Multimodal Assessments: Expanding Choice and Opportunities for Student Success

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Catherine Park, Education

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2022

The Education minor at UCB was developed to be taught online. I’ve taught and continue to teach ED140, “The Art of Making Meaning: Educational Perspectives on Literacy and Learning in a Global World,” where we combine the full capacities of digital tools with deep understanding of pedagogical processes to facilitate student learning. Weekly asynchronous activities foster collaboration between students who post, comment, and build on each others’ digital artifacts pre/post discussion sections, while lecture content is multimodal (provided as texts, videos, and audios) and culturally relevant; in weekly Zoom discussion sections, instructors construct understandings of course materials together with students using student-created artifacts and slides, breakout room activities, and games. Students are further asked to apply their learnings in our course as volunteers in K-12 classrooms around the Bay Area. As student-teachers and participant-observers, they engage in a qualitative research project to analyze and reflect on their experiences as educators in K-12 settings. While we utilize multiple modes of learning to deliver course content and gauge students’ weekly progress, the final assessment is a traditional written research paper, 10-15 pages, 1-inch margins, 12-point font. 

During one of my discussion sections last year, we examined how leveraging spoken and written languages, sounds, images, and other symbol systems through multimodal content allows layering of semantic meanings, and promotes student learning. A student poignantly asked the class, “But how useful is multimodal learning if tests and assignments only assess traditional reading and writing?” This set off a flurry of vocal and chatbox debate as students critically probed the possibilities, merits, and drawbacks of assessing multimodally. Many argued that “academic skills” centered reading and writing text, hence why most of their “academic assignments” in college were papers. Others questioned whether multimodal assessments would test an entirely different set of skills and require instructors to create separate and personalized rubrics and standards. While reading and writing textually are, of course, important skills, we wondered what opportunities for evaluating student learning were missed by not attempting multimodal assessments. By privileging the written word, our own systems and structures of assessments did not accommodate for students’ varied modes of learning and expression, and continued to reify hierarchies between various modes of communication. To solve this issue, I redesigned the final assessment for our course: rather than a written research paper, I provided options for students to present their research project as a recorded video in the style of conference presentations. This allowed me to give students choices in presenting their final assessment while using the same rubric to evaluate the content of students’ research projects.  

About a third of the class presented their research projects as video presentations where they combined narration, texts, images, graphs, as well as their emotive facial expressions and body languages to captivate the audience, and convey their findings. There was no difference in the quality of written and multimodal final products as measured by average and median grades using the same rubric. In fact, students shared in evaluations, and personally, that the multimodal form of assessment helped them draw on their various linguistic and semiotic repertoires to communicate most effectively. Not only do such multimodal options for assessments expand opportunities for success, but they also interrogate our favoring of the written word within academic contexts. My intervention does not denigrate the utility and necessity of written assignments but compels us to equally value other/ed ways of knowing. I ask: what modes of learning/expression are enabled through digital tools in the 21st Century? How do we, as educators, help students practice drawing on some combination of these modes to most effectively communicate to/with others by designing multimodal assessments? How might privileging these other/ed ways of knowing prepare students for future-worlds?