Assessing Self-Paced Work Effectively


Unit overview

The effective assessment of work in each module of an SP curriculum is just as essential as the delivery of the module's content. SP learning depends on students mastering the prerequisites for a module before they attempt to complete it. In this lesson, you will learn how to create assessments that work for SP modules, and how to use them to ensure mastery.

Pre-activity: defining list of skills to assess

To complete this module, you will develop an authentic post-assessment for a topic that you designed content for in the previous module. If you haven't defined the content for one of your SP modules yet, then go back to the previous lesson and do that first.

Now before we can define assessments for a particular module, we must first identify the knowledge skills that the students will be expected to master after completing it. Again, open up a word processor and make a list of mastery statements for the students. Try to write each statement in the present tense and begin it with "Students can...", followed by an active learning verb.


  • Students can mix proper martinis, using either the shaken or stirred methods.
  • Students can persuade arch-villains to divulge their secret plans before they are executed.

Understanding mastery assessment

Overview of the Bloom model

Most of the pioneering work in learning mastery was done by Benjamin Bloom in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In his model, titled "learning for mastery", Bloom identified four basic components to the learning process: defining mastery, planning for mastery, teaching for mastery, and grading for mastery.

Grading for mastery

The main purpose of grading, according to Bloom, is to simply ensure that a student has mastered prerequisite skills before proceeding to future lessons that depend on them. These assessments are not intended to be summative or grade-oriented. Students who do not score above a certain threshold are allowed to seek remediation and to retake the assessments until they pass them. Unlike a traditional model, where the time component is fixed and the student competency is left to vary within that period, in Bloom's model the competency is fixed and the amount of time required is left to vary from student to student. The amount of the curriculum absorbed by the student is thus the benchmark of his or her performance.

Models of assessment

Bloom and other educational theorists have developed different models for how these assessments should be delivered to students. Bloom advocated that students should receive small but frequent formative assessments -- one every week or two. If students perform poorly on these assignments, they should be given corrective support and allowed to retake them until they meet the standard.

Another model would place the assessment at the end of a module, but retain the overall concept of demanding proficiency before allowing progress. In both cases, students are allowed to get extra help and retake assessments as much as is needed until they can reach the target level for that assignment.

Creating effective assessments

Translating skills into observable behavior

The first step in creating an effective assessment is identifying what observable behavior would demonstrate mastery of a particular piece of knowledge or skill. You should begin this phase by creating a list of skills to be tested similar to the one you created in the pre-activity for this module.

For each skill, you should ask yourself, "What would a student who had mastered this skill be able to do?" Ideally, you want to be able to isolate this skill from other skills as much as possible -- certainly from other skills being taught in a particular module. You want to avoid a situation where a student's deficiency in another skill obscures their mastery of the skill you are actually testing.

Try to articulate the mastery test in a specific behavior statement that builds off of the mastery statement you wrote for the skill.


  • Students will create two separate high-quality martinis -- one shaken and one stirred.
  • Students will extract world domination plans from each of the three arch-villain simulators.

Designing authentic assessments

As much as possible, module assessments should allow students to demonstrate their skills in authentic situations. When students are allowed to place their skill mastery in context, they have a better chance of connecting it to prior and future knowledge. In addition, it is easier to create situations where students can perform the behavior statements that you created in the prior step if the students are actually performing the actions as they would in real life.

Certain types of behaviors may be impractical for students to actually demonstrate. In these situations, you should work hard to provide simulations of the activities that are as authentic as possible. Computer-based virtual implementations of real-life situations may be helpful in these cases.

Grading assessments effectively

Provide immediate feedback

In Bloom's model, students need to get feedback as soon as possible so that it can be used as a diagnostic tool to suggest needed remediation. Another reason why students must be graded quickly is that the SP model depends on students mastering a prerequisite skill before they are allowed to progress to future sections. Thus the grading of post-activity assessments is a barrier to future progress that should be removed as soon as possible.

Provide diagnostic feedback

The purpose of grading these formative assessments is not to give students numerical scores that will be used one day to calculate their grade for a course; rather, it is to diagnose skill gaps in the module that they are studying so that mastery can be ensured. The score that a student receives for a post-module assessment is not nearly as important as the qualitative feedback they receive from you about how to correct their mistakes. Remember, the basic model of SP learning is that students can retake assessments as many times as is necessary for them to demonstrate mastery.

Develop multiple assessments

In the cases where students fail post-module assessments, it is important that they have multiple opportunities to retake assessments and demonstrate that they have addressed their skill gaps. This requires that each lesson have at least a few different assessments; otherwise, the student may either become disinterested or else focus on mastering how to take the test, not how to perform the required skills. Having multiple assessments also helps ensure student integrity, since they will not be able to anticipate which test they will take.

Post-activity: developing an assessment

  1. Choose one of the skills that you identified in the pre-module activity for this lesson.
  2. Then write a specific and observable behavior statement as described above.
  3. Use that behavior statement to write a description of the deliverable product that a student would be able to produce if he or she could successfully perform the behavior that you describe.
  4. Write a short qualitative rubric for that assignment, using whatever grading scale you feel is appropriate. For each level of competency, write a short narrative description of what that level of quality looks like
  5. Finally, write 3-4 variations on the deliverable product that still require the student to demonstrate the specified behavior, but end up producing slightly different output products.

Next steps