Spotlight is published twice each semester by the Office of Assessment and Continuous Improvement in the College of Education to highlight promising practices in assessment and continuous improvement.

This edition of the Spotlight examines strategies for providing effective feedback on students’ writing, suggestions on understanding the College’s annual rankings, and tips for managing online thesis and dissertation defenses.

Mission Statement

To deliver a personal, affordable, and top-ranked education for students who want to collaborate with renowned faculty to solve problems and effect change in the field of education in our community, our country, and around the world.

Vision Statement

A world-class college of education: leading research, engaging our communities, and preparing education and mental health professionals for innovation and impact.


  • Equity
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Unrelenting Commitment to Communities
  • Continuous Improvement and Innovation
  • Anti-racist Action
  • Teamwork and Collaboration
  • Excellence and Integrity

To share a promising practice in a future edition of the Spotlight you are using in your classroom, in your program, or in your department, please contact

Classroom Assessment 

Supporting Students’ Mental Health during Assessment

A recent survey of students found they were most likely to identify stress (31.9%), anxiety (25.9%), and sleep difficulties (20.2%) as having affected their academic performance in the last year. These three factors – stress, anxiety, and sleep – were reported much more frequently than typical factors we might expect affect academic performance, such as work (12.5%), extracurricular activities (9.4%), or even depression (16.9%).

As the calendar approaches mid-term exams, test anxiety increases in importance as a form of academic anxiety experienced by students. As a former director of an academic testing center, I have witnessed many examples of test anxiety. I frequently witnessed students fidgeting, showing distress on their faces, eating compulsively and quickly, or visiting the bathroom frequently. More severe manifestations also occasionally occurred. In one unfortunate situation, a student experiencing high levels of test anxiety in the Testing Center urinated on himself in his chair at the computer test station rather than break what he perceived as a rule to stay in his seat for the entire test (bathroom breaks were always allowed).

If our goal in classroom assessment is to determine what students know and can do, then we should be concerned about high levels of test anxiety because research has shown it can cause poor test performance. However, it is impossible to remove all sources of anxiety from our classrooms, nor is that desirable, since our students will experience anxiety-producing events in their lives, and we want them to be as prepared as possible for those experiences by learning how to handle feelings of anxiety.

Research on the causes of test anxiety has found a student’s self-esteem and self-efficacy, the perceived difficulty of the test, and the high-stakes nature of the test were associated with test anxiety in the small to moderate range (von der Embse, Jester, Roy, and Post, 2018). This research suggests strategies for reducing test anxiety include creating a “facilitating” testing environment for students (see von der Embse and Putwain, 2015), using positive motivational strategies, explaining the use of assessment results, and offering targeted test anxiety interventions to students who show high levels of test anxiety. Other strategies for reducing the impact of test anxiety in your classroom may include:

  • Using multiple authentic assessments rather than one or two major tests.
  • Ensuring students who qualify for test accommodations through Student Disability Services are making use of those accommodations.
  • Designing your course in such a way so that students have multiple opportunities to practice and receive feedback and develop confidence in their ability to perform.
  • Referring students who experience high levels of anxiety to Student Counseling Services to help them develop skills for addressing anxiety.

College Data 

Understanding Student Satisfaction

It is tempting to dismiss student satisfaction as unimportant to the College of Education. “We’re not here to make them happy,” we might think. “We’re here to prepare them to be successful, and if preparing them to be successful means they may not like me for the time being, then so be it!” This perspective incorrectly assumes that it is not possible to have both well-prepared graduates and satisfied students. Dismissing the importance of student satisfaction also risks creating a group of dissatisfied students who will tell everyone their negative opinion of our college, leading to a significant headwind in attempting to achieve future enrollment goals. In addition, there is some evidence that student satisfaction is associated with student retention, college completion, and future alumni giving.

The College of Education administers student satisfaction surveys each spring to all its students. Most of the College of Education’s undergraduate students (70%) and graduate students (80%) were satisfied with their overall academic experiences in the College of Education in the 2021 administration of the survey. Undergraduate students were most satisfied with their ability to get classes to make good progress (87%), advising (87%), and academic space and resources (84%). Graduate students were most satisfied with ability to get classes to make good progress (86%), faculty excellence (85%), and advising (82%).

Undergraduate students were least satisfied with tuition as a worthwhile investment (63%), their sense of mattering to the College of Education (64%), and their opportunities to learn to interpret and apply research (67%). Graduate students were least satisfied with opportunities to learn to conduct research (52%, this was much lower for master’s degree students than doctoral degree students), their sense of mattering to the College of Education (60%), and opportunities to collaborate on research with faculty (66%).

Interestingly, students’ satisfaction was slightly higher in the 2020 edition of the survey which was administered after the University of Iowa had transitioned to all online instruction. One possible explanation for this difference is that students’ expectations for their academic experiences were lowered due to the pandemic which resulted in higher satisfaction scores. It is also possible that interventions implemented in the spring of 2020 – such as more availability of online services, increased communication, and flexibility – improved students’ satisfaction.

More results from these surveys are available by contacting Jeremy Penn at

Promising Practice

Considering GRE and Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in Graduate Admissions

The College of Education has a higher percentage of underrepresented racial or ethnic minority graduate students (19%) and tenure / tenure-track faculty (17%) than the University of Iowa. However, these percentages are still lower than the percent of Pre-K to grade 12 students in Iowa (2020-2021) who are from underrepresented racial or ethnic minorities (23.4%).

One promising practice for improving access and graduate school opportunities for students from underrepresented minorities is to “decouple” GRE scores from race, ethnicity, and gender. Marenda Wilson, Max Odem, Taylor Walters, Anthony DePass, and Andrew Bean summarized this practice in their 2019 article, A Model for Holistic Review in Graduate Admissions that Decouples the GRE from Race, Ethnicity, and Gender. In the model described in the paper, the graduate admissions committee uses a multitiered review process that still considers GRE scores but provides a heavier focus on academic success and noncognitive factors.

In this approach, all applications are split into two tiers. Tier 1 applicants have GPAs of 3.0 or higher and GRE scores above the 50th percentile. These are sent for review by the admissions committee; however, their Tier 1 status is not disclosed to the admissions committee. Tier 2 applicants are first reviewed by a separate committee who considers whether the application should be moved to the Tier 1 status. If the Tier 2 applicant is moved to Tier 1 status after this review, the Tier 2 status is not disclosed to the admissions committee. As a result, in this type of holistic review GRE scores are considered and used initially but they are not used in the final determination of admission and are hidden from view during that round of review (more details are available in the article). Wilson et al. (2019) found these changes to their application review process increased the diversity of the applicant pool reviewed by the admissions committee while allowing the GRE to be considered as part of a holistic review process.

While modifying graduate admissions processes will not, on their own, solve inequities in educational opportunities for students from underrepresented minorities, these changes show promise in improving educational access to graduate school and do not require a significant increase in workload for admissions committees.

Future Opportunities

  • Iowa BEST Summit (Iowa Events Center, Des Moines): November 2-3, 2021.
  • Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education’s 2022 Assessment Conference (Providence, RI): June 6 – June 9.