Now there’s a title that I didn’t expect to write. In this case, I’m referring to how we break group tasks down into individual elements. I’ve already noted that groups like team members who are hard-working, able to contribute and dependable, but we also have the (conflicting) elements from the ideal group where the common goal is more important than individual requirements and this may require people to perform tasks that they are either not comfortable with or ideally suited for.
How do we assess this fairly? We can look at what a group produces and we can look at what a group does but, to see the individual contribution, there has to be some allocation of sub-tasks to individuals. There are several (let’s call them interesting) ways that people divide up up tasks that we set. Here are three.
- Decomposition into dependent sub-tasks.
- Decomposition into isolated sub-tasks (if possible).
- Decomposition into different roles that spread across different tasks.
Part of working with a group is knowing whether tasks can be broken down, how that can be done successfully, being able to identify dependencies and then putting the whole thing back together to produce a recognisable task at the end.
What we often do with assignment work is to give students identical assignments and they all solemnly go off and solve the same problem (and we punish them if they don’t do enough of this work by themselves). Obviously, then, a group assignment that can be decomposed to isolated sub tasks that have no dependencies and have no assembly requirement is functionally equivalent to an independent assessment, except with some semantic burden of illusory group work.
If we set assignments that have dependent sub-tasks, we aren’t distributing work pressure fairly as students early on in the process have more time to achieve their goals but potentially at the expense of later students. But if the tasks aren’t dependent then we have the problem that the group doesn’t have to perform as a group, they’re a set of people who happen to have a common deadline. Someone (or some people) may have an assembly role at the end but, for the most part, students could work separately.
The ideal way to keep the group talking and working together is to drive such behaviour through necessity, which would require role separation and involvement in a number of tasks across the lifespan of the activity. Nothing radical about that. It also happens to be the hardest form to assess as we don’t have clear task boundaries to work with. However, we also have provided many opportunities for students to demonstrate their ability and to work together, whether as mentor or mentee, to learn from each other in the process.
For me, the most beautiful construction of a group assessment task is found where groups must work together to solve the problem. Beautiful decomposition is, effectively, not a decomposition process but an identification strategy that can pinpoint key tasks while recognising that they cannot be totally decoupled without subverting the group work approach.
But this introduces grading problems. A fluid approach to task allocation can quickly blur neat allocation lines, especially if someone occupies a role that has less visible outputs than another. Does someone get equal recognition for driving ideas, facilitating, the (often dull) admin work or do you have to be on the production side to be seen as valuable?
I know some of you have just come down heavily on one side or the other reading that last line. That’s why we need to choose assessment carefully here.
If you want effective group work, you need an effective group. They have to trust each other, they have to work to individual strengths, and they must be working towards a common goal which is the goal of the task, not a grading goal.
I’m in deep opinion now but I’ve always wondered how many student groups fall apart because we jam together people who just want a pass with people who would kill a baby deer for a high distinction. How do these people have common ground, common values, or the ability to build a mutual trust relationship?
Why do people who just want to go out and practice have to raise themselves to the standards of a group of students who want to get academic honours? Why should academic honours students have to drop their standards to those of people who are happy to scrape by?
We can evaluate group work but we don’t have to get caught up on grading it. The ability to work in a group is a really useful skill. It’s heavily used in my industry and I support it being used as part of teaching but we are working against most of the things we know about the construction of useful groups by assigning grades for knowledge and skill elements that are strongly linked into the group work competency.
Look at how teams work. Encourage them to work together. Provide escape valves, real tasks, things so complex that it’s a rare person who could do it by themselves. Evaluate people, provide feedback, build those teams.
I keep coming back to the same point. So many students dislike group work, we must be doing something wrong because, later in life, many of them start to enjoy it. Random groups? They’re still there. Tight deadlines? Complex tasks? Insufficient instructions? They’re all still there. What matters to people is being treated fairly, being recognised and respected, and having the freedom to act in a way to make a contribution. Administrative oversight, hierarchical relationships and arbitrary assessment sap the will, undermine morale and impair creativity.
If your group task can be decomposed badly, it most likely will be. If it’s a small enough task that one keen person could do it, one keen person probably will because the others won’t have enough of a task to do and, unless they’re all highly motivated, it won’t be done. If a group of people who don’t know each other also don’t have a reason to talk to each other? They won’t. They might show up in the same place if you can trigger a bribe reaction with marks but they won’t actually work together that well.
The will to work together has to be fostered. It has to be genuine. That’s how good things get done by teams.
Valuable tasks make up for poor motivation. Working with a group helps to practise and develop your time management. Combine this with a feeling of achievement and there’s some powerful intrinsic motivation there.
And that’s the fuel that gets complex tasks done.
What are the characteristics of group work and how can we define these in terms that allow us to form a model of beauty about them? We know what most people want from their group members. They want them to be:
- Honest. They do what they say and they only claim what they do. They’re fair in their dealings with others.
- Dependable. They actually do all of what they say they’re going to do.
