March 17, 2020

Rethinking Assessment Strategies

by Ben Carroll, PharmD, PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, North Mississippi Medical Center

Since making the transition from a student pharmacist to pharmacy resident, I have contemplated my four years in pharmacy school and whether the assessment strategies the instructors used were ideal. I graduated with almost two-hundred classmates. With such a large class size, my pharmacy school’s ability to provide individually tailored and personalized learning was limited. I feel that not only the school I attended but likely most others across the country, commonly fall short when it comes to using assessment strategies that accurately reflect the extent of a student’s learning.

Recently, I read the book Grading Smarter, Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn by Myron Dueck.1 In the book, Dueck contends that many of the assessment strategies teachers implement are detrimental to student motivation and achievement. He discusses ways educators can tailor assessment practices that really determine what matters most: student understanding and application of content.

The book challenges the traditional use of the grading policies related to late assignments and awarding zeroes for assignments not submitted. Dueck argues that the use of a grading scale from one to one-hundred does not make sense mathematically. Ten points separate an A, B, C, and D. However, if a student fails to turn in an assignment and is given a zero then 60 points separate that student’s grade between a D and an F. This scale can make missing a single assignment the “academic death penalty” and is mathematically inaccurate. It might be a better strategy to grade all assignments on the GPA scale of zero through 4 in which A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, and F=0.

Dueck argues that it is unfair to assign a grade of zero to an assignment that was never submitted because this does not accurately reflect how much the student learned. In the book, he proposes giving uncompleted assignments an incomplete and implementing an intervention rather than handing out zeroes. There is a stepwise approach to this tactic. In the first step, the educator sets a timespan when each assignment should be completed rather than a due date. By communicating to students, that they have a certain window of time to turn in their assignment, they are given more flexibility and choice. The actual due date would be the final day in the timespan, but by setting a window of time for work to be completed, students may be less likely to procrastinate. This technique also helps prevent a flood of assignments from being submitted on a single day – making it more difficult for the teacher to grade them all in a timely manner. In the second step to this approach, Dueck suggests using a late or incomplete assignment form. Using this form, the student has the opportunity to explain why his or her assignment was not turned in. The form could include a section in which the student is asked to select potential interventions that might help him or her to complete the assignment. Dueck described examples of how this approach improved student success in his classrooms. One student in particular completed a form explaining that she failed to complete an assignment because of recent bouts of anxiety and panic attacks. This student was introduced to counseling resources at the school that she was not aware were available. Subsequently, her grades steadily improved.

This strategy of using incompletes and interventions rather than zeroes argues against a one-size-fits-all approach to assessing students. Conversely, when using grading and assessment strategies that are individualized, some students may feel they aren’t being treated fairly and others might take advantage of these lenient grading policies. None-the-less, I believe the benefits outweigh the risks. A fellow classmate of mine in pharmacy school was the mother of a child with a chronic illness that required frequent hospital admissions. I know that our school tried to accommodate her in certain ways, but there were times in which more leniency should have been provided in terms of extending deadlines and excusing absences. I don’t believe anyone in my class would have taken issue with a more flexible approach given her situation.

In the book, Dueck also argues that teachers should be more focused on finding ways to promote learning through creativity. In my opinion, pharmacy schools do not emphasize the importance of creativity enough. We take case-based multiple-choice exams with clear-cut, one correct answers. However, when we practice pharmacy in the real-world, we are frequently called to think creativity to solve complex patient issues. I spent countless hours in pharmacy school using notecards, highlighters, and acronyms attempting to memorize every detail about a medication in order to be prepared for tests. While I believe that a certain amount of this type of learning is necessary, I do think we should spend more time practicing “how to think” rather than memorizing. This can be done by setting up more project-based activities which require students to integrate knowledge across a range of disciplines. Perhaps students should not be assessed on their performance during these activities. Removing assessments for these activities may alleviate some stress and students may feel more freedom to think outside the box. They may also be more inclined to ask questions knowing every word isn’t being critiqued. Creativity promotes curiosity and requires students to think on a deeper level about concepts and ideas.

When thinking back on some of my best teachers, I realize that they all shared one common attribute: the ability to motivate. In the book, Dueck states, the best teachers are “often better coaches than teachers” and highlights the value of applying coaching skills learned on the playing field in the classroom. I believe that, in general, coaches are more likely to develop personal relationships with their players than teachers are with their students. Coaches often share personal stories about how they overcame adversity to improve to motivate their players. I feel many students would benefit from their teacher adopting this approach. Coaches also promote the importance of team unity whereas in the classroom it sometimes feels like every-man-for-himself. Teachers can promote more unity in the classroom by not grading on a curve. Grading on a curve encourages students to constantly think about how their grade compares to their classmates. Studies have shown that students in competitive class environments do not learn or retain information as well as students in more cooperative class environments.2 Also, the use of a curve is based on the idea that the aptitudes of a single class represent a sample of the general population which is rarely the case.

I think we should rethink the assessment strategies commonly used in pharmacy and other health professional schools.  By adopting coaching techniques and giving students more flexible opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned, they will be more motivated to achieve success, and would, in turn, begin their careers as better clinicians.

  1. Dueck M. Grading Smarter, Not Harder. Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn.  ASCD; Alexandria, VA., 2014,
  2. Humphreys B, Johnson RT, Johnson DW. Effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning on students’ achievement in science class. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 1982;19:351–356.

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