Perspectives on Assessment

When we begin to question practices like scaffolding and learning objectives or outcomes, assessment is sure to follow. In the 15 or so years that I’ve been teaching and training, I have had numerous and continuing conversations with teachers about the need to assess, the need to quantify learning, the need to measure. In my own practice of teaching, I have never designed or graded a test or exam, nor have I ever put grades on student work. It turns out, this is the aspiration of many good-hearted teachers, but the alternatives to assessment remain clouded in mystery.

My perspective on assessment can be summed up in this idea from Zen Buddhism:

Because all of us are doing the same thing, making the same mistake, we do not realize it. So without realizing it, we are making many mistakes. And we create problems among us.

To combat this idea that all of us are doing the same thing (making the same mistake), here are a few different perspectives on assessment worth listening to.

In 2012, Hybrid Pedagogy ran a massive open online course about massive open online courses (we called it MOOC MOOC), which we’ve since run in various forms every year. In that first course, Petra Dierkes-Thrun and Robin Wharton posed some important questions about assessment.

“As Cathy Davidson argues in Now You See It, our current assessment methods are conditioned by the needs and values of the industrial revolution (Ch. 4, “How We Measure”). Teachers grade students in the way the USDA grades beef. We are expected to sort students into categories so prospective employers, graduate institutions, their parents, and even the students themselves can see how “well” they did in our classes. The grading model presumes the audience for the grades we assign are consumers of, not agents or participants in, the learning process. It also assumes the teacher is still the sole arbiter of wisdom and judgment when it comes to assessment.”

Assessment is often the hill upon which academics are willing to die. Either for or against, opinions about assessment are often hard-won and deeply valued in our praxis. Once again, though, for the purposes of exploring and defining a critical instructional design, it’s important that we think of assessment as optional, as an assumption we have made about what’s necessary for learning.

In “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment,” Peter Elbow writes, “assessment tends so much to drive and control teaching. Much of what we do in the classroom is determined by the assessment structures we work under.” We find ways to grade, even inside learning environments and in situations where grading isn’t required.

Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel write:

New modes of thinking, of work production, and of 21st century epistemology require us to reconsider the subject of grading. Clay Shirky observes in his recent books Cognitive Surplus and Here Comes Everybody that digital culture does not just create new ways to work, it gives us the extra set of hands and eyes to consider addressing different goals, new “whys” to work. In Here Comes Everybody, he chronicles the story of a programmer who harnessed the power of online interaction in New York City to track down the thief who took his friend’s cell phone. On his own time, he built, moderated, and channelled the feedback of thousands of online sleuths to arrive at this goal. He did not grade them, and he did not offer them compensation. Instead, he gave them a goal that was both realistic and idealistic enough to inspire creative work. As instructors, we solve some of the problem of grades if the work we propose for our students is its own reward, paying dividends in experience, interaction, tighter focus.

As an example, Cathy Davidson offers the following grading policy on one of her syllabi:

Grading and Evaluation.  After returning to teaching after several years as an administrator, I found grading to be the most outmoded, inconsequential, and irrelevant feature of teaching.  Thus for ISIS 120, S 2010, all students will receive the grade of A if they do all the work and their peers certify that they have done so in a satisfactory fashion.  If you choose not to do some of the assignments and receive a lower grade, thats permissible.  You will be given a chart at the beginning of the course with every assignment adding up to 100 points.  A conventional system will be assigned (95-100 points = A-, etc).  We total the scores at the end and you get the points you’ve achieved.  If, on any one assignment, peers rank the work unsatisfactory, you will either not be assigned any points for that assignment or you can submit a revised assignment in response to the class critique.  Revision and resubmission results in full points.  In other words, everyone who chooses to do the work to the satisfaction of his or her collaborative peers in the course will receive an A, but no one is required to do all of the work or to earn an A.

Similarly, Jesse Stommel explains his approach to assessment like this:

This course will focus on qualitative not quantitative assessment, something we’ll discuss during the class, both with reference to your own work and the works we’re studying. While you will get a final grade at the end of the term, I will not be grading individual assignments, but rather asking questions and making comments that engage your work rather than simply evaluate it. You will also be reflecting carefully on your own work and the work of your peers. The intention here is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to. If this process causes more anxiety than it alleviates, see me at any point to confer about your progress in the course to date. If you are worried about your grade, your best strategy should be to join the discussions, do the reading, and complete the assignments. You should consider this course a “busy-work-free zone.” If an assignment does not feel productive, we can find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose the instructions.

And in “The Costs of Big Data,” John Warner asks,

What if one of our goals for students is the development of agency, the ability to negotiate and exert control over their own lives? What if we believe this is an important goal because it is significantly correlated not only with success, but happiness and well-being? What if we believe that a student’s education should extend beyond “tips, tricks, and hints,” for getting better grades?

These are questions that standardized assessments can’t answer; indeed, that their design doesn’t acknowledge. In truth, assessment should not really be a mechanism at all. Assessment should be about curiosity and critical inquiry, a reflective and recursive process that emerges from within a learning community rather than structuring that community in advance.

Learning Objectives Scaffolding

A Problem to Solve