- Hard-working. They take a ‘reasonable’ time to get things done.
- Able to contribute a useful skill
- A communicator. They let the group know what’s going on.
- Positive, possibly even optimistic.
A number of these are already included in the Socratic principles of goodness and truth. Truth, in the sense of being honest and transparent, covers 1, 2 and possibly even 5. Goodness, that what we set out to do is what we do and this leads to beauty, covers 3 and 4, and I think we can stretch it to 6.
But what about the aesthetics of the group itself? What does a beautiful group look like? Let’s ignore the tasks we often use in group environments and talk about a generic group. A group should have at least some of these (from) :
- Common goals.
- Participation from every member.
- A focus on what people do rather than who they are.
- A focus on what happened rather than how people intended.
- The ability to discuss and handle difference.
- A respectful environment with some boundaries.
- The capability to work beyond authoritarianism.
- An accomodation of difference while understanding that this may be temporary.
- The awareness that what group members want is not always what they get.
- The realisation that hidden conflict can poison a group.
Note how many of these are actually related to the task itself. In fact, of all of the things I’ve listed, none of the group competencies have anything at all to do with a task and we can measure and assess these directly by observation and by peer report.
How many of these are refined by looking at some arbitrary discipline artefact? If anything, by forcing students to work together on a task ‘for their own good’, are we in direct violation of this new number 7, allowing a group to work beyond strict hierarchies?
I’ve worked in hierarchical groups in the Army. The Army’s structure exists for a very specific reason: soldiers die in war. Roles and relationships are strictly codified to drive skill and knowledge training and to ensure smooth interoperation with a minimum of acclimatisation time. I think we can be bold and state that such an approach is not required for third- or fourth-year computer programming, even at the better colleges.
I am not saying that we cannot evaluate group work, nor am I saying that I don’t believe such training to be valuable for students entering the workforce. I just don’t happen to accept that mediating the value of a student’s skills and knowledge through their ability to carry out group competencies is either fair or honest. Item 9, where group members may have to adopt a role that they have identified is not optimal, is grossly unfair when final marks depend upon how the group work channel mediates the perception of your contribution.
There is a vast amount of excellent group work analysis and support being carried out right now, in many places. The problem occurs when we try to turn this into a mark that is re-contextualised into the knowledge frame. Your ability to work in groups is a competency and should be clearly identified as such. It may even be a competency that you need to display in order to receive industry-recognised accreditation. No problems with that.
The hallmarks of traditional student group work are resentment at having to do it, fear that either their own contributions won’t be recognised or someone else’s will dominate, and a deep-seated desire to get the process over with.
Some tasks are better suited to group solution. Why don’t we change our evaluation mechanisms to give students the freedom to explore the advantages of the group without the repercussions that we currently have in place? I can provide detailed evaluation to a student on their group role and tell a lot about the team. A student’s inability to work with a randomly selected team on a fake project with artificial timelines doesn’t say anything that I would be happy to allocate a failing grade to. It is, however, an excellent opportunity for discussion and learning, assuming I can get beyond the tyranny of the grade to say it.
You knew it was coming. The biggest challenge of any assessment model: how do we handle group-based assessment?
There’s a joke that says a lot about how students feel when they’re asked to do group work:
When I die I want my group project members to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one more time.
Everyone has horror stories about group work and they tend to fall into these patterns:
- Group members X and Y didn’t do enough of the work.
- I did all of the work.
- We all got the same mark but we didn’t do the same work.
- Person X got more than I did and I did more.
- Person X never even showed up and they still passed!
- We got it all together but Person X handed it in late.
- Person W said that he/she would do task T but never did and I ended up having to do it.
Let’s consolidate these. People are concerned about a fair division of work and fair recognition of effort, especially where this falls into an allocation of grades. (Point 6 only matters if there are late penalties or opportunities lost by not submitting in time.)
This is totally reasonable! If someone is getting recognition for doing a task then let’s make sure it’s the right person and that everyone who contributed gets a guernsey. (Australian football reference to being a recognised team member.)
How do we make group work beautiful? First, we have to define the aesthetics of group work: which characteristics define the activity? Then we maximise those as we have done before to find beauty. But in order for the activity to be both good and true, it has to achieve the goals that define and we have to be open about what we are doing. Let’s start, even before the aesthetics, and ask about group work itself.
What is the point of group work? This varies by discipline but, usually, we take a task that is too large or complex for one person to achieve in the time allowed and that mimics (or is) a task you’d expect graduates to perform. This task is then attacked through some sort of decomposition into smaller pieces, many of which are dependant in a strict order, and these are assigned to group members. By doing this, we usually claim to be providing an authentic workplace or task-focused assignment.
The problem that arises, for me, is when we try and work out how we measure the success of such a group activity. Being able to function in a group has a lot of related theory (psychological, behavioural, and sociological, at least) but we often don’t teach that. We take a discipline task that we believe can be decomposed effectively and we then expect students to carve it up. Now the actual group dynamics will feature in the assessment but we often measure the outputs associate with the task to determine how effective group formation and management was. However, the discipline task has a skill and knowledge dimension, while the group activity elements have a competency focus. What’s more problematic is that unsuccessful group work can overshadow task achievement and lead to a discounting of skill and knowledge success, through mechanisms that are associated but not necessarily correlated.
