Freeing our minds from traps: moving towards adequate ideas about assessment

 My blog is called ‘Degrees of fiction’. The following is a fictitious account, inspired by conversations over the years about university (and school) assessments.

The scene is my office in the Education Faculty. A student has come to talk about his assignment, due in a month, where he’s asked to describe and then analyse one of his teaching events. He’s required to use material (theory) from each of his current university units to aid his analysis.

Student: Steve, I’ve got my event. It was the day the class got right out of control, it was awful, and I didn’t know what to do. I’m still not sure what went wrong.

Steve: Good!

Student: Good?

Steve: The aim of this assignment is to use the unit material to help you understand what went wrong. If you knew already, there wouldn’t be much point in doing the assignment.

Student: Much point? I want to get my degree!

Steve: So you’re doing this assessment to get a grade.

The students’ eyes glaze over. He’s heard this before. “It’s not about the grades, it’s about the learning … join the real world, Steve”, his body language says. There’s an awkward silence for a moment.

Student: Anyway, as I said, I’ve got my event, but I’m having some trouble. I’m not sure how to link the event with what we’re learning in your unit about literacy.

Steve: You can’t see the links.

Student: I know we’ve got to drag in theory so you can see we’ve been taking in what you’ve been teaching us …

Steve: We’re asking you to talk about the theory so that we can assess your learning?

Student: Well otherwise we could just write down our opinions, without any evidence that they’re right. We need to prove stuff.

Steve: You need to show that you’re opinions are right?

Student: Steve, will you stop just asking questions! I need your help! What are the links?

Steve: Maybe you’re struggling because you’re thinking about this assignment in a way that isn’t helping.

Student: Meaning?

Steve: You think that we’ve set this assignment in order to force you to demonstrate that you’ve taken in what we’re teaching.

Student: Of course.

Steve: You’re seeing this assessment as an instrument of control.

Student: If I didn’t have to pass the unit, I wouldn’t be doing the reading, I wouldn’t be coming to lectures. Of course assessment is an instrument of control!! And I’m going to need all the control instruments I can lay my hands on if I’m going to be able manage classes like the one I’m wanting to write about!

Steve: You want to be able to control your students.

Student: Well I certainly don’t want them controlling me, which is what happened that day!

Steve: Any ideas about how you might get there?

Student: Maybe if you were teaching something about classroom control rather than about literacy, it might help!

Steve: Learning about literacy is irrelevant in this instance.

There’s another silence, but this one doesn’t feel so awkward.

Steve: You’re looking thoughtful.

Student: I just saw in my mind the ringleader of the riot in my classroom that day. He reminded me of someone. He reminded me of me, when I was at school.

Steve: You were a trouble-maker.

Student [smiles]: Somewhat!

Steve: Maybe there was a link between your struggles with literacy and your trouble making.

Student: Maybe there was. Maybe there was. … But I can’t just say that in my assignment, can I? I can’t just write down my opinion that maybe there was a link between this trouble maker and literacy. Or I can’t just write about him reminding me of me. That’s just writing down my opinions. I need to find evidence, and you haven’t been lecturing about my classroom or about me.

For a while we talk about the unit material, and where research and scholarship is suggesting a link between classroom engagement and literacy struggles. We talk about what might have helped the student if his teachers had known some of the stuff he’s been learning this year.

Student: I don’t feel quite so stuck.

Steve: You don’t feel quite so stuck because you’ve changed the way you’re thinking about the assignment.

Student: Meaning?

Steve: You’ve let go of the idea that the purpose of this assignment is to assess your learning. Of course that’s part of it, but focusing on just that has blocked your thinking. You’ve started to think about how theory might be useful to you.

Student: So I don’t have to prove anything.

Steve: You don’t have to prove anything.

Student: I can just write down my opinions.

Steve: No, you can’t just write down your opinions.

Student: You’re confusing me.

Steve: The theory isn’t there to prove anything. This is teaching, not medical science. We want you to use theory to help you think better, to have ideas that are less inadequate than the ideas that you’ve inherited from just being a student and observing teachers. We want you to see how the ideas we’re introducing you to can help you see more, and if you can see more, you can teach more effectively.

Student: If I can see the link between literacy and classroom engagement, then maybe by becoming a more effective teacher of my discipline’s valued literacies, I can reduce the possibility of classroom riots.

Steve: So you can’t just write down your opinions. You’ve got to show us how the stuff you’re learning – the theories, the ideas, the approaches, the strategies – are informing your opinions, how your thinking is evolving and deepening … just as it has over the last half an hour! The assignment is designed to be useful. That’s its primary purpose. When you grasp that,  the whole thing becomes less confusing.

Student: The assessment is meant to be useful.

Steve: That’s the idea.

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