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Using Explanation in Assessments

As I’m sure you’ve all experienced this spring, sometimes there isn’t a perfect online equivalent for all of the things you were doing in the classroom.

This can be especially challenging with STEM courses, where we rely on labs and other hands-on learning experiences to help students master course content.

That’s why I wanted to highlight a few of our faculty who are using assessment strategies that require students to explain or review several steps or tasks that are part of larger processes.

Requiring students to practice explanation or recitation is an excellent instructional strategy. You may also see it labeled as “elaboration” in some education circles.

James M. Lang, author of “Small Teaching,” talks about the importance of self-explanation with skills-based practice. He says it helps learners make connections between knowledge and skills. “The best self-explanation techniques prompt learners to articulate not only what they are doing but also why they are doing it…”

So let’s get to it. Below you’ll find a few summaries and examples from four of your colleagues. Some of these faculty have used these strategies many times in the past, and some are trying it for the first time as a result of transitioning to remote instruction. Please note the large variation in how this technique is used across each of the courses mentioned.

Mr. Stephen Shields Example: Final Presentation or Paper

Course: GEOL 3371 Geomapping Fundamentals 

Faculty Member: Mr. Stephen Shields, Instructor of Geology, Physics and Geosciences

About the Assignment:

This assignment was the final project for the class and built off the midterm project. There were no exams in the course, so this was the students’ big assignment and was worth 25 percent of their final grade.

The project incorporated any and all material they learned over the entire semester. Students had to demonstrate proficiency in the basics as well as the skills needed to understand more advanced analyses.

Because some students had trouble accessing the GIS software used in the course after the university moved to remote instruction, Mr. Shields allowed students to choose one of two options for their final submission: they could submit a PowerPoint presentation with a completed map, or a paper with data, analysis, and a discussion about what the map would have shown.

From Mr. Shields:

“I want to assess: 1) how well they can think of a spatial ‘problem’; something that can be explained by patterns, locations, proximity, anything dealing with time and space, 2) how they develop a strategy to investigate this problem; and 3) how well they executed their investigation, which culminates in a final map (or maps) to highlight the problem.

“They would need to outline: what the problem is, where to find the data, how to analyze/edit the data, and what their final map shows.”


Project 1:

This project could look at the location of landfills around Austin, the location of protected areas around Austin, water quality data from the city/state, and well logs to find areas of contaminated water. A student could then create a map showing potential pathways of contaminated water and which protected lands are most at risk. 

Project 2 (for Natural Resource Management students):

This project could be a terrain analysis and herd management for cattle. Cattle prefer slopes of less than 5 percent, prefer to be within X miles of a water source, and prefer areas with at least 20 percent shade. Data they need to reference would include: DEM of the topography, vegetation cover, and sources of water both natural and man-made. Then the student could run an analysis for which areas on the property meet all these requirements, then develop correct sized pastures using these ideal plots of land efficiently. 

Dr. Haque Example: Group Project

Course: ENGR 2302 Engineering Mechanics-Dynamics

Faculty Member: Dr. Mohammad Shafinul (Shafin) Haque, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, materials and design

About the Assignment:

This assignment is 20 percent of the students’ final grade and was introduced at the beginning of the course. After the first exam (when students have at least some idea about dynamics) they were required to submit a project plan to be completed in groups. 

After Dr. Haque approved of the project plans, students began work on a final prototype as well as a project report outlining the dynamic system analysis of the project (the math part). 

After the university transitioned to remote instruction, Dr. Haque’s class met via Blackboard Collaborate and revised the final project to include a video submission with a report. 

Take a look at this student submission to get a better idea about the work students produced for this project.

From Dr. Haque:

“Often students struggle to grasp a dynamics problem (where things are moving) while the textbook has 2D images (not moving) and words. This project provides improved comprehension and retention of the concept. They solve a real problem and apply the learning from this course to perform dynamic system analysis. I plan to assess their cumulative learning throughout the course, their ability to work in a group and apply the learning to a real problem.”

Dr. Charles Allen

Example: Guided and Unguided Homework Problems

Course: PHYS 2325 Fundamentals of Physics I

Faculty Member: Dr. Charles Allen, Professor of Physics

About the Assignment:

Refer to this PDF example problem to see one of Dr. Allen’s homework assignments. This type of question can be either guided (the version attached is an example of a guided question) or unguided. For unguided, an instructor would remove the items listed in letters a-d. From his experience, Dr. Allen says it’s the unguided questions with multiple steps that are the toughest for students to handle.

The guided questions are formative because they assess individual steps/processes, but also give an example of how to string together multiple steps. The unguided questions also assess whether the student can determine what steps are necessary on their own. Dr. Allen requires students to explain answers to receive credit. Explanations can be the diagrams, tables, etc. that are asked for in the guided version (refer to the PDF again for example).

Typically, Dr. Allen restricts the question content to the ideas in one or two chapters at a time. However, using the guided/unguided technique is something he uses throughout the semester.  He starts out with a low unguided/guided ratio, and tries to increase that as the semester goes on.

From Dr. Allen:

“I didn’t have big projects in mind when I mentioned this stuff, just homework (and exam) problems. The comparison is meant to be to online homework solutions, which tend to simply want to know if you can figure out that v = 1.23 m/s, for example. The intent is to avoid just getting the answer from someone else (even randomization techniques aren’t perfect), or worse, getting the right answer via the wrong way (for example, using a different technique from an earlier chapter, rather than what they’re supposed to be learning about in this chapter).”

Example: Extra Credit 

Course: GEOL 1347 Introduction to Meteorology

Faculty Member: Ms. Jessica A. Garza, Instructor, Department of Physics and Geosciences

About the Assignment:

This extra credit assignment complemented a quiz that covered a 15-minute lecture video Ms. Garza posted. The quiz category in the class covers 40 percent of the final grade. 

For the assignment, Ms. Garza had the students work through (draw out with her) a diagram from the video.

From Ms. Garza:

“I am hoping to assess their understanding of an atmospheric circulation cell. The diagram in total included three different parts, with each part covering how specific processes work together to make a pressure gradient, and thus a “sea breeze” circulation. This builds off previous information from the semester which includes: temperature, heat capacity, pressure gradient force, convection, and other basic vocabulary.”

Jayna Phinney
Jayna Phinney

Jayna Phinney is the Instructional Technology Specialist for the ASU College of Science and Engineering. Contact her at or 325-486-6264.


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