Going back to competency-based assessment, we assess competency by carrying out direct observation, indirect measures and through professional reports and references. Our group members’ reports on us (and our reports on them) function in the latter area and are useful sources of feedback, identifying group and individual perceptions as well as work progress. But are these inherently markable? We spend a lot of time trying to balance peer feedback, minimise bullying, minimise over-claiming, and get a realistic view of the group through such mechanisms but adding marks to a task does not make it more cognitively beneficial. We know that.
For me, the problem with most group work assessment is that we are looking at the output of the task and competency based artefacts associated with the group and jamming them together as if they mean something.
Much as I argue against late penalties changing the grade you received, which formed a temporal market for knowledge, I’m going to argue against trying to assess group work through marking a final product and then dividing those grades based on reported contributions.
We are measuring different things. You cannot just add red to melon and divide it by four to get a number and, yet, we are combining different areas, with different intentions, and dragging it into one grade that is more likely to foster resentment and negative association with the task. I know that people are making this work, at least to an extent, and that a lot of great work is being done to address this but I wonder if we can channel all of the energy spent in making it work into getting more amazing things done?
Just about every student I’ve spoken to hates group work. Let’s talk about how we can fix that.
But [GPA calculation adjustment] have to be a method of avoidance, this can be a useful focusing device. If a student did really well in, say, Software Engineering but struggled with an earlier, unrelated, stream, why can’t we construct a GPA for Software Engineering that clearly states the area of relevance and degree of information? Isn’t that actually what employers and people interested in SE want to know?
This hits at the heart of my concerns over any kind of summary calculation that obscures the process. Who does this benefit? What use it is to anyone? What does it mean? Let’s look at one of the most obvious consumers of student GPAs: the employers and industry.
Feedback from the Australian industry tells us that employers are generally happy with the technical skills that we’re providing but it’s the softer skills (interpersonal skills, leadership, management abilities) that they would like to see more of and know more about. A general GPA doesn’t tell you this but a Software Engineering focused GPA (as I mentioned above) would show you how a student performed in courses where we would expect to see these skills introduced and exercised.
Putting everything into one transcript gives people the power to assemble this themselves, yes, but this requires the assembler to know what everything means. Most employers have neither the time nor inclination to do this for all 39 or so institutions in Australia. But if a University were to say “this is a summary of performance in these graduate attributes”, where the GAs are regularly focused on the softer skills, then we start to make something more meaningful out of an arbitrary number.
But let’s go further. If we can see individual assessments, rather than coarse subject grades, we can start to construct a model of an individual across the different challenges that they have faced and overcome. Portfolios are, of course, a great way to do this but they’re more work to read than single measures and, too often, such a portfolio is weighed against simpler, apparently meaningful measures such as high GPAs and found wanting. Portfolios also struggle if placed into a context of previous failure, even if recent activity clearly demonstrates that a student has moved on from that troubled or difficult time.
I have a deep ethical and philosophical objection to curve grading, as you probably know. The reason is simple: the actions of one student should not negatively affect the outcomes of another. This same objection is my biggest problem with GPA, although in this case the action and outcomes belong to the same student at different points in her or his life. Rather than using performance in one course to determine access to the learning upon which it depends, we make these grades a permanent effect and every grade that comes afterwards is implicitly mediated through this action.
Should Past Academic Nick have an inescapable impact on Now and Future Academic Nick’s life? When we look at all of the external influences on success, which make it clear how much totally non-academic things matter, it gets harder and harder to say “Yes, Past Academic Nick is inescapable.” Unfairness is rarely aesthetically pleasing.
An excellent comment on the previous post raised the issue of comparing GPAs in an environment where the higher GPA included some fails but the slightly lower GPA student had always passed. Which was the ‘best’ student from an award perspective? Student A fails three courses at the start of his degree, student B fails three courses at the end. Both pass with the same GPA, time to completion, and number of passes and fails. Is there even a sense of ‘better student’ here? B’s struggles are more immediate and, implicitly, concerns would be raised that these problems could still be active. A has, apparently, moved on in some way. But we’d never know this from simplistic calculations.
If we’re struggling to define ‘best’ and we’re not actually providing something that many people feel is useful, while burdening students with an inescapable past, then the least we can do is to sit down with the people who are affected by this and ask them what they really want.
And then, when they tell us, we do something about changing our systems.
If we are going to try and summarise a complicated, long-term process with a single number, and I don’t see such shortcuts going away anytime soon, then it helps to know:
- Exactly what the number represents.
- How it can be used.
- What the processes are that go into its construction.
We have conventions as to what things mean but, when we want to be precise, we have to be careful about our definition and our usage of the final value. As a simple example, one thing that often surprises people who are new to numerical analysis is that there is more than one way of calculating the average value of a group of numbers.
