Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Assessment as a Form of Teaching and Learning


Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersh
Richard P. Keeling leads Keeling & Associates, LLC, a comprehensive higher education consulting practice based in New York City. Dr. Keeling serves...
Book Cover - We're Losing Our Minds
According to Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersh, co-authors of We're Losing our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education, "America is being held back by the quality and quantity of learning in college. This is a true educational emergency."   View Full Blog
Changing the culture of our colleges and universities to elevate the quality and quantity of learning requires that we make learning the first and highest priority; it must become the touchstone for decision-making and resource allocation. To put student learning at the center of each institution's work demands that we know the extent to which learning is occurring -- which means that establishing and sustaining a conscientious, diligent, and rigorous regime of learning assessment is a foundational element of change for learning.
Currently, far too much learning assessment in our colleges and universities is only summative, and is usually provided at a point at which it is too late for feedback to be useful to students. Learning assessment, to be effective, must be both adequate and timely. How can a student who received a "D" or an "F" in a course based primarily on the work she did on one term paper and/or her performance on the final examination incorporate feedback and improve her work? Motivated mostly by the desire to complete enough courses on their way to a degree rather than by any true engagement with learning, many students check their grades at the end of the semester -- but never review comments on their papers or final exams that might have guided improvements in their future performance or contributed to their knowledge base. If there is no chance to improve because there is no next paper or examination, how inspired should a student be to gather, attend to and use feedback? Feedback too often comes too little and too late. As it is, students have minimal opportunity to engage with professors and receive feedback early in a course, at a time when misunderstandings can be set straight and foundational knowledge upon which more advanced learning is based can be built correctly. Some students fail to realize how bad their performance has been or how poor their understanding is of concepts or skills taught in a course until there is no time and little reason to change.
Assessment must also provide useful information to students, helping them learn skills in self-assessment by enabling them to understand the quality of their own performance as measured against some consistent standard. But more often than not, learning assessments in college are norm-referenced, rather than based on standards; they amount to comparisons with the performance of other students in a course (in other words, grades are "curved"), and a student's work will "look" better or worse depending on how other students performed. When the only "standards" are the comparative performance of peers, they cannot be clearly articulated and explained at the beginning of a course -- so grades will not be based on the achievement of pre-specified, publicly defined learning goals, regardless of whether some, most, or all of those goals are accomplished. How can a student achieve, much less respect, the highest levels of mastery if standards appear to be arbitrary and based on the chance distribution of peer talent, attention, and motivation?
Higher learning improves when students are provided timely and meaningful feedback over the course of instruction. Consider the assessments of learning among surgeons, pilots, and hedge fund managers who are still in training. Neither learning nor its assessment is left to chance. We insist upon high, clear, and well-documented standards for judging expertise in these cases; there are no secrets about what is expected or how success at meeting those expectations will be measured. Nor is it assumed that students get one shot at proving their achievement of the learning that is required. Practice, lots of it, and feedback in the context of clear and high standards are part of the assessment regime. Measurement is an inextricable part of instruction and promotion through not only objective tests, but also simulations, comprehensive written and oral examinations, and proof of performance during as well as at the end of instruction.
Such assessments are completely competency-based; students do not move to the "next level" of training without clearly demonstrating at least satisfactory performance on the previous level. And because the expected outcomes are so imperative, students are provided timely and appropriate feedback to achieve mastery, rather than having their performance compared to that of their peers along a normal curve. Moreover, continuous formative feedback signals and reinforces the teacher's expected standards of achievement, and, equally important, enables students to internalize those standards, lessening the need to rely on an external authority to define quality. None of us would consider flying with a pilot who has not been fully trained and tested on takeoffs and landings, nor would we knowingly tolerate having an operation performed by a surgeon who had not been adequately trained and certified by an examining board or having a root canal performed by an uncertified endodontist. In other words, when it really matters, we find ways to do timely, meaningful assessment of learning both during and after teaching has taken place. When assessment is done in this fashion, it becomes a powerful form of teaching and learning.
Appropriate and effective learning assessment requires that educators -- inside or outside the classroom -- define and communicate the intended objectives for each course or other learning experience at the outset, including the nature of the learning assessments to be utilized and the standards and criteria that will be used for judging students' learning. There should be no surprises; making students guess what matters most, how competency will be assessed, or what the criteria for various levels of accomplishment are, serves no educational purpose. Moreover, assessment that effectively supports learning requires that faculty and professional staff who provide experiential learning activities for students share their expectations -- and the results of their learning assessments -- with both their students and their colleagues, in order to support continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Such transparency also promotes the cumulative achievement of learning goals and outcomes that can only result from the aggregate of teaching and learning, occurring in many contexts, across the institution.
Learning assessment -- understood, practiced, and promoted as a powerful form of teaching and learning -- both supports and reflects the changes in campus culture needed to improve the quality and quantity of undergraduate learning. It requires far greater investments of time, effort, and thought on the part of educators and students alike than grading on a curve; done well, it is not susceptible to the problem of grade inflation. Although many faculty and professional staff will adopt rigorous learning assessment because it helps them do their best work and serves their interest in improving student outcomes, it is also reasonable to expect that reappointment, promotion, and tenure criteria will be adjusted to align with expectations for the greater and more time-consuming engagement with students and their learning that effective learning assessment requires. Change for learning requires not just shifts in attitudes, but alterations in campus policy; institutions that value student learning will not only create vibrant cultures of assessment, but also develop frameworks of policy and commonly agreed practices to advance and sustain those cultures. Learning assessment should never be the province of a small knot of dedicated faculty and staff who understand its benefits and are willing to engage its costs; when that happens, exhaustion, disenchantment, and frustration are the inevitable consequences. Instead, educators should support each other -- and the institution should support all of them -- in a systemic effort to make learning, and learning assessment, central, high priority campus concerns.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home