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.
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.
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.)
Just a quick note that on-line learning is not just videos! I am a very strong advocate of active learning in my face-to-face practice and am working to compose on-line systems that will be as close to this as possible: learning and doing and building and thinking are all essential parts of the process.
Please, once again, check out Mark’s CACM blog on the 10 myths of teaching computer science. There’s great stuff here that extends everything I’m talking about with short video sequences and attention spans. I wrote something ages ago about not turning ‘chalk and talk’ into ‘watch and scratch (your head)’. It’s a little dated but I include it for completeness.
There are many lessons to be learned from what is going on in the MOOC sector. The first is that we have a lot to learn, even for those of us who are committed to doing it ‘properly’ whatever that means. I’m not trying to convince you of “MOOC yes” or “MOOC no”. We can have that argument some other time. I’m talking about we already know from using these tools.
We’ve learned (again) that producing a broadcast video set of boring people reading the book at you in a monotone is, amazingly, not effective, no matter how fancy the platform. We know that MOOCs are predominantly taken by people who have already ‘succeeded’ at learning, often despite our educational system, and are thus not as likely to have an impact in traditionally disadvantaged areas, especially without an existing learning community and culture. (No references, you can Google all of this easily.)
We know that online communities can and do form. Ok, it’s not the same as twenty people in a room with you but our own work in this space confirms that you can have students experiencing a genuine feeling of belonging, facilitated through course design and forum interaction.
“Really?” you ask.
In a MOOC we ran with over 25,000 students, a student wrote a thank you note to us at the top of his code, for the final assignment. He had moved from non-coder to coder with us and had created some beautiful things. He left a note in his code because he thought that someone would read it. And we did. There is evidence of this everywhere in the forums and their code. No, we don’t have a face-to-face relationship. But we made them feel something and, from what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t appear to be a bad something.
But we, as in the wider on-line community, have learned something else that is very important. Students in MOOCs often set their own expectations of achievement. They come in, find what they’re after, and leave, much like they are asking a question on Quora or StackExchange. Much like you check out reviews on-line before you start watching a show or you download one or two episodes to check it out. You know, 21st Century life.
Once you see that self-defined achievement and engagement, a lot of things about MOOCs, including drop rates and strange progression, suddenly make sense. As does the realisation that this is a total change from what we have accepted for centuries as desirable behaviour. This is something that we are going to have a lot of trouble fitting into our existing system. It also indicates how much work we’re going to have to do in order to bring in traditionally disadvantaged communities, first-in-family and any other under-represented group. Because they may still believe that we’re offering Perry’s nightmare in on-line form: serried ranks with computers screaming facts at you.
We offer our students a lot of choice but, as Universities, we mostly work on the idea of ‘follow this program to achieve this qualification’. Despite notionally being in the business of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, our non-award and ‘not for credit’ courses are dwarfed in enrolments by the ‘follow the track, get a prize’ streams. And that, of course, is where the diminishing bags of dollars come from. That’s why retention is such a hot-button issue at Universities because even 1% more retained students is worth millions to most Universities. A hunt and peck community? We don’t even know what retention looks like in that context.
Pretending that this isn’t happening is ignoring evidence. It’s self-deceptive, disingenuous, hypocritical (for we are supposed to be the evidence junkies) and, once again, we have a failure of educational aesthetics. Giving people what they don’t want isn’t good. Pretending that they just don’t know what’s good for them is really not being truthful. That’s three Socratic strikes: you’re out.
We have a message from our learning community. They want some control. We have to be aware that, if we really want them to do something, they have to feel that it’s necessary. (So much research supports this.) By letting them run around in the MOOC space, artificial and heavily instrumented, we can finally see what they’re up to without having to follow them around with clipboards. We see them on the massive scale, individuals and aggregates. Remember, on average these are graduates; these are students who have already been through our machine and come out. These are the last people, if we’ve convinced them of the rightness of our structure, who should be rocking the boat and wanting to try something different. Unless, of course, we haven’t quite been meeting their true needs all these years.
I often say that the problem we have with MOOC enrolments is that we can see all of them. There is no ‘peeking around the door’ in a MOOC. You’re in or you’re out, in order to be signed up for access or updates.
