What are we assessing? How?

How we can create a better assessment system, without penalties, that works in a grade-free environment? Let’s provide a foundation for this discussion by looking at assessment today.

fx_Bloom_New

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

We have many different ways of understanding exactly how we are assessing knowledge. Bloom’s taxonomy allows us to classify the objectives that we set for students, in that we can determine if we’re just asking them to remember something, explain it, apply it, analyse it, evaluate it or, having mastered all of those other aspects, create a new example of it. We’ve also got Bigg’s SOLO taxonomy to classify levels of increasing complexity in a student’s understanding of subjects. Now let’s add in threshold concepts, learning edge momentum, neo-Piagetian theory and …

Let’s summarise and just say that we know that students take a while to learn things, can demonstrate some convincing illusions of progress that quickly fall apart, and that we can design our activities and assessment in a way that acknowledges this.

I attended a talk by Eric Mazur, of Peer Instruction fame, and he said a lot of what I’ve already said about assessment not working with how we know we should be teaching. His belief is that we rarely rise above remembering and understanding, when it comes to testing, and he’s at Harvard, where everyone would easily accept their practices as, in theory, being top notch. Eric proposed a number of approaches but his focus on outcomes was one that I really liked. He wanted to keep the coaching role he could provide separate from his evaluator role: another thing I think we should be doing more.

Eric is in Physics but all of these ideas have been extensively explored in my own field, especially where we start to look at which of the levels we teach students to and then what we assess. We do a lot of work on this in Australia and here is some work by our groups and others I have learned from:

  • Szabo, C., Falkner, K. & Falkner, N. 2014, ‘Experiences in Course Design using Neo-Piagetian Theory’
  • Falkner, K., Vivian, R., Falkner, N., 2013, ‘Neo-piagetian Forms of Reasoning in Software Development Process Construction’
  • Whalley, J., Lister, R.F., Thompson, E., Clear, T., Robbins, P., Kumar, P. & Prasad, C. 2006, ‘An Australasian study of reading and comprehension skills in novice programmers, using Bloom and SOLO taxonomies’
  • Gluga, R., Kay, J., Lister, R.F. & Teague, D. 2012, ‘On the reliability of classifying programming tasks using a neo-piagetian theory of cognitive development’

I would be remiss to not mention Anna Eckerdal’s work, and collaborations, in the area of threshold concepts. You can find her many papers on determining which concepts are going to challenge students the most, and how we could deal with this, here.

Let me summarise all of this:

  • There are different levels at which students will perform as they learn.
  • It needs careful evaluation to separate students who appear to have learned something from students who have actually learned something.
  • We often focus too much on memorisation and simple explanation, without going to more advanced levels.
  • If we want to assess advanced levels, we may have to give up the idea of trying to grade these additional steps as objectivity is almost impossible as is task equivalence.
  • We should teach in a way that supports the assessment we wish to carry out. The assessment we wish to carry out is the right choice to demonstrate true mastery of knowledge and skills.

If we are not designing for our learning outcomes, we’re unlikely to create courses to achieve those outcomes. If we don’t take into account the realities of student behaviour, we will also fail.

We can break our assessment tasks down by one of the taxonomies or learning theories and, from my own work and that of others, we know that we will get better results if we provide a learning environment that supports assessment at the desired taxonomic level.

But, there is a problem. The most descriptive, authentic and open-ended assessments incur the most load in terms of expert human marking. We don’t have a lot of expert human markers. Overloading them is not good. Pretending that we can mark an infinite number of assignments is not true. Our evaluation aesthetics are objectivity, fairness, effectiveness, timeliness and depth of feedback. Assignment evaluation should be useful to the students, to show progress, and useful to us, to show the health of the learning environment. Overloading the marker will compromise the aesthetics.

Our beauty lens tells us very clearly that we need to be careful about how we deal with our finite resources. As Eric notes, and we all know, if we were to test simpler aspects of student learning, we can throw machines at it and we have a near infinite supply of machines. I cannot produce more experts like me, easily. (Snickers from the audience) I can recruit human evaluators from my casual pool and train them to mark to something like my standard, using a rubric or using an approximation of my approach.

Thus I have a framework of assignments, divide by level, and I appear to have assignment evaluation resources. And the more expert and human the marker, the more … for want of a better word … valuable the resource. The better feedback it can produce. Yet the more valuable the resource, the less of it I have because it takes time to develop evaluation skills in humans.

