Beauty Attack I: Assessment

For the next week, I’m going to be applying an aesthetic lens to assessment and, because I’m in Computer Science, I’ll be focusing on the assessment of Computer Science knowledge and practice.

How do we know if our students know something? In reality, the best way is to turn them loose, come back in 25 years and ask the people in their lives, their clients, their beneficiaries and (of course) their victims, the same question: “Did the student demonstrate knowledge of area X?”

This is not available to us as an option because my Dean, if not my Head of School, would probably peer at me curiously if I were to suggest that all measurement of my efficacy be moved a generation from now. Thus, I am forced to retreat to the conventions and traditions of assessment: it is now up to the student to demonstrate to me, within a fixed timeframe, that he or she has taken a firm grip of the knowledge.

We know that students who are prepared to learn and who are motivated to learn will probably learn, often regardless of what we do. We don’t have to read Vallerand et al to be convinced that self-motivated students will perform, as we can see it every day. (But it is an enjoyable paper to read!) Yet we measure these students in the same assessment frames as students who do not have the same advantages and, thus, may not yet have the luxury or capacity of self-motivation: students from disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are first-in-family and students who wouldn’t know auto-didacticism if it were to dance in front of them.

How, then, do we fairly determine what it means to pass, what it means to fail and, even more subtly, what it means to pass or fail well? I hesitate to invoke Foucault, especially when I speak of “Discipline and Punish” in an educational setting, but he is unavoidable when we gaze upon a system that is dedicated to awarding ranks, graduated in terms of punishment and reward. It is strange, really, that were many patients to die under the hand of a surgeon for a simple surgery, we would ask for an inquest, but many students failing under the same professor in a first-year course is merely an indicator of “bad students”. So many of our mechanisms tell us that students are failing but often too late to be helpful and not in a way that encourages improvement. This is punishment. And it is not good enough.

A picture of Michel Foucault, mostly head shot, with his hand on his forehead, wearing glasses, apparently deep in contemplation.

Foucault: thinking about something very complicated, apparently.

Our assessment mechanisms are not beautiful. They are barely functional. They exist to provide a rough measure to separate pass from fail, with a variety of other distinctions that owe more to previous experience and privilege in many cases than any higher pedagogical approach.

Over the next week, I shall conduct an attack upon the assessment mechanisms that are currently used in my field, including my own, in the hope of arriving at a mechanism of design, practice and validation that is pedagogically pleasing (the aesthetic argument again) and will lead to outcomes that are both good and true.


3 Comments on “Beauty Attack I: Assessment”

  1. Paul Gestwicki says:

    If you’re not already familiar with it, let me recommend Rapaport’s article on the triage theory of grading. I have been happily using it for years, and it allows me to conduct reasonable assessments without having to take up arms against the mandated letter-grade system.
    http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/Papers/triage.pdf

    Like

    • nickfalkner says:

      I am delighted to read this as I will be referring to Rapaport over the next few days of writing. I agree with a great deal of what he writes and he’s an excellent source of references in the area of contemplating assessment.

      I look forward to your thoughts on how well I capture and possibly extend his thinking!

      Thanks,
      Nick.

      Like


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