Confessions of a CLI guy

There was a time before graphics dominated the way that you worked with computers and, back then, after punchcards and before Mac/Windows, the most common way of working with a computer was to use the Command Line Interface (CLI). Many of you will have seen this, here’s Terminal from the Mac OS X, showing a piece of Python code inside an editor.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 5.39.56 PM

Rather than use a rich Integrated Development Environment, where text is highlighted and all sorts of clever things are done for me, I would run some sort of program editor from the command line, write my code, close that editor and then see what worked.

At my University, we almost always taught Computer Science using command line tools, rather than rich development environments such as Eclipse or the Visual Studio tools. Why? The reasoning was that the CLI developed skills required to write code, compile it, debug it and run it, without training students into IDE-provided shortcuts. The CLI was the approach that would work anywhere. That knowledge was, as we saw it, fundamental.

But, remember that Processing example? We clearly saw where the error was. This is what a similar error looks like for the Java programming language in a CLI environment.

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 5.48.03 PM

Same message (and now usefully on the right line because 21st Century) but it is totally divorced from the program itself. That message has to give me a line number (5) in the original program because it has no other way to point to the problem.

And here’s the problem. The cognitive load increases once we separate code and errors. Despite those Processing errors looking like the soft option, everything we know about load tells us that students will find fixing their problems easier if they don’t have to mentally or physically switch between code and error output.

Everything I said about CLIs is still true but that’s only a real consideration if my students go out into the workplace and need some CLI skills. And, today, just about every workplace has graphics based IDEs for production software. (Networking is often an exception but we’ll skip over that. Networking is special.)

The best approach for students learning to code is that we don’t make things any harder than we need to. The CLI approach is something I would like students to be able to do but my first task is to get them interested in programming. Then I have to make their first experiences authentic and effective, and hopefully pleasant and rewarding.

I have thought about this for years and I started out as staunchly CLI. But as time goes by, I really have to wonder whether a tiny advantage for a small number of graduates is worth additional load for every new programmer.

And I don’t think it is worth it. It’s not fair. It’s the opposite of equitable. And it goes against the research that we have on cognitive load and student workflows in these kinds of systems. We already know of enough load problems in graphics based environments if we make the screens large enough, without any flicking from one application to another!

You don’t have to accept my evaluation model to see this because it’s a matter of common sense that forcing someone to unnecessarily switch tasks to learn a new skill is going to make it harder. Asking someone to remember something complicated in order to use it later is not as easy as someone being able to see it when and where they need to use it.

The world has changed. CLIs still exist but graphical user interfaces (GUIs) now rule. Any of my students who needs to be a crack programmer in a text window of 80×24 will manage it, even if I teach with all IDEs for the entire degree, because all of the IDEs are made up of small windows. Students can either debug and read error messages or they can’t – a good IDE helps you but it doesn’t write or fix the code for you, in any deep way. It just helps you to write code faster, without having to wait and switch context to find silly mistakes that you could have fixed in a split second in an IDE.

When it comes to teaching programming, I’m not a CLI guy anymore.


The shortest interval

Tick tick tick

If we want to give feedback, then the time it takes to give feedback is going to determine how often we can do it. If the core of our evaluation is feedback, rather than some low-Bloom’s quiz-based approach giving a score of some sort, then we have to set our timelines to allow us to:

  • Get the work when we are ready to work on it
  • Undertake evaluation to the required level
  • Return that feedback
  • Do this at such a time that our students can learn from it and potentially use it immediately, to reinforce the learning

A commenter asked me how I actually ran large-scale assessment. The largest class I’ve run detailed feedback/evaluation on was 360 students with a weekly submission of a free-text (and graphics) solution to a puzzle. The goal was to have the feedback back within a week – prior to the next lecture where the solution would be delivered.

I love a challenge.

This scale is, obviously, impossible for one person to achieve reliably (we estimated it as at least forty hours of work). Instead, we allocated a marking team to this task, coordinated by the lead educator. (E1 and E2 model again. There was, initially, no automated capacity for this at the time although we added some later.)

Coordinating a team takes time. Even when you start with a rubric, free text answers can turn up answer themes that you didn’t anticipate and we would often carry our simple checks to make sure that things were working. But, looking at the marking time I was billed for (a good measure), I could run an entire cycle of this in three days, including briefing time, testing, marking, and oversight. But this is with a trained team, a big enough team, good conceptual design and a senior educator who’s happy to take a more executive role.

