What should assessment mean?

Looking at assessment differently!

So far today (and its not even yet midday) I have experienced two contrasting learning experiences.  I achieved the lowest mark I’ve yet had on one of my MSc assignments and I also achieved Clown Pose and headstand in my yoga lesson.  It’s my regular day off from work today so later on I will have my piano lesson and we’ll see what that brings with it.

I was pretty upset about my assignment grade (although it’s a pass so no worries there).  I cheered myself up by thinking about what I would expect one of my own students to do in a similar situation.  I would want them to take some time to unpick what the problems were with the assignment.  I would expect them to come back to me if there were parts of my feedback that they didn’t understand.  Making this about someone else was a helpful way of giving me a little distance and to help me think about what I need to do in reaction to the immediate situation of the assignment grade.

I also gained a little perspective and cheered up a bit by thinking about what lessons I could take from this experience into my own teaching practice.  As a quick win I think I will try and make clear to my students that they need to approach me if they are unclear about any of my feedback.  I already try and give them tools for evaluating their own performance when they have attempted questions and I try and stress the importance of this part of the process for their overall learning.

I teach on “test prep” courses and for my students there is a clear split between the assessments that are part of the learning experience and the final testing that will give them the qualification they are working for.  Yesterday a tweet linking through to this blog posting by Seth Roberts caught my eye.  He argues for broader criteria for assessing students.  In the context of my assignment grade I think there are a couple of problems.  The learning aspect of assessment has been combined with the final quality assurance aspect of assessment and I think that it impedes the process of learning from assignments when they have the added jeopardy of contributing to the overall course grading.  I also think that the assessment has taken a snap shot only part way through the learning cycle.

If I get a chance to influence the design of assessment I would change things so that there was a two part process when formative and summative assessment is combined.  First the traditional submission and grading of an assignment, then a chance for the student to reflect and improve the piece, then review and grading by their peers.  All three stages, including the students own reflection on the initial feedback could feed into the final grading.

What does any of this have to do with my yoga lesson?  In yoga I am constantly assessing myself and being assessed by my teacher (who is demonstrating Headstand in the video).  It’s assessment that helps move my practice along, because it’s not about me doing some fancy yoga pose perfectly, its about my understanding and awareness in the pose improving.  In yoga my performance is partly assessed against the ideal that I am working towards, but more importantly it is assessed in the context of were I have come from and where I am today.  It is an understanding assessment and as such it is one that is more useful in helping me attain my potential.

Links

Seth Roberts blog is at http://blog.sethroberts.net/2011/12/01/bryan-caplan-disses-college/

You can see Joss Guin teaching headstand on a windy day at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXTk6_ibVH0