On assessing, and being assessed

I both love and hate assessment.

Of all of my duties as a teacher, designing assessment tasks is one of my favourites. The challenge of creating a task that will accurately measure what students have learned appeals to the scientist in me, while the challenge of creating a task that will engage and inspire students appeals to my creative side. I love to see the culmination of a unit’s work in final projects that are varied and reflect each students perspective. When the projects are marked, I like doing a bit of statistical analysis to find out a bit more about the extent to which students learned what I thought they did, but also to find out a bit more about the validity of the assessment task.

But it isn’t all sunshine and roses: between the bookends of the initial planning and the final reflections, there are – invariably – moments of doubt, dismay and distress. I hate the part when I realise that the way I have designed the task has limited student achievement. I hate the part when I realise that most students didn’t learn what I thought they learned. And I really – really – hate the part when I reduce the final product of a student’s learning to a number grade and a brief set of comments.

While I probably would not have been able to identify or articulate these feelings when I began teaching almost ten years ago, as I look back, I can remember specific instances when I felt this way. I’m pretty sure that I have wrestled with a love-hate relationship with assessment all along. What brings it to the front of my mind now is my recent re-entry to academia. After a seven-year hiatus, I am a student again. And, after seven years, I am reminded that  – even as a student – I both love and hate assessment.

I remember sitting in my undergraduate classes, listening to the professors list the assignments for the course on the first day. While apprehensive, I would still get excited. The term papers sounded challenging but I really liked the idea that I would be able to look back and say, “I did that!” On the other hand, I also remember pacing the halls in the moments before being admitted to the final exam, hoping that I would be asked some of the many points I had studied, and worried about whether I would be able to supply the kind of answer the professor wanted to see.

As a student, I like the opportunity to demonstrate what I have learned. I like striving to meet challenging objectives, and the chance to look back and see that I can do more now than I could before. But I hate it it when I find out that my understanding of the course material didn’t match the professor’s expectations and, worse, when the design of the task didn’t allow me to show the the extent of my understanding.

As I consider my love-hate relationship with assessment, both as a student and as a teacher, I realise that my love (and hatred) of assessment is independent of whether I am a teacher or a student. Regardless of my perspective, I love the chance to demonstrate learning and chart progress; regardless of my perspective, I hate the anxiety and disappointment that can come with unclear expectations, or tasks that don’t adequately measure the expectations.

While there’s not a lot I can do to shift the balance from hatred to love of assessment while I’m a student, as a teacher I am reminded of the importance of making my expectations clear, both to myself and my students. By making sure that I know what I expect and thinking carefully about what that could look like in the context of the task, I can make sure that my expectations will actually measure what I intend to measure. By making sure that students know what the expectations are, they will be better able to demonstrate their learning and see their progress.

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