Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Assessment Assessed

Assessment. That’s tests and exams, right? Oh, and maybe the occasional essay?

Uhmm, until about two weeks ago, that was pretty much the sum total of what I knew about assessment practices. Consider my mind blown.

When you really think about it, there are SO MANY different forms of assessment – prac write-ups, oral presentations, projects, posters, tuts, the list goes on. Upon this variety we then layer the nature of the assessment – is it continuous or discrete? Most of us are familiar with continuous assessment, as it seems to be the standard practice in most educational institutions – every mark you get for every test and assignment you do is accumulated towards some final mark for your course. Brilliant, yes?

The weakness with continuous assessment is that it is summative, and as such the focus of this type of assessment is on the build-up towards some form of certification. The problem with this approach is that it leaves little, or no, room for assessment for the purposes of learning (formative assessment). Formative assessment is really important because it allows students, and lecturers, the opportunity to assess their learning and understanding, without the pressure, stress and fear of failing. Pressure, stress and fear undermine learning, they do not support it. Ask any lecturer on campus and they will tell you that what they taught in first year has to be covered again in second year and again in third year – why is this so? Because students are simply cramming for exams, they are not internalising, they are not REALLY learning. And this brings us to the matter of authenticity.

How authentic are our assessment practices really? If I as a teacher want to produce a competent graduate, is it really enough to simply have them write an exam on the course content? For example, is a theory exam an authentic way to assess a student’s ability to actually play the piano? No. While the theory is important, the theory alone is not enough. Yes, the example of playing the piano is obvious, but what is often forgotten at universities, is that ALL careers are practical – they ALL have a doing component. When we, as lecturers, rely almost exclusively on exam-style assessments, then if we are truly honest with ourselves we will see that these do not provide an authentic assessment of the actual skills that competent graduate need to have.

Our lecturer shared a fantastic graphic from Miller’s 1990 review article, Assessment of Clinical Skills/Competence/Performance, which makes it really clear that the type of assessments most common in universities are simply assessments of cognition – seldom are our assessments a truly authentic reflection of what our students are actually capable of doing.

I’m sure that many would argue that I am woefully naive about the practicalities of running a university and that authentic assessment of thousands of students annually is simply not feasible. Perhaps this is so, but does that justify the continuation of sub-par assessment practices? I would say not. Do I have the answers? No, I don’t. But I do have both eyes wide open now, and from now on I will be doing my best to provide authentic assessment that actually supports real learning with my small piece of the pie!

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