While average in colloquial language would usually mean that we take the sum of all of the numbers and divide them by their count, this is more formally referred to as the arithmetic mean. What we usually want from the average is some indication of what the typical value for this group would be. If you weigh ten bags of wheat and the average weight is 10 kilograms, then that’s what many people would expect the weight to be for future bags, unless there was clear early evidence of high variation (some 500g, some 20 kilograms, for example.)
But the mean is only one way to measure central tendency in a group of numbers. We can also measure the median, the number that separates the highest half of the data from the lowest, or the mode, the value that is the most frequently occurring value in the group.
(This doesn’t even get into the situation where we decide to aggregate the values in a different way.)
If you’ve got ten bags of wheat and nine have 10 kilograms in there, but one has only 5 kilograms, which of these ways of calculating the average is the one you want? The mode is 10kg but the mean is 9.5kg. If you tried to distribute the bags based on the expectation that everyone gets 9.5, you’re going to make nine people very happy and one person unhappy.
Most Grade Point Average calculations are based on a simple arithmetic mean of all available grades, with points allocated from 0 to an upper bound based on the grade performance. As a student adds more courses, these contributions are added to the calculation.
In yesterday’s post, I mused on letting students control which grades go into a GPA calculation and, to explore that, I now have to explain what I mean and why that would change things.
As it stands, because a GPA is an average across all courses, any lower grades will permanently drop the GPA contribution of any higher grades. If a student gets a 7 (A+ or High Distinction) for 71 of her courses and then a single 4 (a Passing grade) for one, her GPA will be 6.875. It can never return to 7. The clear performance band of this student is at the highest level, given that just under 99% of her marks are at the highest level, yet the inclusion of all grades means that a single underperformance, for whatever reason, in three years has cost her standing for those people who care about this figure.
My partner and I discussed some possible approaches to GPA that would be better and, by better, we mean approaches that encourage students to improve, that clearly show what the GPA figure means, and that are much fairer to the student. There are too many external factors contributing to resilience and high performance for me to be 100% comfortable with the questionable representation provided by the GPA.
Before we even think about student control over what is presented, we can easily think of several ways to make a GPA reflect what you have achieved, rather than what you have survived.
- We could only count a percentage of the courses for each student. Even having 90% counted means that students who stumble a little once or twice do not have this permanently etched into a dragging grade.
- We could allow a future attempt at a course with an improved to replace the previous grade. Before we get too caught up in the possibility of ‘gaming’, remember that students would have to pay for this (even if delayed) in most systems and it will add years to their degree. If a student can reach achievement level X in a course then it’s up to us to make sure that does correspond to the achievement level!
- We could only count passes. Given that a student has to assemble sufficient passing grades to be awarded a degree, why then would we include the courses that do not count in a calculation of GPA?
- We could use the mode and report the most common mark the student receives.
- We could do away with it totally. (Not going to happen any time soon.)
- We could pair the GPA with a statistical accompaniment that tells the viewer how indicative it is.
Options 1 and 2 are fairly straight-forward. Option 3 is interesting because it compresses the measurement band to a range of (in my system) 4-7 and this then implicitly recognises that GPA measures for students who graduate are more likely to be in this tighter range: we don’t actually have the degree of separation that we’d assume from a range of 0-7. Option 4 is an interesting way to think about the problem: which grade is the student most likely to achieve, across everything? Option 5 is there for completeness but that’s another post.
Option 6 introduces the idea that we stop GPA being a number and we carefully and accurately contextualise it. A student who receives all high distinctions in first semester still has a number of known hurdles to get over. The GPA of 7 that would be present now is not as clear an indicator of facility with the academic system as a GPA of 7 at the end of a degree, whichever other GPA adjustment systems are in play.
More evidence makes it clearer what is happening. If we can accompany a GPA (or similar measure) with evidence, then we are starting to make the process apparent and we make the number mean something. However, this also allows us to let students control what goes into their calculation, from the grades that they have, as a clear measure of the relevance of that measure can be associated.
But this doesn’t have to be a method of avoidance, this can be a useful focusing device. If a student did really well in, say, Software Engineering but struggled with an earlier, unrelated, stream, why can’t we construct a GPA for Software Engineering that clearly states the area of relevance and degree of information? Isn’t that actually what employers and people interested in SE want to know?
Handing over an academic transcript seems to allow anyone to do this but human cognitive biases are powerful, subtle and pervasive. It is harder for most humans to recognise positive progress in the areas that they are interested in, if there is evidence of less stellar performance elsewhere. I cite my usual non-academic example: Everyone thought Anthony La Paglia’s American accent was too fake until he stopped telling people he was Australian.
If we have to use numbers like this, then let us think carefully about what they mean and, if they don’t mean that much, then let’s either get rid of them or make them meaningful. These should, at a fundamental level, be useful to the students first, us second.
