Monday, May 2, 2016

I want to stop assessing my undergraduates

For some years my college has been focused on student assessment. Lots of other places are too. I don't blame them. You could look at it as an accountability thing. Are we really doing our job? Are students really learning? What are they learning? How? So the language of outcomes, metrics, and "following" students through their careers are rife in our educational culture. I think we've taken it too far. 

Students at our school, and as I've learned over the past few years, students all over the world are involved in decades of testing and assessment in order to attain what they think are their educational goals. Mostly this has to do with getting into college. Students, their parents, even their communities are involved in a zero sum game of test taking and "achievement" as materialized and measured by externally imposed standards. Once they make it to university level, students have become a sort of rodent in a treadmill of test taking. Exploring, playing around with ideas, and critical thinking are lost along the way. Yet critical thinking, in lip service at least, is what we want to devolve upon our students. 

We also give lip service to interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Most of the people I know approach interdisciplinarity in a shallow way, for example a dual focus on poetry and prose in an English class. But interdisciplinary work goes much, much further than this. Doing interdisciplinary studies (some people use the word trans-disciplinary) we can build bridges among truly disparate fields. Like art and science. I'm convinced that students learn better this way and it's the kind of challenge to smart students that gives them a real impetus to explore and expand. One problem. Assessment isn't so easy in a broadly interdisciplinary setting. So mostly we don't do it. That is, we don't provide the kind of challenging interdisciplinary work that students can bite into and work with. Students really lose out this way but hey, we're able supposedly to "measure" their "performance."

But what is performance if not exploration, expanding and building ideas? So when we assess, are we even assessing the right things? And is it possible to measure a student's exploratory behavior? How then can we measure students' engagement with their work? Do we need to? 

I've been teaching for about 30 years now and what I've seen is all this test taking and assessment obstructs students' development of critical thinking skills. It gets in the way of learning. The most frequent, in fact the only question students proffer during my science lectures is, "professor, will you please repeat that last sentence?" Sometimes they ask me to repeat the last three or four sentences. Somehow my students think that grabbing my lectures word for word will give them the upper hand when it comes to taking my exams. They are disappointed, to put it mildly, when I ask them to solve problems through critical analysis in the tests I give. On multiple occasions I've had students sincerely, but with some anger, telling me how I should have constructed the exam. They've become such experts at test-taking they actually think they know how to write a test! Students' expectations of rote memorization, parroting of my words, and encyclopedic knowledge of the "material" have created what I think is a real obstacle to learning. 

I think of how our work goes during the semester in parts of my course that are not subject to examination--labs, discussion sections, intensive online problem solving through frequent twitters. Then I compare these with lecture and the actual (dreaded) days when students are tested. The energy, engagement, risk-taking, and learning are so much different. It's as though I was teaching two different classes to two different groups of students. I hate the energy of test taking days. Worse, when I open the test up to discussion in the days following the exam, student feedback is negative. For some people their experience in my course, which I have designed to be an egalitarian, relaxed, deeply mind-opening learning environment, is ruined by the tests. 

I don't pretend to offer an alternative to testing as a panacea for evaluating students. But part of me asks how much and why do we need to evaluate? Most people do not face examinations on their way to or through careers. Instead, successful work lives are based on so many things that are antithetical to the test-taking students have been doing throughout their education. It's at the university level if not much earlier that students should be given practice in critical analysis. