Assessment is just another word for grades, right?

September 18, 2023 Renee Aitken

This year, at the Association for Assessment of Learning in Higher Education (AALHE) Annual Conference, I am going to be sharing my experience on a very touchy subject: the reluctance of some faculty to actually accept assessment as part of their teaching and learning.  My presentation is going to be about “Oil and Water” and how they don’t mix very well.  I think of faculty as the oil and assessment as the water.

Both oil and water are very stable compounds that aren’t really attracted to each other because they are so stable. To me, it sounds like the same relationship some faculty have with assessment.  So let’s start with these properties. Assessment is pretty stable and the terms are relatively the same: goals, outcomes, objectives, curriculum maps, and aggregated data.

Assessment has been around for a number of years.  In fact, some professions have had assessment for a very long time.  You wouldn’t go to a doctor who wasn’t board certified and who hadn’t taken extensive training where they were reviewed, monitored, and held against a set of standards.  So, the board exam, the reviews, and the set of standards are the elements of a medical doctorate assessment process. The focus of assessment for the doctoral program is not to make sure that one doctor can do the job, but to make sure all doctors are performing in the same range, and if they aren’t, then what can be altered to help more doctors meet the standards?  Sounds pretty stable, right?

On the other end, we have a number of faculty.  No one really teaches faculty a great deal about the subject of learning. They are mostly interested in the subject they teach and imparting the elements of that subject to students. They are passionate, intelligent, and interesting. And they worry about their jobs just like everyone else.  They are usually pretty stable and effective teachers. They know their stuff. It is because faculty are so stable – like oil – that they don’t mix with assessment.  They just don’t see the need to add assessment – from many of their perspectives, there is nothing broken, so why should they engage in another task to fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed?

So we have two stable forces that really don’t need the other to exist but somehow we have to make them work together.  Some faculty don’t often see assessment as the tool it is.  They see it as a way to keep track of them: a way to assess their teaching.  Now, I am thinking if we could change the nature of assessment to maybe something faculty would like better, they might be more willing to consider adding it to their teaching.

First and foremost, is getting faculty to recognize that assessment is looking at the assignment to see if it provides students with the opportunity to demonstrate the objective (or goal or outcome). No one in assessment looks at one student and in many cases they don’t even look at one faculty – assessment people look at aggregate data across time.

Secondly, no one should be using an assessment process to provide grades to individual students. It can help, but if the student isn’t getting the material, there could be a plethora of things wrong and students deserve to have their work graded by the most knowledgeable person – the faculty teaching. So any arguments about simplification of grades, discounting student creativity, and other such statements are out the window.

Now let’s go back to the oil and water and think about an oil spill in the ocean. Companies use detergent to make the oil and water mix into a nasty ball of goo, but it is a ball of goo they can pick up and remove. Assessment people need to be the detergent – we need to make the oil and water into a single mass – a place where faculty can retain their style, their creativity, and grade their students without fear of punishment as well as a place where assessment provides an overall understanding about how students are doing against goals. When we get to this point, then we will have the ability to use assessment data to improve student learning (notice learning–not teaching–is the goal).

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