Assessments support evaluation, criticism and ranking (Wolff). That’s what it does and, in many cases, that also constitutes a lot of why we do it. But who are we doing it for?
I’ve reflected on the dual nature of evaluation, showing a student her or his level of progress and mastery while also telling us how well the learning environment is working. In my argument to reduce numerical grades to something meaningful, I’ve asked what the actual requirement is for our students, how we measure mastery and how we can build systems to provide this.
But who are the student’s grades actually for?
In terms of ranking, grades allow people who are not the student to place the students in some order. By doing this, we can award awards to students who are in the awarding an award band (repeated word use deliberate). We can restrict our job interviews to students who are summa cum laude or valedictorian or Dean’s Merit Award Winner. Certain groups of students, not all, like to define their progress through comparison so there is a degree of self-ranking but, for the most part, ranking is something that happens to students.
Criticism, in terms of providing constructive, timely feedback to assist the student, is weakly linked to any grading system. Giving someone a Fail grade isn’t a critique as it contains no clear identification of the problems. The clear identification of problems may not constitute a fail. Often these correlate but it’s weak. A student’s grades are not going to provide useful critique to the student by themselves. These grades are to allow us to work out if the student has met our assessment mechanisms to a point where they can count this course as a pre-requisite or can be awarded a degree. (Award!)
Evaluation is, as noted, useful to us and the student but a grade by itself does not contain enough record of process to be useful in evaluating how mastery goals were met and how the learning environment succeeded or failed. Competency, when applied systematically, does have a well-defined meaning. A passing grade does not although there is an implied competency and there is a loose correlation with achievement.
Grades allow us to look at all of a student’s work as if this one impression is a reflection of the student’s involvement, engagement, study, mistakes, triumphs, hopes and dreams. They are additions to a record from which we attempt to reconstruct a living, whole being.
Grades are the fossils of evaluation.
Grades provide a mechanism for us, in a proxy role as academic archaeologist, to classify students into different groups, in an attempt to project colour into grey stone, to try and understand the ecosystem that such a creature would live in, and to identify how successful this species was.
As someone who has been a student several times in my life, I’m aware that I have a fossil record that is not traditional for an academic. I was lucky to be able to place a new imprint in the record, to obscure my history as a much less successful species, and could then build upon it until I became an ACADEMIC TYRANNOSAURUS.
But I’m lucky. I’m privileged. I had a level of schooling and parental influence that provided me with an excellent vocabulary and high social mobility. I live in a safe city. I have a supportive partner. And, more importantly, at a crucial moment in my life, someone who knew me told me about an opportunity that I was able to pursue despite the grades that I had set in stone. A chance came my way that I never would have thought of because I had internalised my grades as my worth.
Let’s look at the fossil record of Nick.
My original GPA fossil, encompassing everything that went wrong and right in my first degree, was 2.9. On a scale of 7, which is how we measure it, that’s well below a pass average. I’m sharing that because I want you to put that fact together with what happened next. Four years later, I started a Masters program that I finished with a GPA of 6.4. A few years after the masters, I decided to go and study wine making. That degree was 6.43. Then I received a PhD, with commendation, that is equivalent to GPA 7. (We don’t actually use GPA in research degrees. Hmmm.) If my grade record alone lobbed onto your desk you would see the desiccated and dead snapshot of how I (failed to) engage with the University system. A lot of that is on me but, amazingly, it appears that much better things were possible. That original grade record stopped me from getting interviews. Stopped me from getting jobs. When I was finally able to demonstrate the skills that I had, which weren’t bad, I was able to get work. Then I had the opportunity to rewrite my historical record.
Yes, this is personal for me. But it’s not about me because I wasn’t trapped by this. I was lucky as well as privileged. I can’t emphasise that enough. The fact that you are reading this is due to luck. That’s not a good enough mechanism.
Too many students don’t have this opportunity. That impression in the wet mud of their school life will harden into a stone straitjacket from which they may never escape. The way we measure and record grades has far too much potential to work against students and the correlation with actual ability is there but it’s not strong and it’s not always reliable.
The student you are about to send out with a GPA of 2.9 may be competent and they are, most definitely, more than that number.
The recording of grades is a high-loss storage record of the student’s learning and pathway to mastery. It allows us to conceal achievement and failure alike in the accumulation of mathematical aggregates that proxy for competence but correlate weakly.
We need assessment systems that work for the student first and everyone else second.
From the previous post, I asked how many times a student has to perform a certain task, and to which standard, that we become confident that they can reliably perform the task. In the Vocational Education and Training world this is referred to as competence and this is defined (here, from the Western Australian documentation) as:
In VET, individuals are considered competent when they are able to consistently apply their knowledge and skills to the standard of performance required in the workplace.
How do we know if someone has reached that level of competency?
We know whether an individual is competent after they have completed an assessment that verifies that all aspects of the unit of competency are held and can be applied in an industry context.
