Thoughts about Assessment

18 Jul

I have been learning a humble little bit about assessment in education and thought I would jot down a few early thoughts.

The first thought is that the point of assessment is to see what people know. Or have learned. That seems fairly straight forward. How can you improve in any activity without a sense of where you are or how you’re doing? It ends up knowing where you are might be kind of key, because you can’t really start anywhere else (as Dewey points out in Experience and Education: “the organized subject-matter of . . . the specialist cannot provide the starting point”).

The second thought is that assessment shouldn’t be an isolated event. It should be part of a feedback loop. What do I mean? Well, once you know what you’ve learned you can do a couple of things–keep working on it (if you’re not there) or move on to the next thing (if you learned it). If you didn’t know where you were how would you know what to do next? I’m not sure you can learn without feedback of some kind.

“Keep working on it” might make you ask: what is this “it” and what would it mean to keep at “it?” Which brings me to point three: you probably need a goal or a direction against which to measure your progress. Knowing where you’re going seems almost as important as knowing where you are. You might set yourself your own goal, or you might adopt a goal somebody else conceived of for you, as you do when you take a course.

About this measuring your progress stuff. Ends up seeing yourself progress is a powerful learning motivator (Zull mentions this in The Art of Changing the Brain). Which brings me to another point. Seeing yourself: what’s the point of assessment if you don’t see the results? Or if when you see them so much time has elapsed that you’ve moved on to something else? So let’s make the assessment results visible and as close to instantaneous as possible. That was thought four.

Well, you’re thinking, it takes time to feed those sheets of paper into the Scantron machine, or read and write comments on each essay. True. Yet, there might also be ways to assess that don’t require elaborate and time-consuming analysis that you could use as supplements. I know of a teacher or two who assess daily, with a variety of methods, some methods as simple as asking students to indicate whether they feel they know something, want more time, or are ready to move on. That’s a simple thumb’s up or thumb’s down. The teachers can give the student more help or send them on to the next activity, as the student needs. Point five, then: have a smorgasbord of assessments, and serve something up continually.

Wait a second, if every student might choose a different activity (as in the thumb’s up exercise above), am I saying individual students might be doing different things in a given class? Well, yes. This is my thought number six. I know this sort of runs counter to the common Higher Ed classroom experience–where the whole class does the same thing at the same time. But when you think about it, clearly people are going to be at different levels. And if your assessment can show those levels, why wouldn’t you go ahead and adjust their activities as appropriate? An assessment without an adjustable curriculum seems to miss the point.

An adjustable curriculum? Sounds like a big thing, until you remember that a teacher who knows their subject and how people move through it basically is an adjustable curriculum machine. After a few years of teaching, they probably already have it mapped out. They might even share the map with the student!

Which brings me to another point. Sharing. Why not, in addition to sharing the map, and letting people see the results of their assessments, let them see into the design of those assessments?  When and where they will happen, what they’ll need to do, and how you’ll measure it?  You could even let them design and implement the assessments when they feel they needed one. Intrinsically motivated learners might even demand an assessment because they intuit the necessity of the feedback for their learning to continue (I’ve heard rumors of this happening). In any event, why be secret? It would be kind of hard to see how fast you could run the 50 yard dash if you had to guess where the course was. Here ends point seven.

The last point is a meta-point: all of these pieces fit into a cycle that repeats forever: you do something, you see how you did, and you do something else. Assessment is tied closely with learning. You almost can’t separate them.  If you did, neither would work as well. How could you learn if you didn’t see where you were? Why would you assess if the information didn’t go back to the learner? How would you know what to do next if you didn’t see how you did on the previous thing? And so on.

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One Response to “Thoughts about Assessment”

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  1. Teaching Carnival 4.11 - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education - August 1, 2011

    […] David Wedaman makes an excellent case for the importance of a variety of assessment tools in the classroom […]

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