Specific:  I think some people worry about specific assessments because they want to be a little open-ended or have students use their creativity.  Being specific doesn’t mean corralling students’ creative spirit.  It also doesn’t mean giving specific page numbers or word counts.  Specific assessments are ones that provide enough information so students know exactly what’s expected of them.  It gives them a specific target to hit and a detailed goal to obtain.

Measurable:  I had a class in college where I submitted a paper and received a B.  When I met with the instructor and asked for ways to improve it, he simply said:  “Write differently.”  To this day, I don’t know exactly what he was examining when he assessed my paper.  For an assessment to be SMART, it must include measurable entities that are clearly outlined for students.  This doesn’t necessarily mean using rubrics but it does mean outlining grading criteria with enough depth so students understand how they’ll be evaluated.

Achievable:  I once had a colleague who would include an impossible problem on every exam she gave.  She explained that it was important that the students “knew I was smarter than them.”  An assessment isn’t our time to flex our intellectual muscle or to feed our own egos.  Assessments should be designed so students with mastery of the content can achieve the goal.

Relevant and Rigorous:  I’ve seen both of these included in different manifestations of the SMART acronym and they’re both important.  Assessment should connect to students’ lives and should help them stretch themselves intellectually.  When I design assessments, it is my hope that the students see the assignment’s applicability to their lives and their future careers and that they grow from the experience.

Time-Oriented:  I’ve seen this element described as both “timely” and “time-oriented.”  While the words have different connotations, I think the spirit is the same.  Assessments occur in time and we as instructors need to be conscious of that.  Our assessments need to evolve and be responsive to time.  What may work in a few years ago may not work today.  What is a great assignment for the spring semester may not resonate well in the winter.  More than these aspects, however, we also need to consider students’ time as we design assessments and make sure that the assignments we give students have clearly outlined due dates that are achievable based on their ability and their development.

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