The programs involved are made up of units that span the essential knowledge and are assessed through direct observation, indirect measurements (such as examination) and in talking to employers or getting references. (And we have to be careful that we are directly measuring what we think we are!)Hang on. Examinations are an indirect measurement? Yes, of course they are here, we’re looking for the ability to apply this and that requires doing rather than talking about what you would do. Your ability to perform the task in direct observation is related to how you can present that knowledge in another frame but it’s not going to be 1:1 because we’re looking at issues of different modes and mediation.
But it’s not enough just to do these tasks as you like, the specification is quite clear in this:
It can be demonstrated consistently over time, and covers a sufficient range of experiences (including those in simulated or institutional environments).
I’m sure that some of you are now howling that many of the things that we teach at University are not just something that you do, there’s a deeper mode of thinking or something innately non-Vocational about what is going on.
And, for some of you, that’s true. Any of you who are asking students to do anything in the bottom range of Bloom’s taxonomy… I’m not convinced. Right now, many assessments of concepts that we like to think of as abstract are so heavily grounded in the necessities of assessment that they become equivalent to competency-based training outcomes.
The goal may be to understand Dijkstra’s algorithm but the task is to write a piece of code that solves the algorithm for certain inputs, under certain conditions. This is, implicitly, a programming competency task and one that must be achieved before you can demonstrate any ability to show your understanding of the algorithm. But the evaluator’s perspective of Dijkstra is mediated through your programming ability, which means that this assessment is a direct measure of programming ability in language X but an indirect measure of Dijkstra. Your ability to apply Dijkstra’s algorithm would, in a competency-based frame, be located in a variety of work-related activities that could verify your ability to perform the task reliably.
All of my statistical arguments on certainty from the last post come back to a simple concept: do I have the confidence that the student can reliably perform the task under evaluation? But we add to this the following: Am I carrying out enough direct observation of the task in question to be able to make a reliable claim on this as an evaluator?
There is obvious tension, at modern Universities, between what we see as educational and what we see as vocational. Given that some of what we do falls into “workplace skills” in a real sense, although we may wish to be snooty about the workplace, why are we not using the established approaches that allow us to actually say “This student can function as an X when they leave here?”
If we want to say that we are concerned with a more abstract education, perhaps we should be teaching, assessing and talking about our students very, very differently. Especially to employers.
I’m at the Australasian Computer Science Week at the moment and I’m dividing my time between attending amazing talks, asking difficult questions, catching up with friends and colleagues and doing my own usual work in the cracks. I’ve talked to a lot of people about my ideas on assessment (and beauty) and, as always, the responses have been thoughtful, challenging and helpful.
I think I know what the basis of my problem with assessment is, taking into account all of the roles that it can take. In an earlier post, I discussed Wolff’s classification of assessment tasks into criticism, evaluation and ranking. I’ve also made earlier (grumpy) notes about ranking systems and their arbitrary nature. One of the interesting talks I attended yesterday talked about the fragility and questionable accuracy of post-University exit surveys, which are used extensively in formal and informal rankings of Universities, yet don’t actually seem to meet many of the statistical or sensible guidelines for efficacy we already have.
But let’s put aside ranking for a moment and return to criticism and evaluation. I’ve already argued (successfully I hope) for a separation of feedback and grades from the criticism perspective. While they are often tied to each other, they can be separated and the feedback can still be useful. Now let’s focus on evaluation.
Remind me why we’re evaluating our students? Well, we’re looking to see if they can perform the task, apply the skill or knowledge, and reach some defined standard. So we’re evaluating our students to guide their learning. We’re also evaluating our students to indirectly measure the efficacy of our learning environment and us as educators. (Otherwise, why is it that there are ‘triggers’ in grading patterns to bring more scrutiny on a course if everyone fails?) We’re also, often accidentally, carrying out an assessment of the innate success of each class and socio-economic grouping present in our class, among other things, but let’s drill down to evaluating the student and evaluating the learning environment. Time for another thought experiment.
Thought Experiment 2
There are twenty tasks aligned with a particularly learning outcome. It’s an important task and we evaluate it in different ways but the core knowledge or skill is the same. Each of these tasks can receive a ‘grade’ of 0, 0.5 or 1. 0 means unsuccessful, 0.5 is acceptable, 1 is excellent. Student A attempts all tasks and is acceptable in 19, unsuccessful in 1. Student B attempts the first 10 tasks, receives excellent in all of them and stops. Student C sets up a pattern of excellent,unsuccessful, excellent, unsuccessful.. and so on to receive 10 “Excellent”s and 10 “unsuccessful”s. When we form an aggregate grade, A receives 47.5%, B receives 50% and C also receives 50%. Which of these students is the most likely to successfully complete the task?
This framing allows us to look at the evaluation of the student in a meaningful way. “Who will pass the course?” is not the question we should be asking, it’s “Who will be able to reliably demonstrate mastery of the skills or knowledge that we are imparting.” Passing the course has a naturally discrete attention focus: focus on n assignments and m exams and pass. Continual demonstration of mastery is a different goal. This framing also allows us to examine the learning environment because, without looking at the design, I can’t tell you if B and C’s behaviour is problematic or not.
