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Experiential learning assessment: Proven methods to evaluate student outcomes

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December 14, 2023
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Assessment in education is pivotal, yet educators often need help with non-traditional learning areas like experiential learning. 

While standard assessments adeptly measure a student's understanding of theoretical knowledge, they often need to catch up on capturing the nuances of practical skills and the depth of real-world experiences.

This gap in the assessment landscape raises a critical question: how do we effectively assess these vital skills? 

This article will explore proven methods and innovative strategies designed to evaluate and amplify experiential learning. From direct observation to reflective journals, we explore a range of dynamic assessment tools that measure learning outcomes and significantly enhance student engagement and motivation.

Key takeaways

  • Assessments for experiential learning have to be able to evaluate not just theoretical knowledge but also practical skills and real-world experiences. 
  • There are several challenges in assessing experiential learning outcomes, such as data contamination, deficiency, and the difficulty in developing measurable learning outcomes.
  • When students are actively involved in the assessment process, such as through self-assessment or peer assessment, their engagement and motivation levels significantly increase.

The pivotal role of assessment in experiential learning

Assessments in this context serve dual purposes: they enable educators to evaluate both the learning journey and its outcomes, and they help students bridge the gap between theory and practical application.

Tools such as pre- and post-assessments, reflective journals, and portfolios do more than just measure students' knowledge and skills. Here are some key advantages of robust assessment that benefit experiential learning:

  • Actionable feedback for educators: By assessing students' prior knowledge, learning process, and knowledge acquired after the activity, educators can adapt teaching methods to suit diverse student needs and learning styles and optimize learning experiences.
  • Real-world skill acquisition: Beyond measuring learning outcomes, assessments provide opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences and evaluate skills such as communication, problem-solving, teamwork, ethical decisions, and more—all of which they will need for their future careers.
  • Enhanced engagement and motivation: When students are actively involved in the assessment process, such as through self-assessment, peer assessment, or reflective activities, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated.
  • Measurable success for institutions: These assessment methods also provide a tangible way for educational institutions to measure and showcase the success of their programs. They offer concrete evidence of the effectiveness of experiential learning in preparing students for the real world.

Navigating potential challenges when assessing student learning outcomes

Several potential challenges have been identified in assessing student learning outcomes. 

  1. There is little evidence that multi-year efforts to assess student learning outcomes influence student learning and development, institutional outcomes, instructional methods, co-curricular programs, and college policies and procedures.
  2. Learning assessments often suffer from data contamination (irrelevant metrics) and deficiency (omission of important learning aspects).
  3. Some faculty and staff lack formal training in developing measurable learning outcomes and aligning curriculum and assessment methods with them.
  4. Gaining consensus on what student learning outcomes to target and how to assess them is challenging, particularly in community colleges with diverse student populations and program offerings.
  5. The process of conducting effective assessments to evaluate student learning outcomes is complex and difficult for higher education professionals.

To overcome these challenges, institutions should focus on developing comprehensive assessment models with clear guidelines for measuring experiential learning outcomes, informed by best practices and insights from experts.

They should also provide comprehensive training and development programs for faculty and staff that focus on developing skills in creating measurable and valid learning outcomes, aligning curriculum with them, and devising appropriate assessment tools and methods. 

Additionally, evaluating and refining assessment strategies regularly can minimize data contamination and deficiency. 

Effective assessment methods tailored to the experiential learning process

By utilizing a range of tailored assessment techniques, educators can effectively measure student learning outcomes and engagement. This section explores various proven methods, discussing their advantages, limitations, and implementation strategies.

Direct observation

This is a method where assessors closely observe and assess students' performances in real-time settings. It's used predominantly in clinical (e.g., OSCE) and educational (group work evaluations) settings.

It uniquely captures the essence of practical skills and holistic competencies, such as teamwork, which are often difficult to gauge through traditional assessments. 

Pros: 

  • Provides an authentic assessment of practical skills.
  • Particularly useful for evaluating teamwork and other holistic competencies.
  • Can sometimes be the only method to accurately assess certain learning outcomes.

Cons: 

  • May not effectively assess higher-order learning outcomes like critical thinking.
  • Preparation and execution consume a lot of time and resources.
  • Difficult to develop and consistently apply clear grading criteria.

Tips for implementing:

  • Clearly communicate objectives, guidelines, and criteria to students.
  • Utilize structured marking sheets for uniformity in assessment.
  • Ensure feedback is a substantial part of the assessment process.

Portfolio

This is an evaluative method where students compile a collection of their work to demonstrate how they meet specific learning outcomes. It typically includes selected works, rationales for their choices, and self-reflection on the learning process, offering a comprehensive view of a student's development. 

