My Struggles with Assessment

Let me preface this post by simply stating that I really, really don’t like tests. I didn’t mind them as a student; I’m a great test-taker, and I’ve never struggled with test anxiety. However, once I became a teacher, I started to dread testing – not just the high-stakes end of course assessments – all of them. The quizzes, the chapter or unit test and the mid-term and final exams. I hate making them, I hate grading them, and I hate returning them to the students and either deflating their egos or debating every point subtracted. But I do it anyway. Partly because it’s my job and that’s what I’m supposed to do and partly because I know that there are sound pedagogic/andragogic reasons for doing so. As much as I hate to admit it, curriculum and assessment “go together like Rama lama lama Ka dingity dinga dong.” Well, maybe not quite that much, but I think you get my point.

When CAPE implemented our QEP boot camp workshops in the six categories, I inherited the assessment category mostly by default. In an office full of an instructional technology specialist, an alternative media specialist, and a multi-media specialist (this may or may not be their exact titles, but it’s close enough), it seemed reasonable and logical at the time that they had more expertise in the technology and communication areas of boot camp and I had more in the assessment and active learning/learning styles areas. Luckily, Matt Wiley, our fearless QEP Director and coincidentally an actual Assessment Committee member, joined our group last year. This helps me a great deal because I can defer all college level assessment questions and topics to him which lets me focus on the classroom assessment topics that are of the most concern to me and my teaching.

In the last few semesters, I’ve implemented several Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) in my courses as a way to gain more informative feedback on what my students know and what they can do. I’ve also taken steps to improve my assessments in order to generate more learning and less focus on grades. I’ve implemented quizzes that I give my students at the beginning of class that are low-stakes to hold them accountable for material that was supposed to be read (Magna Publications 20 Minute Mentor video presented by Scott Warnock). These quizzes are short, easy to grade, and they provide my students with feedback on how they are doing and on what they know. I’ve also incorporated some metacognitive techniques such as having the students predict what grade they will get after taking the exam and comparing that to their actual grade. I’ve asked them how they studied and if they should change anything about their habits based on their performance. I’ve actively tried to incorporate self-regulation strategies into my courses in order to help my students assess what they know, what they are doing, and if it is working.

And is it? I’m not sure. I gave my first exam in one of my classes earlier this week and the results weren’t spectacular. To be fair, it was an application test. It consisted of 23 mostly scenario based questions. I included material discussed in class and supporting material they knew to read from our text. I feel that this is an important learning technique, so I didn’t give them a study guide telling them what to study. I was not surprised when the questions that we discussed in class were the questions that everyone got correct while the material that they were supposed to cover on their own was the most frequently missed. I was saddened and deflated for a bit. But then I remembered that I want this exam to be a learning experience. The grades don’t matter as much as the lessons that the students take from it. So, my plan is to return the test to them and let them draw their own conclusions. We’ll discuss how they studied, what they read, and I’ll give them a chance to learn the material that they missed. After all, they still need to know the information and to be able to apply it.

I’m still not happy about the grades and the performance or the whole testing environment, but I do like what can come from it. I just have to remember that it’s about the learning and not the actual points scored which is what I tell my students all the time. I also have to remember that I am still a work in progress as well. I’m still exploring and experimenting and trying to make my classroom better for my students. And I hope that I can share some of what I learn with those of you who attend our workshops and read our blog.

And now you know the rest of the story.

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