A has undertaken the most tasks to an acceptable level but an artefact of grading (or bad luck) has dropped the mark below 50%, which would be a fail (aggregate less than acceptable) in many systems. B has performed excellently on every task attempted but, being aware of the marking scheme, optimising and strategic behaviour allows this student to walk away. (Many students who perform at this level wouldn’t, I’m aware, but we’re looking at the implications of this.) C has a troublesome pattern that provides the same outcome as B but with half the success rate.
Before we answer the original question (which is most likely to succeed), I can nominate C as the most likely to struggle because C has the most “unsuccessful”s. From a simple probabilistic argument, 10/20 success is worse than 19/20. It’s a bit tricker comparing 10/10 and 10/20 (because of confidence intervals) but 10/20 has an Adjusted Wald range of +/- 20% and 10/10 is -14%, so the highest possible ‘real’ measure for C is 14/20 and the lowest possible ‘real’ measure for B is (scaled) 15/20, so they don’t overlap and we can say that B appears to be more successful than C as well.
From a learning design perspective, do our evaluation artefacts have an implicit design that explains C’s pattern? Is there a difference we’re not seeing? Taking apart any ranking of likeliness to pass our evaluatory framework, C’s pattern is so unusual (high success/lack of any progress) that we learn something immediately from the pattern, whether it’s that C is struggling or that we need to review mechanisms we thought to be equivalent!
But who is more likely to succeed out of A and B? 19/20 and 10/10 are barely distinguishable in statistical terms! The question for us now is how many evaluations of a given skill or knowledge mastery are required for us to be confident of competence. This totally breaks the discrete cramming for exams and focus on assignment model because all of our science is built on the notion that evidence is accumulated through observation and the analysis of what occurred, in order to be able to construct models to predict future behaviour. In this case, our goal is to see if our students are competent.
I can never be 100% sure that my students will be able to perform a task but what is the level I’m happy with? How many times do I have to evaluate them at a skill so that I can say that x successes in y attempts constitutes a reliable outcome?
If we say that a student has to reliably succeed 90% of the time, we face the problem that just testing them ten times isn’t enough for us to be sure that they’re hitting 90%.
But the level of performance we need to be confident is quite daunting. By looking at some statistics, we can see that if we provide a student with 150 opportunities to demonstrate knowledge and they succeed at this 143 times, then it is very likely that their real success level is at least 90%.
If we say that competency is measured by a success rate that is greater than 75%, a student who achieves 10/10 has immediately met that but even succeeding at 9/9 doesn’t meet that level.
What this tells us (and reminds us) is that our learning environment design is incredibly important and it must start from a clear articulation of what success actually means, what our goals are and how we will know when our students have reached that point.
There is a grade separation between A and B but it’s artificial. I noted that it was hard to distinguish A and B statistically but there is one important difference in the lower bound of their confidence interval. A is less than 75%, B is slightly above.
Now we have to deal with the fact that A and B were both competent (if not the same) for the first ten tests and A was actually more competent than B until the 20th failed test. This has enormous implications for we structure evaluation, how many successful repetitions define success and how many ‘failures’ we can tolerate and still say that A and B are competent.
Confused? I hope not but I hope that this is making you think about evaluation in ways that you may not have done so before.
How does one actually turn everything I’ve been saying into a course that can be taught? We already have examples of this working, whether in the performance/competency based models found in medical schools around the world or whether in mastery learning based approaches where do not measure anything except whether a student has demonstrated sufficient knowledge or skill to show an appropriate level of mastery.
An absence of grades, or student control over their grades, is not as uncommon as many people think. MIT in the United States give students their entire first semester with no grades more specific than pass or fail. This is a deliberate decision to ease the transition of students who have gone from being leaders at their own schools to the compressed scale of MIT. Why compressed? If we were to assess all school students then we would need a scale that could measure all levels of ability, from ‘not making any progress at school’ to ‘transcendent’. The tertiary entry band is somewhere between ‘passing school studies’ to ‘transcendent’ and, depending upon the college that you enter, can shift higher and higher as your target institution becomes more exclusive. If you look at the MIT entry requirements, they are a little coy for ‘per student’ adjustments, but when the 75th percentile for the SAT components is 800, 790, 790, and 800,800,800 would be perfect, we can see that any arguments on how demotivating simple pass/fail grades must be for excellent students have not just withered, they have caught fire and the ash has blown away. When the target is MIT, it appears the freshmen get their head around a system that is even simpler than Rapaport’s.
Other universities, such as Brown, deliberately allow students to choose how their marks are presented, as they wish to deemphasise the numbers in order to focus on education. It is not a cakewalk to get into Brown, as these figures attest, and yet Brown have made a clear statement that they have changed their grading system in order to change student behaviour – and the world is just going to have to deal with that. It doesn’t seem to be hurting their graduates, from quotes on the website such as “Our 85% admission rate to medical school and 89% admission rate to law school are both far above the national average.”
