Understanding assessment, activities, and access skills

Before we get into an in-depth discussion of the four A’s – alignment between assessment, guided activities, and access skills – I’m assuming that you’re already comfortable with constructive alignment as an idea, and with the Bloom’s and STRIP learning taxonomies as they are used in Compass.

Assessments are the means by which students demonstrate their mastery of a concept, idea, or skill.  In this document, assessments contribute substantially to the final grade for the paper in a summative way.
Activities refer to what students do while engaged in some kind of designed learning situation.  An activity could include sitting in a lecture, working through an example problem, engaging in a class debate, performing a lab experiment, and many more.  Though in some circumstances they may attract some small quantity of marks, these are not meant to be summative assessments, but could include formative assessments or unassessed work.
Access skills (sometimes called soft-skills or supporting skills) are qualities which may be hidden when designing an assessment or class activity.  For example, Gerard really does know how lightbulbs work, and if we ask him to write an essay explaining it, he’ll get a great mark because he’s good at writing essays.  However, if we ask him to give a presentation on the same topic, he’ll get a terrible mark because he’s not good at public speaking and so cannot adequately demonstrate his understanding.  Access skills are just as important to teaching activities as they are to assessments, and the Compass database holds these relationships too.

Assessment and class activities both involve the student doing something, they are verbs/actions/doing words, and we can arrange them according to Bloom’s and our reinterpreted STRIP taxonomies.  For example:

Assessment instruction Bloom’s level STRIP level
Name the muscles of the body on a diagram Knowledge, because it relies on memory and familiarity. Unistructural, because there is only one fundamental aspect which needs considering, or one skill to use
Write an essay explaining the theory of how electrical current makes a lightbulb work Understanding, because it involves reinterpreting knowledge but not adding to it Multi-structural, because two pieces of understanding (filaments and electrical currents) are needed
Form a prediction about what would happen if the tax on solar panels was removed Analysis, because it relies on understanding of subject matter as well as application of theories to investigate possible outcomes Extended abstract, because the student must hypothesise or extrapolate into unknown areas
Write a computer program to store your friends’ names and addresses Synthesis, because something new is being designed and created from existing knowledge and understanding Unistructural, because it deals with only one function at a time (the storage of data)

It should be noted that these two taxonomies are treated as independent axes; that is, they do not overlap, and an assessment at a certain level in one taxonomy does not imply its level in the other.  For example, we can ask students to engage in the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (synthesis) for a simple unistructural problem, as in the computer program example above.

Students need time and guidance to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to perform well in any assessment, and giving them appropriate practice time and experience is the purpose of learning activities.  But in order to engage fully with activities and assessments, students also need soft skills or access skills.  The class activities support assessments, and should ideally also provide space to develop and refine the access skills too.  For example:

Assessment Supporting activities Access skills required
Name the muscles of the body on a diagram flashcards, colouring in diagrams, creating acronyms and mnemonics, dissection labs
Write an essay explaining the theory of how electrical current makes a lightbulb work write a short paragraph explaining electrical current, critique an anonymised essay against a rubric, perform a lab experiment with current and lightbulbs essay writing skills
Give a public presentation predicting what would happen to the electricity market if the tax on solar panels was removed read literature and past analyses detailing history of other taxes and their effects, use modelling software to investigate the relationships between supply and demand in a lab, give a one minute presentation in small groups explaining the idea in lay language, write an outline and have it critiqued by a partner for structure public speaking skills, research and reading skills
Write a computer program to store your friends’ names and addresses explore data structures for storage and searching in a lab exercise,
write pseudocode for the operations needed, critique a similar exercise against a rubric

It’s clear that in order to give a public presentation the students will need to have some presentation skills, which is why one of the activities in class involves a small amount of public speaking.  Activities should thus support the development of the disciplinary subject matter appropriately, but also need to support the development of the access skills as well.

Compass keeps a database of ideas for assessments, activities, and access skills, as well as the relationships between them.  This is used to drive the paper planning toolkit for teachers, as well as providing the chance for planners to suggest activities to the teachers using the milestones.  Planners can see where access skills are needed on the final tab of the programme planning toolkit, and can use this information to make sure that students get appropriate support.  Contributions to the database of ideas for assessments, activities and skills are welcome – please see the information for contributors and contact us if you need help setting up these permissions.