Tune in tomorrow for the penalty free evaluation and feedback that ties all of this together.


EduTech AU 2015, Day 2, Higher Ed Leaders, “Assessment: The Silent Killer of Learning”, #edutechau @eric_mazur

No surprise that I’m very excited about this talk as well. Eric is a world renowned educator and physicist, having developed Peer Instruction in 1990 for his classes at Harvard as a way to deal with students not developing a working physicist’s approach to the content of his course. I should note that Eric also gave this talk yesterday and the inimitable Steve Wheeler blogged that one, so you should read Steve as well. But after me. (Sorry, Steve.)

I’m not an enormous fan of most of the assessment we use as most grades are meaningless, assessment becomes part of a carrot-and-stick approach and it’s all based on artificial timelines that stifle creativity. (But apart from that, it’s fine. Ho ho.) My pithy statement on this is that if you build an adversarial educational system, you’ll get adversaries, but if you bother to build a learning environment, you’ll get learning. One of the natural outcomes of an adversarial system is activities like cheating and gaming the system, because people start to treat beating the system as the goal itself, which is highly undesirable. You can read a lot more about my views on plagiarism here, if you like. (Warning: that post links to several others and is a bit of a wormhole.)

Now, let’s hear what Eric has to say on this! (My comments from this point on will attempt to contain themselves in parentheses. You can find the slides for his talk – all 62MB of them – from this link on his website. ) It’s important to remember that one of the reasons that Eric’s work is so interesting is that he is looking for evidence-based approaches to education.

Eric discussed the use of flashcards. A week after Flashcard study, students retain 35%. After two weeks, it’s almost gone. He tried to communicate this to someone who was launching a cloud-based flashcard app. Her response was “we only guarantee they’ll pass the test”.

*low, despairing chuckle from the audience*

Of course most students study to pass the test, not to learn, and they are not the same thing. For years, Eric has been bashing the lecture (yes, he noted the irony) but now he wants to focus on changing assessment and getting it away from rote learning and regurgitation. The assessment practices we use now are not 21st century focused, they are used for ranking and classifying but, even then, doing it badly.

So why are we assessing? What are the problems that are rampant in our assessment procedure? What are the improvements we can make?

How many different purposes of assessment can you think of? Eric gave us 90s to come up with a list. Katrina and I came up with about 10, most of which were serious, but it was an interesting question to reflect upon. (Eric snuck

  1. Rate and rank students
  2. Rate professor and course
  3. Motivate students to keep up with work
  4. Provide feedback on learning to students
  5. Provide feedback to instructor
  6. Provide instructional accountability
  7. Improve the teaching and learning.

Ah, but look at the verbs – they are multi-purpose and in conflict. How can one thing do so much?

So what are the problems? Many tests are fundamentally inauthentic – regurgitation in useless and inappropriate ways. Many problem-solving approaches are inauthentic as well (a big problem for computing, we keep writing “Hello, World”). What does a real problem look like? It’s an interruption in our pathway to our desired outcome – it’s not the outcome that’s important, it’s the pathway and the solution to reach it that are important. Typical student problem? Open the book to chapter X to apply known procedure Y to determine an unknown answer.

Shout out to Bloom’s! Here’s Eric’s slide to remind you.

Rights reside with Eric Mazur.

Rights reside with Eric Mazur.

Eric doesn’t think that many of us, including Harvard, even reach the Applying stage. He referred to a colleague in physics who used baseball problems throughout the course in assignments, until he reached the final exam where he ran out of baseball problems and used football problems. “Professor! We’ve never done football problems!” Eric noted that, while the audience were laughing, we should really be crying. If we can’t apply what we’ve learned then we haven’t actually learned i.

Eric sneakily put more audience participation into the talk with an open ended question that appeared to not have enough information to come up with a solution, as it required assumptions and modelling. From a Bloom’s perspective, this is right up the top.

Students loathe assumptions? Why? Mostly because we’ll give them bad marks if they get it wrong. But isn’t the ability to make assumptions a really important skill? Isn’t this fundamental to success?

Eric demonstrated how to tame the problem by adding in more constraints but this came at the cost of the creating stage of Bloom’s and then the evaluating and analysing(Check out his slides, pages 31 to 40, for details of this.) If you add in the memorisation of the equation, we have taken all of the guts out of the problem, dropping down to the lowest level of Bloom’s.

