(Em)Power in the Classroom Series (Part 5)

Welcome back from the dark side! That’s what I’ll say when I greet instructors and faculty members who – at some point – fell down the slippery slope of hardcore assessment only to one glorious day question their practices and the mismatch between their assessments and learning objectives – leading them to reflect, read, question and then return to the brighter side of the assessment paradigm.

What exactly shapes the dark and bright sides of this paradigm, you might ask. Well, traditional approaches to assessment not only place far too much emphasis on the grade, they also extract the students from the entire process. Assessment essentially becomes something that happens to the students rather than something with which they engage. Much like the traditional lecture, which has been in place for decades, evaluation practices have been passed down, inherited and accepted as the ‘way it should be done.’Consider this article about how students learn, which states that the word lecture comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to read’. There was a great need to lecture back when books weren’t readily published. Now, we need not read (talk) to them about our content areas – we can let them read and explore outside of class and then co-construct knowledge around the content, dive in through discussions and activities in class. We’ll be on hand to support, facilitate and inspire!

Now let’s think about assessment … and we’ll do so through a little anecdote. I recently consulted with a graduate student who is about to teach her own class for the first time. She’s had experiences as a teaching assistant, so she’s led the occasional lesson and graded many a paper. Now she gets to design her own course and is excited about choosing materials, deciding which topics to include and developing a sense of how to explore the content with her students.

During our consultation, I asked her what assessments she has in place for the course. Her response: “Two exams and three quizzes.” [Insert dramatic pause] Or is it only me that needs the dramatic pause because I know what course she’s teaching … see if you can guess based on her response to my follow-up question. “So, let’s take a step back. What are the learning outcomes you have set for this course? What is it that you want them to be able to do by the end of this course?” She lists a few simple, measurable outcomes: 1) to track the life of a seed in the ground until it comes fully into being and produces food; 2) to articulate the policies that impact how, when and where food is grown, and; 3) to describe the relationship of food cultivation to the larger web of life. (I’m kind of paraphrasing, but you get the idea.) It’s a class on organic gardening and I struggled to understand the link between her objectives and her assessments. When asked why those would be her measures, she replied: “Because that’s how it’s always been done.”

What alternatives could we implement in this class? I’m sure you can suggest many, but here are a few options I offered: have students keep a journal of their gardens’ successes and failures (include relevant content, provide a rubric, set the bar high for quality work), develop group projects that tackle policies relevant to organic gardening in legislature, have students develop strategic plans for local nonprofit community gardens, stage end of semester debates around ‘hot topics’, have students write a paper on the challenges they faced when developing their compost, etc.

Knowing that this course meets a science requirement for all undergrads, there is the feeling that the assessments should be more rigorous. That’s fine. Just create clear, high standards criteria for each assignment. Require students to incorporate key terms, evidence-based argumentation, organizational thinking, problem-solving skills, etc. Alternative assessment does not by its nature imply ‘easy assessment’.

When we reconsider how we assess and make sure that our assessments actually measure the learning outcomes we have set forth for our students, we find a balance in our instruction that is often missing when class sessions are hands on and assessments are multiple choice (for example).

With relation to sharing the power (and thereby reducing anxiety) there are many ways to involve students in the assessment process. Barbara Gross Davis (2009) has a wealth of great ideas in her text Tools for Teaching (see Unit VIII – Testing and Grading). She suggests alternative assessments and tweaks on the old favorites. For example, for those courses that just have to implement exams, why not leave space for students to justify their multiple choice answers. How about letting students buy additional information on certain questions (with points, not money – i.e., they lose 3 points of total available, but they get the formula to calculate degrees of freedom). Allow them to bring crib sheets, provide an extra credit question or even let them write one final question in on a blank and answer it for points. Give practice exams and review sessions and maybe even let them redo an exam. Give them a chance to show what they know!

The reality is that if we are married to grades and students are weighed down by the pressure and anxiety about grades, we live on the dark side where students tend to cheat more, they equate their ability with their grades, and they become ‘grade grubbers’ – begging us at key stages in the semester for more points (Weimer, 2002).

We’ll continue to explore assessment next time as I review my students’ final portfolio and consider the impact on them of being assessed in this way. I’ll also share with you my non-traditional approach to grading – including the negotiation part.

Gross-Davis, B. (2009). Tools for Teaching – 2nd Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer, M. (2002) Learner Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San Francisco; Jossey-Bass.