Assessment: Turning a Blunt Instrument Into a Powerful Learning Tool

It’s ironic that assessment in schools is most often “something adults do to students,” as Rick Stiggins puts it, because all humans are highly evolved for learning, and self-assessment is a powerful tool all learners use. Whether you are trying to master a recipe, solve an equation, improve your golf swing, you continually ask yourself questions such as “Have I learned to do what I need to do?” “What did I do wrong?” “How do I improve?” and, most importantly, “How did I learn that?” All, assessment.

Wouldn’t it be great if schools didn’t turn a finely honed learning skill that all students master to some degree (if they can read and write, for example) into a blunt instrument for institutional measurement that clearly hasn’t been working? Once I took that question seriously, I was compelled to explore ways to change assessment in my own teaching.

Although my pedagogy has moved more and more toward empowering learners to take responsibility for their own learning, assessment in my courses has not heretofore strayed from comment feedback in students’ reflective blogs and in traditional grading methods. I started educating myself about alternatives. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to solve the “who knows who knows what” problem. Cathy Davidson and Dean Shareski were already nodes in my personal learning network, and furnished both inspiration and practical advice about enabling students to learn more effectively through self and peer assessment.

This past summer I was inspired to rethink the assessment aspects of my Fall syllabus, first by Cathy Davidson’s blog post here at DMLcentral about “Standardizing Human Ability,” as well as her courage and skill at putting her theory into practice with ”Contract Grading and Peer Review.” I wasn’t ready by this Fall to plunge all the way with contract grading and peer review – next year! — but I decided to change the final exam to include:

First, write an individual narrative of any kind based on the collaboratively-defined lexicon and your own blog and forum posts, blog comments, social bookmarks, co-teaching, group projects — use as many words from the lexicon as you can present in proper context (don’t just throw them in for sheer quantity — context counts); write your narrative as a forum post and set the access permissions so only you and the administrator (the instructor) can read it; you can take all quarter to work on this, if you wish. But it is due December 9, 9 AM Pacific.

Second part: On December 10, make a presentation, no longer than ten minutes, on any or all aspects of what you have learned in this course. The overall script or text of the presentation should be written or embedded in your blog post; again, you have the option of setting the access permissions so only you and the instructor can read it. Or you can make it world-readable by allowing “anonymous” users to read it. Use any medium. If you use PowerPoint, it better be very very good. You can talk. You can show a video. You can make a website. Multiple media are encouraged. Think deeply and/or broadly. Make connections. First, reflect. Then give the rest of us the benefit of your learnings — what you feel is so important that you want to remind others to take it away with them.

Third part: Using or cMap tools or Visual Understanding Environment, make a concept map of what you’ve learned in this course. In a blog post, compare it to the concept map you made at the beginning of the quarter.

I also asked my friend Howard Levine, who had been involved in looking at educational evaluation for the National Science Foundation. He pointed out the difference between formative and summative assessment as “the difference between the cook tasting the soup to see what it needs and the restaurant critic tasting the soup to give it a rating.” So I decided to experiment with tasting the soup. It wasn’t in the syllabus, but when my students were having mid-terms in other classes, I announced a surprise mid-term. The looks on their faces signaled that I had their full attention. The words “bewildered” and “appalled” come to mind when trying to describe the looks on their faces. Of course, the first question was, “how much will this count on our final grade?”

“It won’t count on your final grade at all.” Total puzzlement on their faces. “It’s a way to reinforce what you’ve learned so far and to identify those parts of the texts you would do well to review. Besides, it will be fun.” Increasing puzzlement. “You DO remember when learning was fun?” Much discussion about this interchange followed in the class forum. I got this scheme from my personal learning network when I started talking about assessment: I asked each of sixteen students in this seminar to email me a question about the texts we’ve discussed – a question that can be answered in less than two minutes. The week of the mid-term, I gave them sixteen questions and asked them to write their answers on sixteen pieces of paper, with their name and the number of the question at the top. Then, forty minutes later, I asked each student to pick up all the answers to the question they had posed and to grade them before the next class meeting. The forum discussion was lively. When it didn’t “count,” the consensus was that it was indeed a way to demonstrate to themselves something of what they’ve learned and reveal those aspects of the text to return to. One student suggested that the “mid-term” ought to be done by groups of four, who have to discuss which question each student is best qualified to answer and communicate about the answer with others in the group. Next year!

My other font of inspiration and practical models for experimenting with assessment has been Dean Shareski, who I found on Twitter years ago when I started following social-media-using educators and the people they followed. Shareski was the source of the “teach the rest of us what you’ve learned” part of the new final exam. Prompted by his example, I tell my students that this is about sharing our learning with each other, and for me to assess my own effectiveness. I also told them that, like them, I’ve never tried this before. Let’s just find a little something to passionately want to pass along to the rest of us before our learning community disbands.

Shareski trains teachers. His Open Letter to My Students is one of the many inspirations that led to our interview:

“Dear Students,

“Because of institutional requirements and societal norms, I’m required to give you a grade. This grade falls between 0-100 and in some way is intended to inform you and others how well you did in this course. The importance that number is given is appalling. While I do my best to provide you with some outcomes, indicators, rubrics and feedback I still feel my assessment of your learning is fairly trivial or at best a thin slice indicator of what you’ve learned.  I realize many would love to believe that the number or grade you get is pure, accurate and will provide future instructors, institutions or employers an indication of your proficiency, understanding or knowledge. If any one of these groups were to ask me about you, I could tell them what I’ve seen and observed. That may have value, the grade, not so much.

“I also recognized that many of you took charge of your own learning, asking to change assignments, finding alternatives and creating meaning for yourselves. That’s what I wanted. While it wasn’t really an “anything goes” approach we were able to negotiate some ideas about what would be valuable for you to pursue inside the broad goals and guidelines of this class.

“At the beginning of the term I told you I had 4 goals for you. I wanted you to see that:

=> Learning is social and connected
=> Learning is personal and self-directed
=> Learning is shared and transparent
=> Learning is rich in content and diversity

“I hope I succeeded in that. Don’t rank me from 0-100 but provide me with feedback and ideas to make me a better teacher.”

Shareski’s practical examples of “student-involved assessment” built on what I was learning from Davidson (and Shareski built upon the work of Rick Stiggins and Will Richardson). He offered as an example a video of a young boy learning to make fire with a bow drill:

“First the young boy demonstrates what he already knows. Using a simple video camera he models and speaks to his current level of understanding. Second he identifies what he doesn’t know, not simply by saying he doesn’t know but by offering some suggestions about what might be wrong but questioning his methodology. And here’s where it gets interesting. Instead of him floundering around with the people in his local vicinity who may not be able to help him, he reaches out. Reading the comments below the video you’ll see at this writing 10 comments that are very likely going to allow him to learn more. Lest you think this is some obscure example, the first time I viewed this there were only just over 100 views. That’s pittance in youtube terms. Anyone can get 100 views but that’s all it took for learning to happen.”

In the video below, I talk with Shareski about learning, assessment, and instilling meta-learning skills of self-assessment, reflection, and maybe aiming for a modicum of fun.

DeanShareski from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.

Banner image credit: Ohio University Libraries