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Assessment: Fast is better than deep

 I’ve always believed that assessment is at the heart of good teaching and learning. Students improve only by knowing what’s expected of them and by getting feedback about how to get there.

When I began teaching, my colleagues and I devoted huge amounts of time devising the perfect assessment program. We joked about our three-dimensional rubrics and sometimes-indecipherable coding system. Some students and parents got what we were trying to do, but others replied, “Can’t you just give us a grade already?”

They were right. Our assessment system was great, but often it took way too much time for students to get their work back.

And the main point of assessment is not to evaluate students’ skills and knowledge but rather to help students grow.

That’s why, the last several years, I’ve focused on getting my students’ work back fast. Especially on practice assignments, extensive comments take too much time. Students like reading personal notes from their teachers, but they prefer knowing whether they’re on track.

If assessment takes too long, students forget about the assignment, start thinking the teacher is unorganized and incompetent, and begin caring less about the class.

This summer, I’ve been reminded of the fast-is-better-than-deep rule. I’m a student in a library and information science class, and my professor has taken several weeks to return assignments. At one point, we were on Major Assignment #3 when she hadn’t yet graded Major Assignment #1. This was inexcusable, and I quickly lost interest in the course.

My point is not to bash my professor but rather to emphasize the importance of assessing student work quickly. If there is a large gap between when students turn in assignments and when they get them back, then students don’t know how they’re doing and how to improve.

Perhaps even more important, the notion of time gets messed up. The best classes, I believe, have one narrative. A group of students and a teacher engage themselves in a story of growth. Although the story isn’t always linear (there are always flashbacks and subplots), the teacher must preserve the master narrative. You can’t be in more than one place at one time.

Of course, fast assessment is very difficult, especially if you have more than 120 students. But unless it’s a culminating project, I’d rather spend two minutes per student on two assignments than four minutes per students on one. Even though scenarios take the same amount of time (eight hours), my students get an extra opportunity to practice and get better. 


  1. Heidi Guibord

    I struggle with how to give grades back so students feel invested in looking at why they got the grade that they did. When it comes to intensive project rubrics in my classes, students tend to just look at the overall grade and not the individual components of what lead to that grade. How can I get them to reflect more on how they did? Ask them to keep rubrics throughout the year to see patterns perhaps?

  2. Mark Isero

    Yeah, when grades are on something, that’s all that students care about. That’s probably why more and more teachers are doing grades only on summative assessments and choosing to stay with written comments on formative assessments. Of course, writing out comments all the time is time-intensive.

    I wonder if there is a way for students to grade themselves. If the rubric stays the same the whole year, students could assess themselves when they turn in a product, and then we could agree or disagree with their evaluation. (The problem with this idea, of course, is that higher-skilled students often under-rate themselves, while lower-skilled students tend to over-rate.)

  3. Jacob Aringo

    Till this day, giving back work on time is something I’m working on and I’m develop systems so that this happens.
    1.) Develop a rubric. If you know what to expect from students then the assessment is easy to evaluate because you’ve internalize those expectations. Rubrics are tools that makes evaluating work standardized amongst all students. On the other hand, rubrics should be reusable.
    2.) Make the assessment short. All you want is a snapshot of the student’s performance. You want to look at his/her strength and focus on closing the performance gaps that he/she has.
    3.) Homework and Classwork shouldn’t be checked for completion not for demonstration of skill. Evaluating both for completion and demonstration of skill took the longest to finish up. Now I check for work during class which happen during a warm-up and I stamp a homework log (kind of like what Susanna does in her Spanish class) and then as class we go over 3-4 problems. Student’s are expected to correct their work. The only work that is turned into me are quizzes, tests, projects, weekly warm-ups, and homework logs.
    4.) If possible create an answer key and create an assessment that you can use again and again.

    • Mark Isero

      Hey Jacob, great to hear from you! I like your ideas. Rubrics are great if students understand them and if they’re familiar to students (hence your point about using the same one — to assess growth).

      You also have some good points about homework. Students don’t like doing homework, but it’s important, and it’s necessary that students can do it skill-wise on their own. And yes, the outcome on homework is more one of: Are you willing and devoted to put in the time and effort to improve?

      It might be a good idea to do a “spot check” of one or two of the questions — to look at least a little bit at content on homework.

      Are you getting ready for another year? Iserotope has become a little place for post-LHSers to continue our professional development! 🙂

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