Evaluating assessment

Exam A group of us at AU have begun discussions about how we might transform our assessment practices, in the light of the far-reaching AU Imagine plan and principles. This is a rare and exciting opportunity to bring about radical and positive change in how learning happens at the institution. Hard technologies influence soft more than vice versa, and assessments (particularly when tied to credentials) tend to be among the hardest of all technologies in any pedagogical intervention. They are therefore a powerful lever for change. Equally, and for the same reasons, they are too often the large, slow, structural elements that infest systems to stunt progress and innovation.

Almost all learning must involve assessment, whether it be of one’s own learning, or provided by other people or machines. Even babies constantly assess their own learning. Reflection is assessment. It is completely natural and it only gets weird when we treat it as a summative judgment, especially when we add grades or credentials to the process, thus normally changing the purpose of learning from achieving competence to achieving a reward. At best it distorts learning, making it seem like a chore rather than a delight, at worst it destroys it, even (and perhaps especially) when learners successfully comply with the demands of assessors and get a good grade. Unfortunately, that’s how most educational systems are structured, so the big challenge to all teachers must be to eliminate or at least to massively reduce this deeply pernicious effect. A large number of the pedagogies that we most value are designed to solve problems that are directly caused by credentials. These pedagogies include assessment practices themselves.

With that in mind, before the group’s first meeting I compiled a list of some of the main principles that I adhere to when designing assessments, most of which are designed to reduce or eliminate the structural failings of educational systems. The meeting caused me to reflect a bit more. This is the result:

Principles applying to all assessments

  • The primary purpose of assessment is to help the learner to improve their learning. All assessment should be formative.
  • Assessment without feedback (teacher, peer, machine, self) is judgement, not assessment, pointless.
  • Ideally, feedback should be direct and immediate or, at least, as prompt as possible.
  • Feedback should only ever relate to what has been done, never the doer.
  • No criticism should ever be made without also at least outlining steps that might be taken to improve on it.
  • Grades (with some very rare minor exceptions where the grade is intrinsic to the activity, such as some gaming scenarios or, arguably, objective single-answer quizzes with T/F answers) are not feedback.
  • Assessment should never ever be used to reward or punish particular prior learning behaviours (e.g. use of exams to encourage revision, grades as goals, marks for participation, etc) .
  • Students should be able to choose how, when and on what they are assessed.
  • Where possible, students should participate in the assessment of themselves and others.
  • Assessment should help the teacher to understand the needs, interests, skills, and gaps in knowledge of their students, and should be used to help to improve teaching.
  • Assessment is a way to show learners that we care about their learning.

Specific principles for summative assessments

A secondary (and always secondary) purpose of assessment is to provide evidence for credentials. This is normally described as summative assessment, implying that it assesses a state of accomplishment when learning has ended. That is a completely ridiculous idea. Learning doesn’t end. Human learning is not in any meaningful way like programming a computer or storing stuff in a database. Knowledge and skills are active, ever-transforming, forever actively renewed, reframed, modified, and extended. They are things we do, not things we have.

With that in mind, here are my principles for assessment for credentials (none of which supersede or override any of the above core principles for assessment, which always apply):

  • There should be no assessment task that is not in itself a positive learning activity. Anything else is at best inefficient, at worst punitive/extrinsically rewarding.
  • Assessment for credentials must be fairly applied to all students.
  • Credentials should never be based on comparisons between students (norm-referenced assessment is always, unequivocally, and unredeemably wrong).
  • The criteria for achieving a credential should be clear to the learner and other interested parties (such as employers or other institutions), ideally before it happens, though this should not forestall the achievement and consideration of other valuable outcomes.
  • There is no such thing as failure, only unfinished learning. Credentials should only celebrate success, not punish current inability to succeed.
  • Students should be able to choose when they are ready to be assessed, and should be able to keep trying until they succeed.
  • Credentials should be based on evidence of competence and nothing else.
  • It should be impossible to compromise an assessment by revealing either the assessment or solutions to it.
  • There should be at least two ways to demonstrate competence, ideally more. Students should only have to prove it once (though may do so in many ways and many times, if they wish).
  • More than one person should be involved in judging competence (at least as an option, and/or on a regularly taken sample).
  • Students should have at least some say in how, when, and where they are assessed.
  • Where possible (accepting potential issues with professional accreditation, credit transfer, etc) they should have some say over the competencies that are assessed, in weighting and/or outcome.
  • Grades and marks should be avoided except where mandated elsewhere. Even then, all passes should be treated as an ‘A’ because students should be able to keep trying until they excel.
  • Great success may sometimes be worthy of an award – e.g. a distinction – but such an award should never be treated as a reward.
  • Assessment for credentials should demonstrate the ability to apply learning in an authentic context. There may be many such contexts.
  • Ideally, assessment for credentials should be decoupled from the main teaching process, because of risks of bias, the potential issues of teaching to the test (regardless of individual needs, interests and capabilities) and the dangers to motivation of the assessment crowding out the learning. However, these risks are much lower if all the above principles are taken on board.