And, returning to medical schools themselves, my own University runs a medical program where the usual guidelines for grading do not hold. The medical school is running on a performance/competency scheme, where students who wish to practise medicine must demonstrate that they are knowledgable, skilful and safe to practice. Medical schools have identified the core problem in my thought experiment where two students could have the opposite set of knowledge or skills and they have come to the same logical conclusion: decide what is important and set up a scheme that works for it.
When I was a solider, I was responsible for much of the Officer Training in my home state for the Reserve. We had any number of things to report on for our candidates, across knowledge and skills, but one of them was “Demonstrate the qualities of an officer” and this single item could fail an otherwise suitable candidate. If a candidate could not be trusted to one day be in command of troops on the battlefield, based on problems we saw in peacetime, then they would be counselled to see if it could be addressed and, if not, let go. (I can assure you that this was not used often and it required a large number of observations and discussion before we would pull that handle. The power of such a thing forced us to be responsible.)
We know that limited scale, mastery-based approaches are not just working in the vocational sector but in allied sectors (such as the military), in the Ivy league (Brown) and in highly prestigious non-Ivy league institutions such as MIT. But we also know of examples such as Harvey Mudd, who proudly state that only seven students since 1955 have earned a 4.0 GPA and have a post on the career blog devoted to “explaining why your GPA is so low” And, be in no doubt, Harvey Mudd is an excellent school, especially for my discipline. I’m not criticising their program, I’ve only heard great things about them, but when you have to put up a page like that? You’re admitting that there’s a problem but you are pushing it on to the student to fix it. But contrast that with Brown, who say to employers “look at our students, not their grades” (at least on the website).
Feedback to the students on their progress is essential. Being able to see what your students are up to is essential for the teacher. Being able to see what your staff and schools are doing is important for the University. Employers want to know who to hire. Which of these is the most important?
The students. It has to be the students. Doesn’t it? (Arguments for the existence of Universities as a self-sustaining bureaucracy system in the comments, if you think that’s a thing you want to do.)
This is not an easy problem but, as we can see, we have pieces of the solution all over the place. Tomorrow, I’m going to put in a place a cornerstone of beautiful assessment that I haven’t seen provided elsewhere or explained in this way. (Then all of you can tell me which papers I should have read to get it from, I can publish the citation, and we can all go forward.)
I was inspired to write this by a comment about using late penalties but dealing slightly differently with students when they owned up to being late. I have used late penalties extensively (it’s school policy) and so I have a lot of experience with the many ways students try to get around them.
Like everyone, I have had students who have tried to use honesty where every other possible way of getting the assignment in on time (starting early, working on it before the day before, miraculous good luck) has failed. Sometimes students are puzzled that “Oh, I was doing another assignment from another lecturer” isn’t a good enough excuse. (Genuine reasons for interrupted work, medical or compassionate, are different and I’m talking about the ambit extension or ‘dog ate my homework’ level of bargaining.)
My reasoning is simple. In education, owning up to something that you did knowing that it would have punitive consequences of some sort should not immediately cause things to become magically better. Plea bargaining (and this is an interesting article of why that’s not a good idea anywhere) is you agreeing to your guilt in order to reduce your sentence. But this is, once again, horse-trading knowledge on the market. Suddenly, we don’t just have a temporal currency, we have a conformal currency, where getting a better deal involves finding the ‘kindest judge’ among the group who will give you the ‘lightest sentence’. Students optimise their behaviour to what works or, if they’re lucky, they have a behaviour set that’s enough to get them to a degree without changing much. The second group aren’t mostly who we’re talking about and I don’t want to encourage the first group to become bargain-hunting mark-hagglers.
I believe that ‘finding Mr Nice Lecturer’ behaviour is why some students feel free to tell me that they thought someone else’s course was more important than mine, because I’m a pretty nice person and have a good rapport with my students, and many of my colleagues can be seen (fairly or not) as less approachable or less open.
We are not doing ourselves or our students any favours. At the very least, we risk accusations of unfairness if we extend benefits to one group who are bold enough to speak to us (and we know that impostor syndrome and lack of confidence are rife in under-represented groups). At worst, we turn our students into cynical mark shoppers, looking for the easiest touch and planning their work strategy based on what they think they can get away with instead of focusing back on the learning. The message is important and the message must be clearly communicated so that students try to do the work for when it’s required. (And I note that this may or may not coincide with any deadlines.)
We wouldn’t give credit to someone who wrote ‘True’ and then said ‘Oh, but I really meant False’. The work is important or it is not. The deadline is important or it is not. Consequences, in a learning sense, do not have to mean punishments and we do not need to construct a Star Chamber in our offices.
Yes, I do feel strongly about this. I completely understand why people do this and I have also done this before. But after thinking about it at length, I changed my practice so that being honest about something that shouldn’t have happened was appreciated but it didn’t change what occurred unless there was a specific procedural difference in handling. I am not a judge. I am not a jury. I want to change the system so that not only do I not have to be but I’m not tempted to be.