Saturday, 14 February 2015

Assessment NOT for learning

Exams are in the bag and I'm wondering what the point was.  Knowledgeable, capable students did well, incompetent students didn't, but neither have the opportunity to learn from their exams.  It begs the question: what is the point of an exam?

By high school most students think that education is something being done to them.  The write-an-exam-get-a-mark approach only confirms this in their minds.  If assessment isn't for learning, what is it for?  Beaurocracy?  To maintain the teacher as the final arbiter in the classroom?  Neither paperwork, nor maintaining hierarchical classroom structures hold much interest for me.

We're currently being told that if we don't make formal exams for all classes we'll lose formal exam days.  Good riddance I say!  The end of a semester should include a debrief and a chance to review your summatives and assess the state of your own knowledge in terms of course expectations.  This would provide a valuable pedagogical bridge between courses and empower students to take responsibility for their own learning.

From a teaching perspective, the debrief would mean that all the heavy, end of course summative assessment actually serves a purpose.  It isn't supposed to be punitive, and your grade in a class shouldn't be a mystery to you.  Assessment should be transparent and functional.  Most importantly assessment should provide you with an opportunity to improve your learning; formal exams are none of those things, they are the black hole that learning falls into at the end of a course.

At the end of this course I'm going to get you
to write a high stakes, stressful exam that
is the same for all of you regardless
 of your lea
rning styles.  It's going to assume
you all have the same writing abilities.  I'm
then going to surprise you with the results!
I would love to ask the student who left half his exam blank, why did you do that?  I'd like to understand where in his thought process he thought doing nothing was the way forward.  I'd love to question the student who ignored obvious clues in a text and completely misunderstood its intent.  I'm curious to see if, with a nudge, they are capable of seeing what was in front of them the whole time.  I'd like to congratulate and confirm for the student who wrote a fantastic final that, yes, you really know this stuff.

There is a time and place in learning to ask the hard question: do you know what you're doing?  The end of course summative could be this reflexive learning opportunity, but not when it's cloaked in formal exam tradition.

Instead of considering transparent, reflexive course summatives that provide assessment as learning, we're clinging to formal exam models from the early 1900s designed to produce secretive, teacher dominated results that serve no learning purpose.  If the organizational structure of a school schedule isn't serving learning, what is it serving?