I have most likely missed a few important issues, and there is a bit of redundancy in all this, but this is a work in progress. I think it covers the main points.

Further random reflections

There are some overriding principles and implied specifics in all of this. For instance, respect for diversity, accessibility, respect for individuals, and recognition of student control all fall out of or underpin these principles. It implies that we should recognize success, even when it is not the success we expected, so outcome harvesting makes far more sense than measurement of planned outcomes. It implies that failure should only ever be seen as unfinished learning, not as a summative judgment of terminal competence, so appreciative inquiry is far better than negative critique. It implies flexibility in all aspects of the activity. It implies, above and beyond any other purpose, that the focus should always be on learning. If assessment for credentials adversely affects learning then it should be changed at once.

In terms of implementation, while objective quizzes and their cousins can play a useful formative role in helping students to self-assess and to build confidence, machines (whether implemented by computers or rule-following humans) should normally be kept out of credentialling. There’s a place for AI but only when it augments and informs human intelligence, never when it behaves autonomously. Written exams and their ilk should be avoided, unless they conform to or do not conflict with all the above principles: I have found very few examples like this in the real world, though some practical demonstrations of competence in an authentic setting (e.g. lab work and reporting) and some reflective exercises on prior work can be effective.

A portfolio of evidence, including a reflective commentary, is usually going to be the backbone of any fair, humane, effective assessment: something that lets students highlight successes (whether planned or not), that helps them to consolidate what they have learned, and that is flexible enough to demonstrate competence shown in any number of ways. Outputs or observations of authentic activities are going to be important contributors to that. My personal preference in summative assessments is to only use the intended (including student-generated) and/or harvested outcomes for judging success, not for mandated assignments. This gives flexibility, it works for every subject, and it provides unquivocal and precise evidence of success. It’s also often good to talk with students, perhaps formally (e.g. a presentation or oral exam), in order to tease out what they really know and to give instant feedback. It is worth noting that, unlike written exams and their ilk, such methods are actually fun for all concerned, albeit that the pleasure comes from solving problems and overcoming challenges, so it is seldom easy.

Interestingly, there are occasions in traditional academia where these principles are, for the most part, already widely applied. A typical doctoral thesis/dissertation, for example, is often quite close to it (especially in more modern professional forms that put more emphasis on recording the process), as are some student projects. We know that such things are a really good idea, and lead to far richer, more persistent, more fulfilling learning for everyone. We do not do them ubiquitously for reasons of cost and time. It does take a long time to assess something like this well, and it can take more time during the rest of the teaching process thanks to the personalization (real personalization, not the teacher-imposed form popularized by learning analytics aficionados) and extra care that it implies. It is an efficient use of our time, though, because of its active contribution to learning, unlike a great many traditional assessment methods like teacher-set assignments (minimal contribution) and exams (negative contribution).  A lot of the reason for our reticence, though, is the typical university’s schedule and class timetabling, which makes everything pile on at once in an intolerable avalanche of submissions. If we really take autonomy and flexibility on board, it doesn’t have to be that way. If students submit work when it is ready to be submitted, if they are not all working in lock-step, and if it is a work of love rather than compliance, then assessment is often a positively pleasurable task and is naturally staggered. Yes, it probably costs a bit more time in the end (though there are plenty of ways to mitigate that, from peer groups to pedagogical design) but every part of it is dedicated to learning, and the results are much better for everyone.

