TEACHING AT PITT: Making your assessments more equitable


If you have consulted the literature on assessment design, you have probably come across a significant amount of information about how to create fair measures of student learning.

Traditionally, ensuring that assessments are fair has involved establishing a consistent assessment procedure, asking all students to create the same type of product, and evaluating those products in the same way. However, this may not be enough to produce equitable outcomes for a diverse group of learners.     

How might you go about designing an assessment that allows all students to demonstrate their learning?

Here are four tips for creating more inclusive, equitable assessments of student learning:

1. Involve students in the process through transparency.

Beyond completing course assessments, students typically are not involved in the assessment process and, as a result, may not fully grasp its purpose or value. Consider talking to your students about, or soliciting their input on, learning objectives, assessment design, performance criteria, and/or how results might be used. This does not mean that students should have the same decision-making power as the faculty member, but greater transparency can increase student buy-in and provide new perspectives and valuable feedback throughout the assessment process.

2. Avoid making assumptions. Gather student information to inform assessment design.

It can be easy to unintentionally make assumptions that affect students’ performance on an assessment. For example, an instructor might assign an assessment requiring students to use an educational technology tool and provide little technology instruction, assuming that undergraduate students are tech-savvy. Although many students may be able to complete the assessment, those with less familiarity with the tool would find it more challenging, affecting the quality of their work.

To avoid these issues, ask yourself whether you are making any assumptions about students’ backgrounds, interests, knowledge, skills or access to resources as you design assessments. Always include clear, comprehensive instructions in jargon-free language that your students can understand. Have a conversation with them to make sure that you have a shared understanding of assessment instructions. Also, check assessments for culture-specific references and add explanations for references as necessary.        

If you would like to gather additional information about students before conducting an assessment, consider using a diagnostic assessment like a pre-test, survey, or confidence or skills inventory.

3. Offer students choices about how to demonstrate learning:

Giving students choices on how to complete assessments tends to increase engagement and reduce the likelihood of poor performance. Look for opportunities to offer choices of topics or types of products students create to demonstrate learning. If you would like to incorporate more student choice in your assessments, but are not sure how you would evaluate different types of student work using the same performance criteria, consider using a rubric. A single rubric can be designed to evaluate multiple types of student work. See the Association of American Colleges & Universities VALUE rubrics for examples.      

4. Conduct multiple, varied assessments:

Creating individualized assessments for every student isn’t practical. However, assessing students several times in different ways ultimately gives you a more accurate, complete picture of student learning in your courses or program. Multiple assessments also provide the added benefit of giving your students additional opportunities to practice and receive feedback on their work. In your courses, use a mix of low and high stakes assessments. Quizzes, class activities, projects, essays, tests, portfolios, task performances and even observation of class discussions can yield valuable information about student learning and give your students different means of demonstrating learning. 


If you would like assistance designing or revising an assessment, consider contacting the Teaching Center at teaching@pitt.edu to schedule a consultation.  

For additional resources on this topic, please take a look at the references below and visit the Center for Diversity in the Curriculum.

  • McArthur, J. (2016). Assessment for Social Justice: the role of assessment in achieving social justice. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(7), 967-981.
  • Montenegro, E., & Jankowski, N. A. (2017, January). Equity and assessment: Moving towards culturally responsive assessment (Occasional Paper No. 29). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).

Lindsay Onufer is a teaching consultant at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.