2.4 Strategies for Engaging Variable Learners in Assessments


Do you sometimes find that your students are not engaged or struggle to demonstrate the extent of their learning in your assessments?

  • When it comes to engaging students in assessments, it’s about 1. demonstrating relevance, 2. providing flexibility and choice, and 3. giving supports. Consider how these strategies could have helped Melanie (Three Assessment Experiences in previous section) successfully reach her learning goals.

(Assignment excerpts adapted from Liu, 2009).

1. Demonstrate relevance

Demonstrating the relevance of assessments can help learners transfer usable knowledge and understand the “what,” the “how,” and the “why” of their learning.  Let’s consider some excerpts from an Organic Chemistry “Sequenced Writing” assignment:

Chem 101: Organic Chemistry

Everyday, we are exposed to dozens of chemicals through our own personal care regimen. Personal care products, whether mostly synthetic or “all natural,” have all been carefully formulated by chemists. As your understanding of organic chemistry grows, your ability to compare products and understand why they work the way they do will increase.

Notice how the educator has made Organic Chemistry relevant by applying it to students’ personal care regimens. Again, at the end of the assignment introduction, the educator clearly states the purpose of the assignment.

Chem 101: Organic Chemistry

The purpose of this assignment is for you to apply your understanding of functional groups in organic molecules to everyday life.

Relevance is also demonstrated when assessments are designed so students apply disciplinary learning under authentic, or close to authentic as possible, circumstances.

2. Provide flexibility and choice in ways students demonstrate the learning outcomes

USask Lens:

“I get that there is a need to have some kind of assessment on the knowledge that you’ve built up throughout the year but I don’t think it’s necessarily an exam. I would love if there were more options…like take home exams, they can be a great way to show what you’ve learned or final projects. Diversifying the kind of evaluations that you give students so that is not just tests that comprise their final marks.”

-Student testimonials from the Wellness Strategy Report

Offering flexibility and choices in assessment topics, procedures, and timelines helps to engage students and increases inclusivity. Flexible options available in an assessment can enhance access, support learner performance, and reduce possible perceived threats. Most often we see these kinds of choices provided through an “assignment menu.” Included below is an example of an assignment menu adapted from Durham College’s UDL and Assessment and Evaluation site. Notice how the example includes a wide range of options for students to demonstrate their learning and both also help students to identify which options might suit their particular learning preferences.

Providing multiple means of action and expression (the how of learning) means providing different ways for students to work with information and content and to demonstrate what they are learning. Consider which actions are relevant to the learning being measured and where flexibility and choice can be provided in order to gain an accurate picture of what each student has learned.

3. Provide supports

Students will be more engaged in their assessments when they believe they can be successful and when they are provided with the tools they need to achieve the learning outcomes.  Create engagement by making the available tangible supports explicit and including them in assignment descriptions and in your syllabus.  Let’s return to the Organic Chemistry writing assignment for examples of assessment supports.

Chem 101: Organic Chemistry

Suggested Resources:

A good place to start your search is SciFinder

  • Log in and click on “explore substances”; then click on “substance” from the menu on the left and search the name of your compound
  • If that fails, you can “Google” your compound. However, keep in mind that the web can contain faulty information. Verify the information by checking multiple sources.
  • As you conduct these searches, keep in mind that Part II of this assignment asks you to summarize information on one of your listed compounds. It may be a good idea to keep track of some of the resources you come across during these initial searches.
USask Supports for Students: Writing Help 

Supports can include resources as well as tips for using the resources strategically to accomplish the goals of the assignment.

Another type of support is providing samples of required assignment elements. Embedded in this assignment description are instructions for writing an annotated bibliography and example entries:

Chem 101: Organic Chemistry

What is an annotated bibliography?


An example of an annotated bibliography (in CSE style):

Liu JM, Livny J, Lawrence MS, Kimball MD, Waldor MK, Camilli A. 2009. Experimental discovery of sRNAs in Vibrio cholerae by direct cloning, 5S/tRNA-depletion and parallel sequencing Nucleic Acids REsearch 37: e46-

In this research paper, the authors from Tufts University present a new method for identifying small RNAs (sRNAs) in bacteria. The method is extremely high throughout and provides some exciting results. For example, the authors suggest that there are 1000s of sRNAs in a typical bacterial transcriptome. Additionally, the authors characterize one new SRNA in Vibrio cholerae, and show that this sRNA may be a repressor of the gene mtlA, which is involved in mannitol-metabolism. This will be a great paper to include in the “identification” section of my paper on non-coding RNAs in bacteria.

Reflection: One Small Step

Identify an assessment in which students have been well engaged.

  • Did you demonstrate relevance, provide flexibility and choice, or offer supports in your assessment?

Now think of an assessment in which students were less engaged.

  • What UDL strategies could you employ to support better engagement?
  • Is it possible to include flexibility and choice in how your assessment is represented, how can your learners show what they know, or how can your learners engage in the assessment process?
  • How do the flexible options still support the intended learning outcome(s) that need to be measured?


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Universal Design for Learning: One Small Step Copyright © 2022 by Sara Dzaman; Derek Fenlon; Julie Maier; and Toni Marchione is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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