Some useful further reading

This is a fairly random selection of sources that relate to the principles above in one way or another. I have definitely missed a lot. Sorry for any missing URLs or paywalled articles: you may be able to find downloadable online versions somewhere.

Boud, D., & Falchikov, N. (2006). Aligning assessment with long-term learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(4), 399-413. Retrieved from https://www.jhsph.edu/departments/population-family-and-reproductive-health/_docs/teaching-resources/cla-01-aligning-assessment-with-long-term-learning.pdf

Boud, D. (2007). Reframing assessment as if learning were important. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305060897_Reframing_assessment_as_if_learning_were_important

Cooperrider, D. L., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. Research in organizational change and development, 1, 129-169.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26(3/4), 325-346.

Hussey, T., & Smith, P. (2002). The trouble with learning outcomes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 3(3), 220-233.

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (Kindle ed.). Mariner Books. (this one is worth forking out money for).

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.

Kohn, A. (2015). Four Reasons to Worry About “Personalized Learning”. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/personalized/ (check out Alfie Kohn’s whole site for plentiful other papers and articles – consistently excellent).

Reeve, J. (2002). Self-determination theory applied to educational settings. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Determination research (pp. 183-203). Rochester, NY: The University of Rochester Press.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications. (may be worth paying for if such things interest you).

Wilson-Grau, R., & Britt, H. (2012). Outcome harvesting. Cairo: Ford Foundation. http://www.managingforimpact.org/sites/default/files/resource/outome_harvesting_brief_final_2012-05-2-1.pdf.

DT&L2018 spotlight presentation: The Teaching Gestalt

The teaching gestalt  presentation slides (PDF, 9MB)

This is my Spotlight Session from the 34th Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, at Wisconsin Madison, August 8th, 2018. Appropriately enough, I did this online and at a distance thanks to my ineptitude at dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration. Unfortunately my audio died as we moved to the Q&A session so, if anyone who was there (or anyone else) has any questions or observations, do please post them here! Comments are moderated.

The talk was concerned with how online learning is fundamentally different from in-person learning, and what that means for how (or even whether) we teach, in the traditional formal sense of the word.

Teaching is always a gestalt process, an emergent consequence of the actions of many teachers, including most notably the learners themselves, which is always greater than (and notably different from) the sum of its parts. This deeply distributed process is often masked by the inevitable (thanks to physics in traditional classrooms) dominance of an individual teacher in the process. Online, the mask falls off. Learners invariably have both far greater control and far more connection with the distributed gestalt. This is great, unless institutional teachers fight against it with rewards and punishments, in a pointless and counter-productive effort to try to sustain the level of control that is almost effortlessly attained by traditional in-person teachers, and that is purely a consequence of solving problems caused by physical classroom needs, not of the needs of learners. I describe some of the ways that we deal with the inherent weaknesses of in-person teaching especially relating to autonomy and competence support, and observe how such pedagogical methods are a solution to problems caused by the contingent side effects of in person teaching, not to learning in general.

The talk concludes with some broad characterization of what is different when teachers choose to let go of that control.  I observe that what might have been Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest creation was his effective learning process, without which none of the rest of his creations could have happened. I am hopeful that now, thanks to the connected world that we live in, we can all learn like Leonardo, if and only if teachers can learn to let go.

The cost of admission to the unlearning zone

picture of dull classroom (pubic domain)I describe some of what I do as ‘unteaching’, so I find this highly critical article by Miss Smith – The Unlearning Zone –  interesting. Miss Smith dislikes the terms ‘ unteaching’ and ‘unlearning’ for some well-expressed aesthetic and practical reasons: as she puts it, they are terms “that would not be out of place in a particularly self-satisfied piece of poststructuralist literary analysis circa 1994.”  I partially agree. However, she also seems equally unenamoured with what she thinks they stand for. I disagree with her profoundly on this so, as she claims to be new to these terms, here is my attempt to explain a little about what I mean by them and why I think they are a useful part of the educators’ lexicon, and why they are crucially important for learners’ development in general.

First the terms…

Yes, ‘unteaching’ is an ugly neoligism and it doesn’t really make sense: that’s part of the appeal of using it – a bit of cognitive dissonance can be useful for drawing attention to something. However, it is totally true that someone who is untaught is just someone who has not (yet) been taught, so ‘unteaching’, seen through that light, is at best pointless, at worst self-contradictory.  On the other hand, it does seem to follow pretty naturally from ‘unlearning’ which, contrary to Miss Smith’s assertion, has been in common use for centuries and makes perfect sense. Have you ever had to unlearn bad habits? Me too.

