Is Assessment a Four-letter Word?

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Maybe. At the college, we’ve just been through a semester-long revision of our General Education system. In the future we should see several of these cycles, where faculty and staff at the college sit down and ask questions: what do we want our students to know and do? What new? What’s old? What’s enduring or emergent?

We’re attempting to set into place a system of “formative, performance-based” assessment that shapes the curriculum as a whole. In practice, faculty at the college and university have always assessed student performance. Exams, quizzes, tests, mid-terms, whatever–these are measures of performance after a given period of practice and learning.

Does a student vigorously pursue a question? Can they identify and examine metaphor? Can they calculate the change of speed or Riemann sums? These are typical questions. How well a student performs defines the range of their learning. I’ve been practicing this kind of assessment for many years now in the Humanities. This experience has given me the opportunity to try different approaches to measuring what my students are able to demonstrate and thus to assess their performance and my performance as well. It’s been interesting to watch student come at literature, media projects, and analyses in this context.

One of the significant issues I’ve faced has to do with attitude. Mine, not the students. Typically I ask students not to worry so much about making the deadline, but that the deadline is real nonetheless. I’ve also informed my students that they don’t have to complete their papers or exams. They don’t even have to come to class. Why? Because this is true. Students don’t have to complete work, take a test, or come to class. No prison sentence will come of this. They may not pass into hell, either. I used to worry myself to death about students completing their work and doing everything I asked. Now, I try not to. They’ve paid their money and will address their commitments to the degree that they able at a given time.

I typically tell students that if they want to be “assessed” then they should complete their work and come to class and study and study and study. None of this can be forced. The philosophy goes like this: if a student wants their performance to be checked at a given time, typically at those times when I set deadlines on the calendar, they are certainly encouraged to do so by handing in an analysis, research paper, or project. In this procedure, an assessment becomes an “opportunity” for a student to show their ability. Kind of like a fullback demonstrating his ability to dodge linebackers or a scientist given the opportunity to solve a challenging problem in the field. There are little problems to solve along the way, readings for discussion, issues to debate, and practice challenges that build skills to be applied to larger projects in the future, like mastering the router on scrap before tackling the hundred dollar sheet goods. If student participate in these, then the big research paper should come together pretty well, or the big exam should be manageable; the cabinet will fit in the nook and the bridge should sustain its burdens.

Long hours of practice in college cannot be taught, but they can be encouraged, and habits can be changed and become durable. We see students with good and not so good work habits. These habits are shaped and reinforced long before Freshman year.

What are excellent methods for students to show ability in the analysis of literature and what methods of exposure, discussion, feedback, and dialogue best promote student and faculty ability. My World Lit students discussed the wiki as a method that got them thinking by building. It wasn’t always perfect; and neither I nor the students sought perfection. We had excellent discussions in class that probed the nuances of Homer and the Shi Jing and the students had opportunities to demonstrate what they learned.

Much more is to be done. Sure, we can collect data. We have the software for this. We can compare performance across departments by shared ability. We can do all kinds of interesting things that give faculty interesting looks at institutional effectiveness. But what really matters is the relationship students build with faculty and that these relationships lead to cool builds, exciting ideas, and meaningful decisions.

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