If we were collaborating with all of our students to produce learning materials and structures, not just the subset who go into MOOC, I wonder what we would end up turning out? We still need to apply our knowledge of pedagogy and psychology, of course, to temper desire with what works but I suspect that we should be collaborating with our learner community in a far more open way. Everywhere else, technology is changing the relationship between supplier and consumer. Name any other industry and we can probably find a new model where consumers get more choice, more knowledge and more power.
No-one (sensible) is saying we should raze the Universities overnight. I keep being told that allowing more student control is going to lead to terrible things but, frankly, I don’t believe it and I don’t think we have enough evidence to stop us from at least exploring this path. I think it’s scary, yes. I think it’s going to challenge how we think about tertiary education, absolutely. I also think that we need to work out how we can bring together the best of face-to-face with the best of on-line, for the most people, in the most educationally beautiful way. Because anything else just isn’t that beautiful.
I was recently at a conference-like event where someone stood up and talked about video lectures. And these lectures were about 40 minutes long.
Over several million viewing sessions, EdX have clearly shown that watchable video length tops out at just over 6 minutes. And that’s the same for certificate-earning students and the people who have enrolled for fun. At 9 minutes, students are watching for fewer than 6 minutes. At the 40 minute mark, it’s 3-4 minutes.
I raised this point to the speaker because I like the idea that, if we do on-line it should be good on-line, and I got a response that was basically “Yes, I know that but I think the students should be watching these anyway.” Um. Six minutes is the limit but, hey, students, sit there for this time anyway.
We have never been able to unobtrusively measure certain student activities as well as we can today. I admit that it’s hard to measure actual attention by looking at video activity time but it’s also hard to measure activity by watching students in a lecture theatre. When we add clickers to measure lecture activity, we change the activity and, unsurprisingly, clicker-based assessment of lecture attentiveness gives us different numbers to observation of note-taking. We can monitor video activity by watching what the student actually does and pausing/stopping a video is a very clear signal of “I’m done”. The fact that students are less likely to watch as far on longer videos is a pretty interesting one because it implies that students will hold on for a while if the end is in sight.
In a lecture, we think students fade after about 15-20 minutes but, because of physical implications, peer pressure, politeness and inertia, we don’t know how many students have silently switched off before that because very few will just get up and leave. That 6 minute figure may be the true measure of how long a human will remain engaged in this kind of task when there is no active component and we are asking them to process or retain complex cognitive content. (Speculation, here, as I’m still reading into one of these areas but you see where I’m going.) We know that cognitive load is a complicated thing and that identifying subgoals of learning makes a difference in cognitive load (Morrison, Margulieux, Guzdial) but, in so many cases, this isn’t what is happening in those long videos, they’re just someone talking with loose scaffolding. Having designed courses with short videos I can tell you that it forces you, as the designer and teacher, to focus on exactly what you want to say and it really helps in making your points, clearly. Implicit sub-goal labelling, anyone? (I can hear Briana and Mark warming up their keyboards!)
If you want to make your videos 40 minutes long, I can’t stop you. But I can tell you that everything I know tells me that you have set your materials up for another hominid species because you’re not providing something that’s likely to be effective for current humans.
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.
Before I lay out the program design I’m thinking of (and, beyond any discussion of competency, as a number of you have suggested, we are heading towards Bloom’s mastery learning as a frame with active learning elements), we need to address one of the most problematic areas of assessment.
Well, let’s be accurate, penalties are, by definition, punishments imposed for breaking the rules, so these are punishments. This is the stick in the carrot-and-stick reward/punish approach to forcing people to do what you want.
Let’s throw the Greek trinity at this and see how it shapes up. A student produces an otherwise perfect piece of work for an assessment task. It’s her own work. She has spent time developing it. It’s really good. Insightful. Oh, but she handed it up a day late. So we’re now going to say that this knowledge is worth less because it wasn’t delivered on time. She’s working a day job to pay the bills? She should have organised herself better. No Internet at home? Why didn’t she work in the library? I’m sure the campus is totally safe after hours and, well, she should just be careful in getting to and from the library. After all, the most important thing in her life, without knowing anything about her, should be this one hundred line program to reinvent something that has been written over a million times by every other CS student in history.
