The Case for Thoughtful Educational Assessment

A long-ago mathematics colleague at another university told a story about his first semester in the classroom. He threw a bunch of proofs on the blackboard and then, in the last five minutes, asked if there were any questions. There were no questions. He was unnerved. These students were good. The second class, he did more problems, more proofs, faster. Any questions? No questions. These students were geniuses. He had to ratchet up his game. He prepared mightily for the third class. When he showed up for the third class, there were no students. They’d all dropped.

There are a lot of reasons to love this story, and one of them is the assumption that teaching and learning are the same thing.  Yet as Kathleen Blake Yancey has written, there are three curricula in every classroom: the one students bring with them, the one we teach, and the one they learn. Students always learn. They just don’t always learn what we want. Thoughtful assessment aims to close the gap between teaching and learning.

I know: “thoughtful assessment” looks like an oxymoron. Assessment schemas often rain down on us from above, coming from the state legislature, designed by elected officials who never taught and who suspect us of taking summers off and mowing our lawns on weekdays.  There’s also a lot of Public Relations assessment around, where you sweep up some data in hopes of looking good enough to recruit more students. Yet the scholarship of teaching and learning is rich in thoughtful assessment research on closing the gap between teaching and learning. Most people don’t know the literature unless they contribute to it.

The history and politics of assessment, my field, has its own exemplars and manifestos, discoveries and disappointments. It is robustly interdisciplinary, starting arguably with the institution of the civil service exam in Imperial China all the way through the sad history of the SAT exam, which aimed to advance meritocracy in the USA only to become another means by which the educationally and socially privileged leverage their privilege. In an important sense, assessment of student learning is a democratic practice, moving students from targets or objects of teaching to participants who have expertise about what advances their learning.

As scholars we depend on the collection and interpretation of data, of evidence. As teachers, though, we sometimes check our need for evidence at the door. We teach this way because we were taught this way; because everyone in our department teaches this way; because we always taught this way; because it would take time to change anything but the assigned readings; because if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. How would we know if it’s broken or not, though? By students getting lower grades? We give the grades. The logic is circular. And rather regal. Articulating student learning goals for the course is beneath us. We divine.

Assessing student learning differs from grading student work and analyzing end-of-term student evaluations. It’s more instructive. Similarly, discussing what we want students to know and why is a big project but a meaningful one. And others have gone before us. We can learn from them. Beats shaking our fists at change. As Norman Furniss writes, the barbarians are always inside the gates, higher education is always in crisis. Future generations of scholars might call the move from teaching to learning revolutionary.

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Beth Kalikoff

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