In this case, we didn’t give the students a chance to refactor their work but, if we had, we could have done this with a release 3 days after submission. To ensure that we then completed the work again by the ‘solution release’ deadline, we would have had to set the next submission deadline to only 24 hours after the feedback was released. This sounds short but, if we assume that some work has been done, then refactoring and reworking should take less time.

But then we have to think about the cost. By running two evaluation cycles we are providing early feedback but we have doubled our cost for human markers (a real concern for just about everyone these days).

My solution was to divide the work into two components. The first was quiz-based and could be automatically and immediately assessed by the Learning Management System, delivering a mark at a fixed deadline. The second part was looked at by humans. Thus, students received immediate feedback on part of the problem straight away (or a related problem) while they were waiting for humans.

But I’d be the first to admit that I hadn’t linked this properly, according to my new model. It does give us insight for a staged hybrid model where we buffer our human feedback by using either smart or dumb automated assessment component to highlight key areas and, better still, we can bring these forward to help guide time management.

I’m not unhappy with that early attempt at large-scale human feedback as the students were receiving some excellent evaluation and feedback and it was timely and valuable. It also gave me a lot of valuable information about design and about what can work, as well as how to manage marking teams.

I also realised that some courses could never be assessed the way that they claimed unless they had more people on task or only delivered at a time when the result wasn’t usable anymore.

How much time should we give students to rework things? I’d suggest that allowing a couple of days takes into account the life beyond Uni that many students have. That means that we can do a cycle in a week if we can keep our human evaluation stages under 2 days. Then, without any automated marking, we get 2 days (E1 or E2) + 2 days (student) + 2 days (second evaluation, possibly E2) + 1 day (final readjustment) and then we should start to see some of the best work that our students can produce.

Assuming, of course, that all of us can drop everything to slot into this. For me, this motivates a cycle closer to two to three weeks to allow for everything else that both groups are doing. But that then limits us to fewer than five big assessment items for a twelve week course!

What’s better? Twelve assessment items that are “submit and done” or four that are “refine and reinforce to best practice”? Is this even a question we can ask? I know which one is aesthetically pleasing, in terms of all of the educational aesthetics we’ve discussed so far but is this enough for an educator to be able to stand up to a superior and say “We’re not going to do X because it just doesn’t make any sense!”

What do you think?


Education is not defined by a building

I drew up a picture to show how many people appear to think about art. Now this is not to say that this is my thinking on art but you only have to go to galleries for a while to quickly pick up the sotto voce (oh, and loud) discussions about what constitutes art. Once we move beyond representative art (art that looks like real things), it can become harder for people to identify what they consider to be art.

Kitsch

This is crude and bordering on satirical. Read the text before you have a go at me over privilege and cultural capital.

I drew up this diagram in response to reading early passages from Dewey’s “Art as Experience”:

“An instructive history of modern art could be written in terms of the formation of the distinctively modern institutions of museum and exhibition gallery. (p8)
[…]
The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life. (p8)
[…]
Why is there repulsion when the high achievements of fine art are brought into connection with common life, the life that we share with all living creatures?” (p20)

Dewey’s thinking is that we have moved from a time when art was deeply integrated into everyday life to a point where we have corralled “worthy” art into buildings called art galleries and museums, generally in response to nationalistic or capitalistic drivers, in order to construct an artefact that indicates how cultured and awesome we are. But, by doing this, we force a definition that something is art if it’s the kind of thing you’d see in an art gallery. We take art out of life, making valuable relics of old oil jars and assigning insane values to collections of oil on canvas that please the eye, and by doing so we demand that ‘high art’ cannot be part of most people’s lives.

But the gallery container is not enough to define art. We know that many people resist modernism (and post-modernism) almost reflexively, whether it’s abstract, neo-primitivist, pop,  or simply that the viewer doesn’t feel convinced that they are seeing art. Thus, in the diagram above, real art is found in galleries but there are many things found in galleries that are not art. To steal an often overheard quote: “my kids could do that”. (I’m very interested in the work of both Rothko and Malevich so I hear this a lot.) 

But let’s resist the urge to condemn people because, after we’ve wrapped art up in a bow and placed it on a pedestal, their natural interpretation of what they perceive, combined with what they already know, can lead them to a conclusion that someone must be playing a joke on them. Aesthetic sensibilities are inherently subjective and evolve over time, in response to exposure, development of depth of knowledge, and opportunity. The more we accumulate of these guiding experiences, the more likely we are to develop the cultural capital that would allow us to stand in any art gallery in the world and perceive the art, mediated by our own rich experiences.