As I understand it, ‘unteach’ is to ‘teach’ as ‘undo’ is to ‘do’.  Unteaching is still teaching, just as undoing is still doing, and unlearning is still learning. Perhaps deteaching would be a better term. Whatever we choose to call it, unteaching is concerned with intentionally dismantling the taught belief that teaching is about exerting power over learners to teach, and replacing it with the attitude that teachers are there to empower learners to learn. This is not a particularly radical idea. It is what all teachers should do anyway, I reckon. But it is worth drawing attention to it as a distinct activity because it runs counter to the tide, and the problem it addresses is virtually ubiquitous in education up to, and sometimes at, doctoral level.

Traditional teaching of the sort Miss Smith seems to defend in her critique does a lot more than teach a subject, skill, or way of thinking. It teaches that learning is a chore that is not valuable in and of itself, that learners must be forced to do it for some other purpose, often someone else’s purpose. It teaches that teaching is something done to students by a teacher: at its worst, it teaches that teaching is telling; at best, that teaching involves telling someone to do something. It’s not that (many) teachers deliberately seek these outcomes, but that they are the most likely lessons to be learned, because they are the ones that are repeated most often. The need for unteaching arises because traditional teaching, with luck in addition to whatever it intends to teach, teaches some terrible lessons about learning and the role of teaching in that process that must be unlearned.

What is unteaching?

Miss Smith claims that unteaching means “open plan classes, unstructured lessons and bean bags.” That’s not the way I see it at all. Unlike traditional teaching, with its timetables, lesson plans, learning objectives, and uniform tests, unteaching does not have its own technologies and methods, though it does, for sure, tend to be a precursor to connectivist, social constructivist, constructionist, and other more learner-centred ways of thinking about the learning process, which may sometimes be used as part of the process of unteaching itself. Such methods, models, and attitudes emerge fairly naturally when you stop forcing people to do your bidding. However, they are just as capable of being used in a controlling way as the worst of instructivist methods: the number of reports on such interventions that include words like ‘students must…’, ‘I make my students…’ or (less blatantly) ‘students (do X)’ far outnumber all others, and that is the very opposite of unteaching. The specific technologies (including pedagogies as much as open-plan classrooms and beanbags) are not the point. Lectures, drill-and-practice and other instructivist methods are absolutely fine, as long as:

  1. they at least attempt to do the job that students want or need,
  2. they are willingly and deliberately chosen by students,
  3. students are well-informed enough to make those choices, and
  4. students can choose to learn otherwise at any time.

No matter how cool and groovy your problem-based, inquiry-based, active methods might be, if they are imposed on students (especially with the use of threats for non-compliance and rewards for compliance – e.g. qualifications, grades, etc) then it is not unteaching at all: it’s just another way of doing the same kind of teaching that caused the problem in the first place. But if students have control – and ‘control’ includes being able to delegate control to someone else who can scaffold, advise, assist, instruct, direct, and help them when needed, as well as being able to take it back whenever they wish – then such methods can be very useful. So can lectures. To all those educational researchers that object to lectures, I ask whether they have ever found them valuable in a conference (and , if not, why did they go to a conference in the first place?). It’s not the pedagogy of lectures that is at fault. It’s the requirement to attend them and the accompanying expectation that people are going to learn what you are teaching as a result. That’s, simply put, empirically wrong. It doesn’t mean that lecturees learn nothing. Far from it. But what you teach and what they learn are different kinds of animal.

