Saturday, January 7, 2012

Assessment ponderings

I was reading John's post the other day titled Assessment, Active Learning and Project based learning where he starts off with the question of whether assessment is a part of learning or instructing.  The answer is yes, but it really depends how much relevance you put on assessment and when in the process of learning or instructing you put the emphasis on this assessment.

For example, learning can be different from instruction, not just in who is performing the action (learning vs. instruction) but also on the intended outcomes.  Think of instruction and learning as a Venn diagram. In instructional environments there is, usually, a requirement for immediate assessment, or at least assessment closer to the learning process.  If I am learning how to drive, then my instructor (be this instructor a parent, a relative, a friend or someone who is paid to instruct me) wants to see some immediate uptake of this instruction, otherwise I won't be allowed to drive their car. If I show progress, I can move on to more challenging stuff.  If I don't show progress, I will never move from the empty parking-lot to a more challenging and realistic environment.

Let's take a look at "learning" when there is no human teacher.  Let's say I am learning calligraphy.  Is there a need for assessment?  Yes!  but the assessment is the act of writing calligraphy, so if I am teaching myself calligraphy, I am assessing what I have learned by doing (perhaps writing a nice calligraphic envelope to mail my friend in Greece).  I may choose to test myself immediately, or wait a few weeks in order to get more practice and hence have better outcomes.

John further ponders about teaching to the test.  I think that teaching to the test is not only appropriate, it's imperative.  Teaching to the test has gotten a bad reputation, especially among politicians, and it's become a hot button topic. The image conjured up by the rhetoric is that of a teacher who gives his or her students the test, gives them the correct answers and then has them memorize the write answers in anticipation for the real test.  While this is one way of teaching to the test, it's really cheating students out of an education.

What teaching to the test really means is that students will learn, and practice, things that are actually on the test, no surprises!  If you are apprenticed into a discipline, and your practice is exemplary, then an assessment should not confuse you - you should be able to pass it. If the assessment is a lot of gotchas and tricky or irrelevant questions...then that isn't an assessment at all, it's an exercise in frustration, and a waste of time for both teacher and learner.

By figuring out what you are testing your learners on, you are also more effective as a teacher, because you don't have to teach filler content.  If there is time in the semester for additional nice-to-know curriculum, great! If not, you can focus on just what the learning outcomes are, and what you expect student to have mastered by the end of the course.
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