Cultural capital is a term used to describe the assets that we have that aren’t money, in its many forms, but can still contribute to social mobility and perception of class. I wrote a long piece on it and perception here, if you’re interested. Dewey, working in the 1930s, was reacting to the institutionalisation of art and was able to observe people who were attempting to build a cultural reputation, through the purchase of ‘art that is recognised as art’, as part of their attempts to construct a new class identity. Too often, when people who are grounded in art history and knowledge look at people who can’t recognise ‘art that is accepted as art by artists’ there is an aspect of sneering, which is both unpleasant and counter-productive. However, such unpleasantness is easily balanced by those people who stand firm in artistic ignorance and, rather than quietly ignoring things that they don’t like, demand that it cannot be art and loudly deride what they see in order to challenge everyone around them to accept the art of an earlier time as the only art that there is.

Neither of these approaches is productive. Neither support the aesthetics of real discussion, nor are they honest in intent beyond a judgmental and dismissive approach. Not beautiful. Not true. Doesn’t achieve anything useful. Not good.

If this argument is seeming familiar, we can easily apply it to education because we have, for the most part, defined many things in terms of the institutions in which we find them. Everyone else who stands up and talks at people over Power Point slides for forty minutes is probably giving a presentation. Magically, when I do it in a lecture theatre at a University, I’m giving a lecture and now it has amazing educational powers! I once gave one of my lectures as a presentation and it was, to my amusement, labelled as a presentation without any suggestion of still being a lecture. When I am a famous professor, my lectures will probably start to transform into keynotes and masterclasses.

I would be recognised as an educator, despite having no teaching qualifications, primarily because I give presentations inside the designated educational box that is a University. The converse of this is that “university education” cannot be given outside of a University, which leaves every newcomer to tertiary education, whether face-to-face or on-line, with a definitional crisis that cannot be resolved in their favour. We already know that home-schooling, while highly variable in quality and intention, is a necessity in some places where the existing educational options are lacking, is often not taken seriously by the establishment. Even if the person teaching is a qualified teacher and the curriculum taught is an approved one, the words “home schooling” construct tension with our assumption that schooling must take place in boxes labelled as schools.

What is art? We need a better definition than “things I find in art galleries that I recognise as art” because there is far too much assumption in there, too much infrastructure required and there is not enough honesty about what art is. Some of the works of art we admire today were considered to be crimes against conventional art in their day! Let me put this in context. I am an artist and I have, with 1% of the talent, sold as many works as Van Gogh did in his lifetime (one). Van Gogh’s work was simply rubbish to most people who looked at it then.

And yet now he is a genius.

What is education? We need a better definition than “things that happen in schools and universities that fit my pre-conceptions of what education should look like.” We need to know so that we can recognise, learn, develop and improve education wherever we find it. The world population will peak at around 10 billion people. We will not have schools for all of them. We don’t have schools for everyone now. We may never have the infrastructure we need for this and we’re going need a better definition if we want to bring real, valuable and useful education to everyone. We define in order to clarify, to guide, and to tell us what we need to do next.


It’s only five minutes late!

SONY DSC

This is an indicator of the passage of time, not an educational mechanism.

I’ve been talking about why late penalties are not only not useful but they don’t work, yet I keep talking about getting work in on time and tying it to realistic resource allocation. Does this mean I’m really using late penalties?

No, but let me explain why, starting from the underlying principle of fairness that is an aesthetic pillar of good education. One part of this is that the actions of one student should not unduly affect the learning journey of another student. That includes evaluation (and associated marks).

This is the same principle that makes me reject curve grading. It makes no sense to me that someone else’s work is judged in the context of another, when we have so little real information with which we could establish any form of equivalence of human experience and available capacity.

I don’t want to create a market economy for knowledge, where we devaluate successful demonstrations of knowledge and skill for reasons that have nothing to do with learning. Curve grading devalues knowledge. Time penalties devalue knowledge.

I do have to deal with resource constraints, in that I often have (some) deadlines that are administrative necessities, such as degree awards and things like this. I have limited human resources, both personally and professionally.

Given that I do not have unconstrained resources, the fairness principle naturally extends to say that individual students should not consume resources to the detriment of others. I know that I have a limited amount of human evaluation time, therefore I have to treat this as a constrained resource. My E1 and E2 evaluations resources must be, to a degree at least, protected to ensure the best outcome for the most students. (We can factor equity into this, and should, but this stops this from being a simple linear equivalence and makes the terms more complex than they need to be for explanation, so I’ll continue this discussion as if we’re discussing equality.)

