Let’s Talk about Assessment — Katherine Lithgow

Assessment literacy image katherineHow often have you marked assignments and provided comments only to find that the students don’t even bother to pick them up?  Or they get the feedback and then make the same “mistakes” on the next assignment?  How often do you sit down with your colleagues and discuss how they would mark particular assignments?

Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning (2012), discusses why students often fail to act upon feedback- they often don’t understand what the feedback means, or if they do, they don’t know what to do to address the feedback- and offers suggestions on how we can improve the process.

What captured my attention was the notion of improving the assessment process through the development of an assessment community of practice (CofP) whose membership consists of ALL parties involved in the assessment process- students, instructors and anyone else who provides feedback to students.

The authors remind us that providing feedback is a complex, social process and not an end product. In the community of practice approach to assessment, the process becomes an invitation to students to participate in the discipline’s community and  engage with more accomplished members in order to learn the conventions, culture and language of the discipline’s community through observation, discussion and engagement. By actively participating in the community, ALL PARTIES will come to have a shared understanding of the criteria which will be applied when making marking decisions, and this will help ensure that marking is objective and reliable.

And how does this shared understanding come about? Well, it comes about through formal and informal social interactions- talking with each other-dialogues, peer-to-peer discussions, student-to-faculty discussions.  And by taking steps to create an environment which encourages students to ask questions of their instructors, their classmates and  of themselves, and which fosters their capacity to peer evaluate and self-assess.  Students are more inclined to engage in the assessment process and use the feedback when they feel comfortable in the community and do not feel belittled.  Forming positive relationships is important; students are more apt, as we all are, to apply and act upon feedback when it comes from a trusted and caring source, and when it is viewed as part of an ongoing learning process where they can act upon the feedback rather than a ‘final product’.

The authors argue for taking a program wide approach to assessment rather than  a course-based approach which is what is more commonly in place.   In a course-based approach, students often feel that the feedback is unique to the course or the instructor, and they do not see how the feedback will help them in future courses.

They suggest  that in an environment that cultivates an assessment community of practice, students and instructors are more inclined to think of courses as part of a program, and assessment as part of a process that allows for more focus on ‘deep’ learning and the development of skills and concepts that are slowly learnt over time and not within the duration of a semester.

The authors do not claim to have all the answers on how to facilitate this type of environment, and acknowledge that it takes time and effort to cultivate a community of practice around assessment.   But wouldn’t it be worth it if we could help our students engage with, and effectively apply, the feedback that we’ve been spending so much time providing?

Published by

Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.