That’s not truth. That’s establishing a market value for knowledge with a temporal currency. To me, unless there’s a good reason for doing this, this is as bad as curve grading because it changes what the student has achieved for reasons outside of the assignment activity itself.
“Ah!” you say “Nick, we want to teach people to hand work in on time because that’s how the world works! Time is money, Jones!”
Rubbish. Yes, there are a (small) number of unmovable deadlines in the world. We certainly have some in education because we have to get grades in to achieve graduations and degrees. But most adults function in a world where they choose how to handle all of the commitments in their lives and then they schedule them accordingly. The more you do that, the more practice you get and you can learn how to do it well.
If you have ever given students a week, or even a day’s, extension because of something that has stopped you being able to accept or mark student work, no matter how good the reason, you have accepted that your submission points are arbitrary. (I feel strongly about this and have posted about it before.)
So what would be a good reason for sticking to these arbitrary deadlines? We’d want to see something really positive coming out of the research into this, right? Let’s look at some research on this, starting with Britton and Tesser, “Effects of Time-Management Practices on College Grades”, J Edu Psych, 1991, 83, 3. This reinforces what we already know from Bandura: students who feel in control and have high self-efficacy are going to do well. If a student sits down every day to work out what they’re going to do then they, unsurprisingly, can get things done. But this study doesn’t tell us about long-range time planning – the realm of instrumentality, the capability to link activity today with success in the future. (Here are some of my earlier thoughts on this, with references to Husman.) From Husman, we know that students value tasks in terms of how important they think it is, how motivated they are and how well they can link future success to the current task.
In another J Edu Psych paper (1990,82,4), Macan and Shahani reported that participants who felt that they had control over what they were doing did better but also clearly indicated that ambiguity and stress had an influence on time management in terms of perception and actuality. But the Perceived Control of Time (author’s caps) dominated everything, reducing the impact of ambiguity, reducing the impact of stress, and lead to greater satisfaction.
Students are rarely in control of their submission deadlines. Worse, we often do not take into account everything else in a student’s life (even other University courses) when we set our own deadlines. Our deadlines look arbitrary to students because they are, in the majority of cases. There’s your truth. We choose deadlines that work for our ability to mark and to get grades in or, perhaps, based on whether we are in the country or off presenting research on the best way to get students to hand work in on-time.
(Yes, the owl above is staring at me just as hard as he is staring at anyone else here.)
My own research clearly shows that fixed deadlines do not magically teach students the ability to manage their time and, when you examine it, why should it? (ICER 2012, was part of a larger study that clearly demonstrated students continuing, and even extending, last-minute behaviour all the way to the fourth year of their studies.) Time management is a discipline that involves awareness of the tasks to be performed, a decomposition of those tasks to subtasks that can be performed when the hyperbolic time discounting triggers go off, and a well-developed sense of instrumentality. Telling someone to hand in their work by this date OR ELSE does not increase awareness, train decomposition, or develop any form of planning skills. Well, no wonder it doesn’t work any better than shouting at people teaches them Maxwell’s Equations or caning children suddenly reveals the magic of the pluperfect form in Latin grammar.
So, let’s summarise: students do well when they feel in control and it helps with all of the other factors that could get in the way. So, in order to do almost exactly the opposite of help with this essential support step, we impose frequently arbitrary time deadlines and then act surprised when students fall prey to lack of self-confidence, stress or lose sight of what they’re trying to do. They panic, asking lots of (what appear to be) unnecessary questions because they are desperately trying to reduce confusion and stress. Sound familiar?
I have written about this at length while exploring time banking, giving students agency and the ability to plan their own time, to address all of these points. But the new lens in my educational inspection loupe allows me to be very clear about what is most terribly wrong with late penalties.
They are not just wrong, they satisfy none of anyone’s educational aesthetics. Because we don’t take a student’s real life into account, we are not being fair. Because we are not actually developing the time management abilities but treating them as something that will be auto-didactically generated, we are not being supportive. Because we downgrade work when it is still good, we are being intellectually dishonest. Because we vary deadlines to suit ourselves but may not do so for an individual student, we are being hypocritical. We are degrading the value of knowledge for procedural correctness. This is hideously “unbeautiful”.
