Assessments: Are we going about them the wrong way?

A teacher conducts lessons at Kimisagara Primary School in Kigali.

Most efficient teachers use assessments to inform their teaching. In fact, they constantly pore over evaluations, rubrics, and test scores to see what kinds of actionable insights they can glean from them. However, the way assessment is actually practiced in institutions of higher learning today amounts to little more than a pseudo-scientific managerial pretense likely to interfere with that purpose, while hampering faculty’s ability to attend to their true dual mission; teaching and research.

That being said, effective assessment should force you to examine what it means to be a successful teacher, where your students are now, and how you can help them get to where they need to go. So when do assessments fail? When the assessor cannot see past the quality of their students. Indeed, student populations change, and student characteristics differ, depending on whether you are teaching first-year college students or returning adult learners. However, placing all the blame on the students—saying they don’t study or are unprepared—only adds to our frustration and gives the false impression that students are the only factor in the teaching and learning equation.

It is also important to avoid looking at assessments as busywork. For most people, assessment is an essential part of accreditation and for ensuring we maintain standards for our work. It consists of assigning arbitrary numeric values to discrete skills that cannot be numerically assessed with any consistency, and pretending that this means something. To them, its sole purpose is to satisfy the assessment committee, and there is no good evidence that it does anyone any good. If you look at it as only busywork, you will just fill out the paperwork, check the boxes that need to be checked, and not take a hard look at what the results are trying to tell you.

Giving assessments on account of your being hired to teach is another reason they fail. We were all hired to teach, and that’s probably because we are good at our chosen profession. But we choose to teach, and part of being not merely a good but an excellent teacher is continually evaluating how well you’re doing. Just as buying a car means more than filling it with gas, it’s important that we examine assessment results to see whether or not we need to put “new tires” on our content.

Now that we’ve outlined the different times assessments don’t work, it is proper to examine when they do. Assessment works when we learn to look at it as a process for improving the quality of our teaching. It works when we dialogue with colleagues, both within our discipline and across campus, and create new ideas to help students learn. Assessment works when we try something new and don’t get disheartened when it doesn’t work; instead, we reevaluate and try something else. Assessment works when something new proves effective and we gain information that moves our curriculum forward. Assessment can also work if we quit making excuses as to why it’s so difficult and messy, and instead look to the information to reinforce what works and discard what doesn’t.  Assessment works when we embrace the challenge of always getting better.

Conclusively, we urgently need to rethink how we assess students’ work. There’s far too much emphasis on accountability at the expense of learning. By putting so much emphasis on data, blaming every failure on the student and assessing to keep our jobs, we risk losing sight of where it came from in the first place – that is, what it actually tells us about how much students understand and where they’re struggling. But by changing certain elements of the assessment process, we can make it more meaningful.

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