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.

Pittsburgh University Commencement © 2007 Kit | Wikimedia Commons
Pittsburgh University Commencement © 2007 Kit | Wikimedia Commons

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.

7 thoughts on “The Case for Thoughtful Educational Assessment

  1. Great piece. I’m heartened by the gradual shift in faculty members’ views about assessment as they have begun to realize how it can be a *formative* process, not always evaluative. In other words–and it’s embarrassing how long it has taken us as faculty members to figure this out–we can use assessment results to improve student learning, something we care deeply about.

  2. I often think about Tom Angelo’s question “How do we know that our students know what we need them to know?” The more I teach, the more I wonder if I know. Like my students, I’m still learning. (Can you tell what in the above post will be on the test?)

  3. I like the word “thoughtful” in the title. I’ve seen assessment treated as an annoying nuisance by faculty at two schools, and with that attitude, in fact, the assessment instruments designed were not useful. I wonder, are we afraid of what we might find out if we did honest and thoughtful assessments?

    1. I agree that the key to the argument Kalikoff makes is thoughtfulness. Certainly all public activities, especially when they concern the young and the responsibility of the older generation, should be judged, “assessed.” So to be against assessment absolutely is foolish. But very often the mode of judgment of educational outcomes are very narrow, and the actual act of measuring quality undermines education itself. This is my point in my earlier blog post. https://publicseminar.org/2013/09/against-the-education-uncertainty-principle/#.UqiuCY3ZQjU

      The challenge, I think, is to deal with both the need to judge and the need to first do no harm. A difficult challenge.

  4. Thanks for the post! In my work as a librarian “thoughtful assessment” extends beyond the classroom to include student learning spaces that facilitate informal learning and their critical use/evaluation of information sources. Thinking about the student’s complete experience at an institution and how we assess it is a daunting, but exciting, challenge.

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