But, of course, computers can do most of the hard work for that is mechanistic. Problems at the bottom layer of Bloom’s are going to be solved by machines – this is not something we should train 21st Century students for.

But… real problem solving is erratic. Riddled with fuzziness. Failure prone. Not guaranteed to succeed. Most definitely not guaranteed to be optimal. The road to success is littered with failures.

But, if you make mistakes, you lose marks. But if you’re not making mistakes, you’re very unlikely to be creative and innovative and this is the problem with our assessment practices.

Eric showed us a stress of a traditional exam room: stressful, isolated, deprived of calculators and devices. Eric’s joke was that we are going to have to take exams naked to ensure we’re not wearing smart devices. We are in a time and place where we can look up whatever we want, whenever we want. But it’s how you use that information that makes a difference. Why are we testing and assessing students under such a set of conditions? Why do we imagine that the result we get here is going to be any indicator at all of the likely future success of the student with that knowledge?

Cramming for exams? Great, we store the information in short-term memory. A few days later, it’s all gone.

Assessment produces a conflict, which Eric noticed when he started teaching a team and project based course. He was coaching for most of the course, switching to a judging role for the monthly fair. He found it difficult to judge them because he had a coach/judge conflict. Why do we combine it in education when it would be unfair or unpleasant in every other area of human endeavour? We hide between the veil of objectivity and fairness. It’s not a matter of feelings.

But… we go back to Bloom’s. The only thinking skill that can be evaluated truly objectively is remembering, at the bottom again.

But let’s talk about grade inflation and cheating. Why do people cheat at education when they don’t generally cheat at learning? But educational systems often conspire to rob us of our ownership and love of learning. Our systems set up situations where students cheat in order to succeed.

  • Mimic real life in assessment practices!

Open-book exams. Information sticks when you need it and use it a lot. So use it. Produce problems that need it. Eric’s thought is you can bring anything you want except for another living person. But what about assessment on laptops? Oh no, Google access! But is that actually a problem? Any question to which the answer can be Googled is not an authentic question to determine learning!

Eric showed a video of excited students doing a statistic tests as a team-based learning activity. After an initial pass at the test, the individual response is collected (for up to 50% of the grade), and then students work as a group to confirm the questions against an IF AT scratchy card for the rest of the marks. Discussion, conversation, and the students do their own grading for you. They’ve also had the “A-ha!” moment. Assessment becomes a learning opportunity.

Eric’s not a fan of multiple choice so his Learning Catalytics software allows similar comparison of group answers without having to use multiple choice. Again, the team based activities are social, interactive and must less stressful.

  • Focus on feedback, not ranking.

Objective ranking is a myth. The amount of, and success with, advanced education is no indicator of overall success in many regards. So why do we rank? Eric showed some graphs of his students (in earlier courses) plotting final grades in physics against the conceptual understanding of force. Some people still got top grades without understanding force as it was redefined by Newton. (For those who don’t know, Aristotle was wrong on this one.) Worse still is the student who mastered the concept of force and got a C, when a student who didn’t master force got an A. Objectivity? Injustice?

  • Focus on skills, not content

Eric referred to Wiggins and McTighe, “Understanding by Design.”  Traditional approach is course content drives assessment design. Wiggins advocates identifying what the outcomes are, formulate these as action verbs, ‘doing’ x rather than ‘understanding’ x. You use this to identify what you think the acceptable evidence is for these outcomes and then you develop the instructional approach. This is totally outcomes based.

  • resolve coach/judge conflict

In his project-based course, Eric brought in external evaluators, leaving his coach role unsullied. This also validates Eric’s approach in the eyes of his colleagues. Peer- and self-evaluation are also crucial here. Reflective time to work out how you are going is easier if you can see other people’s work (even anonymously). Calibrated peer review, cpr.molsci.ucla.edu, is another approach but Eric ran out of time on this one.

If we don’t rethink assessment, the result of our assessment procedures will never actually provide vital information to the learner or us as to who might or might not be successful.

I really enjoyed this talk. I agree with just about all of this. It’s always good when an ‘internationally respected educator’ says it as then I can quote him and get traction in change-driving arguments back home. Thanks for a great talk!