You’ve noticed that the E3 and E4 evaluation systems are pretty much always available to students. That’s deliberate. If we can automate something, we can scale it. No student is depriving another of timely evaluation and so there’s no limitation of access to E3 and E4, unless it’s too late for it to be of use.

If we ask students to get their work in at time X, it should be on the expectation that we are ready to leap into action at second X+(prep time), or that the students should be engaged in some other worthwhile activity from X+1, because otherwise we have made up a nonsense figure. In order to be fair, we should release all of our evaluations back at the same time, to avoid accidental advantages because of the order in which things were marked. (We may wish to vary this for time banking but we’ll come back to this later.) As many things are marked in surname or student number order, the only way to ensure that we don’t accidentally keep granting an advantage is to release everything at the same time.

Remember, our whole scheme is predicated on the assumption that we have designed and planned for how long it will take to go through the work and provide feedback in time for modification before another submission. When X+(prep time) comes, we should know, roughly to the hour or day, at worst, when this will be done.

If a student hands up fifteen minutes late, they have most likely missed the preparation phase. If we delay our process to include this student, then we will delay feedback to everyone. Here is a genuine motivation for students to submit on time: they will receive rich and detailed feedback as soon as it is ready. Students who hand up late will be assessed in the next round.

That’s how the real world actually works. No-one gives you half marks for something that you do a day late. It’s either accepted or not and, often, you go to the back of the queue. When you miss the bus, you don’t get 50% of the bus. You just have to wait for the next opportunity and, most of the time, there is another bus. Being late once rarely leaves you stranded without apparent hope – unlucky Martian visitors aside.

But there’s more to this. When we have finished with the first group, we can immediately release detailed feedback on what we were expecting to see, providing the best results to students and, from that point on, anyone who submits would have the benefit of information that the first group didn’t have before their initial submission. Rather than make the first group think that they should have waited (and we know students do), we give them the best possible outcome for organising their time.

The next submission deadline is done by everyone with the knowledge gained from the first pass but people who didn’t contribute to it can’t immediately use it for their own benefit. So there’s no free-riding.

There is, of course, a tricky period between the submission deadline and the release, where we could say “Well, they didn’t see the feedback” and accept the work but that’s when we think about the message we want to send. We would prefer students to improve their time management and one part of this is to have genuine outcomes from necessary deadlines.

If we let students keep handing in later and later, we will eventually end up having these late submissions running into our requirement to give feedback. But, more importantly, we will say “You shouldn’t have bothered” to those students who did hand up on time. When you say something like this, students will learn and they will change their behaviour. We should never reinforce behaviour that is the opposite of what we consider to be valuable.

Fairness is a core aesthetic of education. Authentic time management needs to reflect the reality of lost opportunity, rather than diminished recognition of good work in some numerical reduction. Our beauty argument is clear: we can be firm on certain deadlines and remove certain tasks from consideration and it will be a better approach and be more likely to have positive outcomes than an arbitrary reduction scheme already in use.


Four-tier assessment

We’ve looked at a classification of evaluators that matches our understanding of the complexity of the assessment tasks we could ask students to perform. If we want to look at this from an aesthetic framing then, as Dewey notes:

“By common consent, the Parthenon is a great work of art. Yet it has aesthetic standing only as the work becomes an experience for a human being.”

John Dewey, Art as Experience, Chapter 1, The Live Creature.

Having a classification of evaluators cannot be appreciated aesthetically unless we provide a way for it to be experienced. Our aesthetic framing demands an implementation that makes use of such an evaluator classification, applies to a problem where we can apply a pedagogical lens and then, finally, we can start to ask how aesthetically pleasing it is.

And this is what brings us to beauty.

A systematic allocation of tasks to these different evaluators should provide valid and reliable marking, assuming we’ve carried out our design phase correctly. But what about fairness, motivation or relevancy, the three points that we did not address previously? To be able to satisfy these aesthetic constraints, and to confirm the others, it now matters how we handle these evaluation phases because it’s not enough to be aware that some things are going to need different approaches, we have to create a learning environment to provide fairness, motivation and relevancy.

I’ve already argued that arbitrary deadlines are unfair, that extrinsic motivational factors are grossly inferior to those found within, and, in even earlier articles, that we too insist on the relevancy of the measurements that we have, rather than designing for relevancy and insisting on the measurements that we need.

To achieve all of this and to provide a framework that we can use to develop a sense of aesthetic satisfaction (and hence beauty), here is a brief description of a four-tier, penalty free, assessment.