Problems with unteaching

It’s really easy to be a bad unteacher – I think that is what Miss Smith is railing against, and it’s a fair criticism. I’m often pretty bad at it myself, though I have had a few successes along the way too. Unteaching and, especially, the pedagogies that result from having done unteaching, are far more likely to go wrong, and they take a lot more emotional, intellectual, and social effort than traditional teaching because they don’t come pre-assembled. They have no convenient structures and processes in place to do the teaching for you.  Traditional teaching ‘works’ even when it doesn’t. If you throw someone into a school system, with all its attendant rewards, punishments, timetables, rules and curricula, and if you give them the odd textbook and assessment along the way, then most students will wind up learning something like what is intended to be taught by the system, no matter how awful the teachers might be. In such a system, students will rarely learn well, rarely persistently, rarely passionately, seldom kindly, and the love of learning will have been squashed out of many of them along the way (survivors often become academics and teachers themselves). But they will mostly pass tests at the end of it. With a bit of luck many might even have gained a bit of useful knowledge or skill, albeit that much will be not just wasted and forgotten as easily as a hotel room number when your stay is over, but actively disliked by the end of it. And, of course, they will have learned dependent ways of learning that will serve them poorly outside institutional systems.

To make things far worse, those very structures that assist the traditional teacher (grades, compulsory attendance, fixed outcomes, concept of failure, etc) are deeply antagonistic to unteaching and are exactly why it is needed in the first place. Unteachers face a huge upstream struggle against an overwhelming tide that threatens to drown passionate learning every inch of the way. The results of unteaching can be hard to defend within a traditional educational system because, by conventional measures, it is often inefficient and time-consuming. But conventional measures only make sense when you are trying to make everyone do the same things, through the same means, with the same ends, measured by and in order to meet the same criteria. That’s precisely the problem.

The final nail in unteaching’s coffin is that it is applied very unevenly across the educational system, so every freedom it brings is counterbalanced by a mass of reiterated antagonistic lessons from other courses and programs. Every time we unteach someone, two others reteach them.  Ideally, we should design educational systems that are friendlier to and more supportive of learner autonomy, and that are (above all else) respectful of learners as human beings. In K-12 teaching there are plenty of models to draw from, including Summerhill, Steiner (AKA Waldorf) schools, Montessori schools, Experiential Learning Schools etc. Few are even close to perfect, but most are at least no worse than their conventional counterparts, and they start with an attitude of respect for the children rather than a desire to make them conform. That alone makes them worthwhile. There are even some regional systems, such as those found in Finland or (recently) British Columbia, that are heading broadly in the right direction. In universities and colleges there are plenty of working models, from Oxford tutorials to Cambridge supervisions, to traditional theses and projects, to independent study courses and programs, to competency-based programs, to PLAR/APEL portfolios, and much more. It is not a new idea at all. There is copious literature and many theoretical models that have stood the test of time, from andragogy to communities of practice, through to teachings from Freire, Illich, Dewey and even (a bit quirkily) Vygotsky. Furthermore, generically and innately, most distance and e-learning unteaches better than its p-learning counterparts because teachers cannot exert the same level of control and students must learn to learn independently. Sadly, much of it is spoiled by coercing students with grades, thereby providing the worst of both worlds: students are forced to behave as the teacher demands in their terminal behaviours but, without physical copresence, are less empowered by guidance and emotional/social support with the process. Much of my own research and teaching is concerned with inverting that dynamic – increasing empowerment and social support through online learning, while decreasing coercion. I’d like to believe that my institution, Athabasca University, is largely dedicated to the same goal, though we do mostly have a way to go before we get it right.

Why it matters

Unteaching is to a large extent concerned with helping learners – including adult learners – to get back to the point at which most children start their school careers – driven by curiosity, personal interest, social value, joy, delight – but that is schooled out of them over years of being taught dependency.  Once misconceptions about what education is for, what teachers do, and how we learn, have been removed, teaching can happen much more effectively: supporting, nurturing, inspiring, challenging, responding, etc, but not controlling, not making students do things they are not ready to do for reasons that mean little to them and have even less to do with what they are learning.

However, though it is an immensely valuable terminal outcome, improved learning is perhaps not the biggest reason for unteaching. The real issue is moral: it’s simply the right thing to do. The greatest value is that students are far more likely to have been treated with the respect, care, and honour that all human beings deserve along the way. Not ‘care’ of the sort you would give to a dog when you train it to be obedient and well behaved. Care of the sort that recognizes and valorizes autonomy and diversity, that respects individuals, that cherishes their creativity and passion, that sees learners as ends in themselves, not products or (perish the thought) customers. That’s a lesson worth teaching, a way of being that is worth modelling. If that demands more effort, if it is more fallible, and if it means that fewer students pass your tests, then I’m OK with that. That’s the price of admission to the unlearning zone.