That is not education. That’s bureaucracy. Just because most of us live within a bureaucracy doesn’t mean that we have to compromise our pedagogical principles. Even trying to make things fit well, as Rapaport did to try and fit into another scale, we end up warping and twisting our intent, even before we start thinking about lateness and difficult areas such as that. This cannot be good.
There is nothing to stop a teacher setting an exercise that is about time management and is constructed so that all steps will lead someone to develop better time management. Feedback or marks that reflect something being late when that is the only measure of fitness is totally reasonable. But to pretend that you can slap some penalties on to the side of an assessment and it will magically self-scaffold is to deceive yourself, to your students’ detriment. It’s not true.
Do I have thoughts on how to balance marking resources with student feedback requirements, elastic time management, and real assessments while still recognising that there are some fixed deadlines?
Funny you should ask. We’ll come back to this, soon.
I set out to make this year an amazing year. A beautiful year for education. But it’s already challenging in some ways and I knew it was going to be.
What a great time to find this quote from President Obama. It’s one that I think everyone in education should try to remember and apply to what we’re doing because every time we have new students in our classes, we will never again get the chance to start well with them.
“I want us to be able when we walk out this door to say we couldn’t think of anything else that we didn’t try to do—that we didn’t shy away from a challenge because it was hard. That we weren’t timid, or got tired, or somehow were thinking about the next thing because there is no next thing. This is it. Never in our lives again will we have the chance to do as much good as we do right now. I want to make sure that we maximize it.”
State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama, 2016.
I’m getting some great comments, on and off the blog, about possible solutions to the problems I’m putting up, as well as thoughts on some of my examples.
Firstly, thank you, everyone! Secondly, I am deliberately starting slowly and building up, to reframe all of these arguments in terms of aesthetics, fitness for purpose and clarity. (Beauty, goodness and truth, again.) I am not trying to make anything appear worse than it is but I’m teasing out some points to show why we should be seeking to change practice that is both widespread and ingrained.
I will make a quick note that Raymond Lister raised about my thought experiment with the two students who split the knowledge, in that I don’t differentiate between skills and knowledge (true) and I am talking about an educational design where no work has been done to identify which areas have to be mastered in order to progress (also true). This is totally deliberate on my part, because it reflects a lot of current practice, not because I think it’s what we should be doing. I will be returning to, and extending this, example over time.
(Raymond does great work in a lot of areas dear to my heart and we will be returning to some of his work in our peregrinations, especially the SOLO taxonomy and Bloom’s mappings. Until then, here is his Google Scholar link for you to read some very interesting papers. And I could not agree more that there is no programming gene!)
We know that grades are really quite arbitrary and that turning numbers into letters, while something we can do, is actually not that strongly coupled to evaluating learning or demonstrating mastery. Why? Because having the appropriate level of knowledge and being able to demonstrate it are not necessarily the same as being able to pass tests or produce solutions to assignments.
For example, if we look at Rapaport’s triage approach as a way to evaluate student interaction with assignments, we can then design our learning environment to provide multiple opportunities to construct and evaluate knowledge on the understanding that we are seeking clear evidence that a student cannot just perform tasks of this nature but, more important, can do reliably. We can do this even if we use “Good, getting there, wrong and no submission” rather than numbers. The duality of grades (a symbol and its meaning) degenerates to something other than numbers anyway. Students at my University didn’t care about 84 versus 85 until we put a new letter grade in at 85 (High Distinction). But even these distinctions are arbitrary scales when it comes to evaluating actual learning.
Why are numbers not important in this? Because they’re rarely important anyway. Have you ever asked your surgeon what her grades were in school? What about your accountant? Perhaps you’ve questioned the percentage that your favourite Master of Wine achieved in the tasting exams? Of course you haven’t. You’ve assumed that a certification (of some sort) indicates sufficient knowledge to practise. And what we have to face is that we are currently falling back onto numbers to give us false confidence that we are measuring learning. They don’t map. They’re not objective. They’re often mathematically nonsensical. No-one cares about them except to provide yet another way of sorting human beings and, goodness knows, we already have enough of those.
Ah, but “but students like to know how they’re going”, right? Yes. Which is where critique and evaluation come in, as well as may other authentic and appropriate ways to recognise progress and encourage curiosity and further development. None of which require numbers.