Pros: 

  • Encourages students to take responsibility for their learning, fostering pride in their work.
  • Assesses across all levels of Bloom's taxonomy.
  • Offers a true reflection of student capabilities.

Cons: 

  • Students may overemphasize aesthetics at the expense of content.
  • Requires extensive planning, preparation, and feedback.
  • Students may misunderstand portfolio objectives without explicit instructions.

Tips for implementing:

  • Ensure clarity in objectives and provide examples and defined portfolio sizes.
  • Set clear guidelines, timeframes, and assessment criteria.
  • Use structured marking sheets for consistency in assessment.

Reflective journals

This approach to learning involves students describing their thoughts, experiences, and insights during a course. Reflective journals can be either structured (specific prompts and guidelines) or unstructured (free-form expression), making them versatile and adaptable across different disciplines.

Pros: 

  • Encourages self-driven exploration and independent thinking.
  • Offers insights into students' thoughts and learning journey.
  • Helps students apply knowledge to real-world issues and develop questioning attitudes.

Cons: 

  • Objectivity in assessment can be difficult due to the subjective nature of the content.
  • Assessing diverse and complex reflections requires considerable time.
  • Students might hesitate to disclose personal views, affecting honesty.

Tips for implementing:

  • Choose the appropriate type of journal for the course, considering student experience.
  • Provide clear expectations, assessment criteria, and guidelines.
  • Set a regular schedule for journal entries.

Project-based assessments

Project-based evaluations involve assessing students through the projects they complete, often in collaboration with industry partners. This method mirrors real-world challenges and encourages practical application of skills.

Pros: 

  • Promotes practical learning and problem-solving skills.
  • Enables direct application of theoretical knowledge.
  • Encourages collaboration and teamwork.

Cons: 

  • Time-intensive for both students and educators.
  • Assessment can be subjective, depending on the project's nature.

Tips for implementing:

  • Define clear objectives and criteria for projects.
  • Incorporate regular checkpoints and feedback sessions.
  • Ensure projects align with course learning outcomes.

Peer assessment 

This is an assessment strategy where students evaluate each other's performance, focusing on academic knowledge and holistic competencies. This method facilitates learning through observation, analysis, problem-solving, and reflection.

Pros: 

  • Encourages students to learn from each other's insights and feedback.
  • Distributes the feedback responsibility among students.
  • Exposes students to different viewpoints and critiques.

Cons: 

  • Students may lack experience in effectively judging peer performance.
  • The presence of peer judgment can influence student performance and feedback.
  • Risks of unfair or biased evaluations due to personal relationships.

Tips for implementing:

  • Establish criteria for evaluations to ensure fairness and consistency.
  • Encourage an environment of mutual respect and open communication.
  • Monitor and support the process to mitigate potential biases and peer pressure.

Which assessment methods resonate most with students?

When it comes to assessment formats, there's a wide range to choose from, but not every type resonates with students. In fact, several studies have been conducted about the assessment methods that students prefer. Here's what they found: 

  • A significant portion of students (34%) find lab practices and simulations most beneficial in supporting technical skill development. 
  • Professional presentations and final projects are the next two most popular assessment methods, with students recognizing the importance of developing communication and demonstrating mastery of a subject, essential for their future careers.
  • Even though the majority of students (66%) feel that reflective journals help them understand the material, nearly 70% of them find them to be not engaging enough. 
  • While portfolios and other innovative methods are less favored, they still play a role in diversifying assessment strategies.

The overall trend suggests a growing inclination towards assessments that are realistic, analytical, and relevant to real-world skills. Students are less inclined towards time-limited, supervised evaluations, favoring methods that are more aligned with developing diverse competencies. 

These insights are invaluable for educators aiming to create more engaging, effective, and student-centric learning environments.

Mastering assessments with one innovative learning marketplace

Navigating the complex landscape of experiential learning assessment requires innovative solutions, and Riipen, a world-leading experiential learning platform, emerges as a powerful ally for educators and institutions. 

As students engage with authentic, hands-on projects, the platform utilizes sophisticated feedback mechanisms to ensure an environment of continuous engagement. 

The platform serves as a one-stop shop where educators, industry partners, and students can collaborate and provide timely feedback throughout the duration of the project. 

Educators can create specific assessment questions for their students, but the feedback they receive from the industry partners can be incorporated into larger portfolios. Here's a quick video that highlights key features for educators: 

Erin Howard of Lethbridge College says that Riipen empowers instructors "to create relevant assessments; students are stepping up to the plate and demonstrating their unique expertise while learning new skills."

Sabine Liebenehm of the University of Saskatchewan echoed this sentiment and said that "students benefit through obtaining experiences, receiving feedback from the company, and building relationships."

To discover the full potential of experiential learning and see how Riipen can elevate your educational strategies and outcomes, schedule a demo today.

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