Let’s say that, as part of our course design, we develop an assessment item, A1, that is one of the elements to provide evaluation coverage of one of the knowledge areas. (Thus, we can assume that A1 is not required to be achieved by itself to show mastery but I will come back to this in a later post.)

Recall that the marking groups are: E1, expert human markers; E2, trained or guided human markers; E3, complex automated marking; and E4, simple and mechanical automated marking.

A1 has four, inbuilt, course deadlines but rather than these being arbitrary reductions of mark, these reflect the availability of evaluation resource, a real limitation as we’ve already discussed. When the teacher sets these courses up, she develops an evaluation scheme for the most advanced aspects (E1, which is her in this case), an evaluation scheme that could be used by other markers or her (E2), an E3 acceptance test suite and some E4 tests for simplicity. She matches the aspects of the assignment to these evaluation groups, building from simple to complex, concrete to abstract, definite to ambiguous.

The overall assessment of work consists of the evaluation of four separate areas, associated with each of the evaluators. Individual components of the assessment build up towards the most complex but, for example, a student should usually have had to complete at least some of E4-evaluated work to be able to attempt E3.

Here’s a diagram of the overall pattern for evaluation and assessment.

Scheme

The first deadline for the assignment is where all evaluation is available. If students provide their work by this time, the E1 will look at the work, after executing the automated mechanisms, first E4 then E3, and applying the E2 rubrics. If the student has actually answered some E1-level items, then the “top tier” E1 evaluator will look at that work and evaluate it. Regardless of whether there is E1 work or not, human-written feedback from the lecturer on everything will be provided if students get their work in at that point. This includes things that would be of help for all other levels. This is the richest form of feedback, it is the most useful to the students and, if we are going to use measures of performance, this is the point at which the most opportunities to demonstrate performance can occur.

This feedback will be provided in enough time that the students can modify their work to meet the next deadline, which is the availability of E2 markers. Now TAs or casuals are marking instead or the lecturer is now doing easier evaluation from a simpler rubric. These human markers still start by running the automated scripts, E4 then E3, to make sure that they can mark something in E2. They also provide feedback on everything in E2 to E4, sent out in time for students to make changes for the next deadline.

Now note carefully what’s going on here. Students will get useful feedback, which is great, but because we have these staggered deadlines, we can pass on important messages as we identify problems. If the class is struggling with key complex or more abstract elements, harder to fix and requiring more thought, we know about it quickly because we have front-loaded our labour.

Once we move down to the fully automated systems, we’re losing opportunities for rich and human feedback to students who have not yet submitted. However, we have a list of students who haven’t submitted, which is where we can allocate human labour, and we can encourage them to get work in, in time for the E3 “complicated” script. This E3 marking script remains open for the rest of the semester, to encourage students to do the work sometime ahead of the exam. At this point, the discretionary allocation of labour for feedback is possible, because the lecturer has done most of the hard work in E1 and E2 and should, with any luck, have far fewer evaluation activities for this particular assignment. (Other things may intrude, including other assignments, but we have time bounds on this one, which is better than we often have!)

Finally, at the end of the teaching time (in our parlance, a semester’s teaching will end then we will move to exams), we move the assessment to E4 marking only, giving students the ability (if required) to test their work to meet any “minimum performance” requirements you may have for their eligibility to sit the exam. Eventually, the requirement to enter a record of student performance in this course forces us to declare the assessment item closed.

This is totally transparent and it’s based on real resource limitations. Our restrictions have been put in place to improve student feedback opportunities and give them more guidance. We have also improved our own ability to predict our workload and to guide our resource requests, as well as allowing us to reuse some elements of automated scripts between assignments, without forcing us to regurgitate entire assignments. These deadlines are not arbitrary. They are not punitive. We have improved feedback and provided supportive approaches to encourage more work on assignments. We are able to get better insight into what our students are achieving, against our design, in a timely fashion. We can now see fairness, intrinsic motivation and relevance.

I’m not saying this is beautiful yet (I think I have more to prove to you) but I think this is much closer than many solutions that we are currently using. It’s not hiding anything, so it’s true. It does many things we know are great for students so it looks pretty good.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at whether such a complicated system is necessary for early years and, spoilers, I’ll explain a system for first year that uses peer assessment to provide a similar, but easier to scale, solution.


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.


Can we do this? We already have.

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.

MIT_Dome_night1_Edit

Pictured: A highly prestigious University with some of the most stringent entry requirements in the world, which uses no grades in first semester.

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.)