Let me ask you a question:
Does every student who accumulates enough pass tokens to graduate from your program have a clearly demonstrated ability to perform tasks to the requisite level in all of the knowledge areas of your program?
If the answer is no, then numbers and grades didn’t help, did they? I suspect that, for you as for many others including me, you can probably think of students who managed to struggle through but, in reality, were probably never going to be much good in the field. Perhaps 50% doesn’t magically cover competency? If 50% doesn’t, then raising the bar to 75% won’t solve the problem either. For reasons already mentioned, many of the ways we combine numbers to get grades just don’t make any real sense and they certainly don’t provide much insight into how well the student actually learned what you were trying to teach.
If numbers/grades don’t have much solid foundation, don’t always reflect ability to perform the task, and aren’t actually going to be used in the future? Then they are neither good nor true. And they cannot be beautiful.
Thus, let me strip Rapaport back one notch and provide a three-tier grade-free system, commonly used in many places already, that is closer to what we probably want:
- Nothing submitted,
- Work in progress, resubmit if possible, and
- Work to competent standard.
I know that there are concerns about the word ‘competency’ but I think it’s something we’re going to have think about moving on from. I teach engineers and computer scientists and they have to go out and perform tasks successfully if people are going to employ them or work with them. They have to be competent. Right now, I can tell you which of them have passed but, for a variety of grading reasons, I can’t tell you which one of them, from an academic transcript alone, will be able to sit down and solve your problem. I can see which ones pass exams but I don’t know if this is fixed knowledge or swotting. But what if you made it easy and said “ok, just point to the one who will build me the best bridge”? No. I can’t tell you that. (The most likely worst bridge is easier, as I can identify who does and doesn’t have Civil Engineering qualifications.)
The three-tier scale is simple. The feedback approach that the marker should take is pretty clear in each place and the result is clear to the student. If we build our learning environment correctly, then we can construct a pathway where a student has to achieve tier 3 for all key activities and, at that point, we can actually say “Yes, this student can perform this task or apply this knowledge to the required level”. We do this enough times, we may even start to think that the student could perform this at the level of the profession.
Wait. Have we just re-invented competency-based assessment? There’s an immediate urge to say “but that’s not a University level thing” and I do understand that. CBA has a strong vocational focus but anyone who works in an engineering faculty is already in that boat. We have industry linked accreditation to allow our students to practise as engineers and they have to demonstrate the achievement of a certified program, as well as work experience. That program is taught at University but, given that all you need is to get the degree, you can do it on raw passes and be ‘as accredited’ as the next person.
Now, I’d be the first person to say that not only are many aspects of the University not vocationally focussed but I’d go further and say that they shouldn’t be vocationally focussed. The University is a place that allows for the unfettered exploration of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and I wouldn’t want to change that. (And, yet, so often, we still grade such abstract ideals…) But let’s take competency away from the words job and vocational for a moment. I’m not suggesting we turn Universities into vocational study centres or shut down “non-Industry” programs and schools. (I’d like to see more but that’s another post.) Let’s look at focusing on clarity and simplicity of evaluation.
A student writes an essay on Brecht and submits it for assessment. All of the rich feedback on language use, referencing and analysis still exists without the need to grade it as A, B or C. The question is whether the work should be changed in response to the feedback (if possible) or whether it is, recognisably, an appropriate response to the question ‘write an essay on Brecht’ that will allow the student to develop their knowledge and skills. There is no job focus here but pulling back to separate feedback and identifying whether knowledge has been sufficiently demonstrated is, fundamentally, a competency argument.
The PhD, the pinnacle of the University system, is essentially not graded. You gain vast amounts of feedback over time, you write in response and then you either defend it to your prospective peers or have it blind-assessed by external markers. Yes, there are degrees of acceptance but, ultimately, what you end up with is “Fine as it is”, “Do some more work”, and “Oh, no. Just no.” If we can extend this level of acceptance of competency to our highest valued qualification, what is the consistent and sound reasoning that requires us to look at a student group and say “Hmm, 73. And this one is… yes, 74.”? If I may, cui bono? Who is benefitting here?
But what would such a program look like, you ask? (Hey, and didn’t Nick say he was going to talk about late penalties?) Yes, indeed. Come back tomorrow!