What I really think about assessment…
Every Sunday morning I get up super early in order to read educational articles and write the script for Monday’s Wilson Waffling Live show. The process can go one of two ways, it can either really motivate me to continue to with current practices or, as it was the case this morning, the process can make me rather frustrated about learning and education. This blog often reflects my own personal views about things and I try to ensure that I present ideas and comments which can be supportive for the reader. I probably do not always achieve this with the five people who watch/listen to my waffles, but what I try not to do is to have a rant. Although controversy can often increase views I do try to avoid this at all times. This waffle is going to be about assessment and my own views about it. Please remember these are my own personal views and are not meant to be controversial in any way. Although they might come across that way…
I think it is important to first establish what I think assessment should be for. Learning is complex and as a practitioner who is guiding and supporting the learning of others, it is my job to provide them with help and possible direction. In order to achieve this it is important to know what the learners know, understand and which areas of the aspects of learning they need support with. Anyone who is aware of the processes of learning will recognise that I am referring to assessment for learning here or formative assessment. This is the assessment which I am in complete agreement with and think has a positive impact on learning if administered and act upon effectively. Summative assessment, the realm of end of key stage STAs, assignments and test/exams I often think has little or no impact on the actual learning process and can actually create mindsets which can be detrimental. Within this next section of this waffle I want to focus on this latter form of assessment – summative assessment. I’m going to waffle about this in generic terms without relating it specifically to STAs or assignments. Ready to hear my views? Well here we go!
Using Snapchat for assessment? – Are you a user of Snapchat? I guess I am probably quite unique within the academic world since I do use Snapchat and I am, in the process of trying to increase my use of it, probably less so for academic processes but more for ‘What I am up to’. If you are not aware what Snapchat is, it allows you to take a ‘snap’ in other video or image form and send it to your followers or add it to your story. These ‘snaps’ last for a certain time limit and then they disappear. I’m not suggesting that Snapchat should be used for assessment, I am using Snapchat as an analogy of summative assessment and how we, as practitioners, use it. Some assessment requires learners to revise and engage with a range of material in preparation for an examination or test. Even writing assignments requires some sort of preparation, although the finished product is not written within a set time frame. Using tests to assess learning is rather like Snapchat. You can prepare for the snap (revision) – you get your hair right, ensure that the shot is good and even rehearse what you are going to say. You then can practice and delete attempts (take practice exams, and mocks) until you are happy with the result before finally you take the snap and publish it. And, within ten seconds it has gone forever. This last analogy for me is the most important one. Generally, knowledge we require for examinations we rarely remember for a long period of time and often our brains instantly forget things after we have finished. I remember taking two exams for my BSL (British Sign Language) certificate (level 1 and level 2). I revised hard for these exams and although I did not do exceptionally well, I did pass and progressed. However,if I had not continued to sign from that point onwards I would probably not remember anything to this day. Practice does make perfect, but it also allows us to remember and, perhaps more importantly, continue to remember.
Can you assess by totalling marks? – I’ve marked and administered a range of exams and tests as well as preparing for taking many myself. Marking scripts anonymously is always important and there comes that point when you have to total the marks and place them in the small box on the front of the exam paper. This in itself is not that traumatic, although the next part often is – the cross referencing that mark for an old fashion ‘level’ or seeing whether it has reached the golden mark for a pass. When marking a script it is often possible to get a ‘feel’ for whether the person has a good understanding of knowledge which the exam is testing. Sometimes, when marking, you are looking for single individual words which allows you to award the mark – for example – in response to the question, by which process do plants use sunlight to create food – “If the person writes photosynthesis, then award two marks”. Yes I know this is a very closed question and probably requires a one word answer, but what I really want to know is does the person understand what photosynthesis is as well as what it does. Once the mark has been awarded, this could mean that the learner has passed or, if they get the answer incorrect, possibly failed. Without going into the discussion about spelling, writing and understanding the questions, which are all valid but probably a waffle in itself, should awarding marks actually be used to demonstrate understanding and progression of learning? If you need 60% to pass an exam – why work harder to get closer to 100%? Failing an exam by one mark often results in the same course of action as failing it by ten marks. The opposite is always true, although grades do come into this, there is definitely a range of marks within each grade, and yet they are all presented with the same grade. I’m not sure whether I am communicating my issues about marks effectively here, but essentially for me, it seems that using this method of assessing and possibly awarding grades slightly flawed?
Now rather than later – Working in academia I have become familiar with a few aspects of academic writing which I had never encountered before – referencing and academic style. Within many of the marking grids there is a section relating – quite rightly – to academic writing, including referencing and style. These are, despite what you think, very important, especially if you are looking to publish your research/work. I’ve been through a peer review process for publication so I am aware of this! Referencing, for example, can be confusing and with different institutions using different conventions, learners are required to learn these as well as being able to reference correctly, exceptions or ‘strange’ documents. For me it is important to first understand and to actually reference and then, to reference correctly. In order to support the students with this process, I offer to look at how they think a document should be referenced in order to support their learning or even to provide them with the confidence that they have done it correctly. It seems, to me at least, more supportive and beneficial to do it before the assignment has been marked rather than after, when they receive the comment – “Ensure that you use correct referencing conventions.” I’m using this to demonstrate my next point. I would much rather address issues as they arise rather than waiting for a low mark or even a fail within an exam before I do this. This requires learners to be engaged with the process and actually self-assess their learning as they progress rather than leaving it to the last minute assignment writing session or ‘the night before’ frantic revision. If I receive any assignment or test mark back, my first reaction is probably where did I go wrong, especially if the mark is not what I expected. I know I frequently, in the quiet of my own room and with a very professional manner, exclaim – “why didn’t they tell me that before!”.
I’ve worked with some very good managers in my time and one aspect of my own leadership style is to welcome problems but also ask for solutions. It is very easy for anyone to sit down and have a rant about assessment and say what is wrong with the existing processes but it takes a different sort of person to actually suggest alternative methods and/or possible improvements. For me, the answer to assessment is engagement with the formative approach. Approaches such as doctorate vivas, allow for the questioning and challenging of knowledge and understand of concepts as well as providing the opportunity for the learner to demonstrate their own depth of understanding. The Team Based Learning approach to assessment presents us with a more continual method of assessing the learners understanding of concepts as they progress through modules – which does contribute to their final assessment mark/grade. Formative marking, questions and feedback within schools allows for the understanding of what children know effectively and allows this to be improved and/or acted on within a short time period. Learning should be enjoyable and sometimes I think that the use of tests and examinations leads to everyone disengaging with the learning process, developing a series of processes which allows them to perform well at the expensive of understanding or see the learning as a method for jumping through a ‘hoop’ in order to ‘pass’.
I hope that was not too much of a rant. There are probably some of you which have already started to write your comments in the box below to argue or agree with what I have written. As always, I look forward to hearing your comments and ideas, please add them in the comments below or send them to me via Twitter(@iwilsonysj), Facebook, Google+ or email.
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Have fun and I’ll catch you later – and until then – consider yourself waffled.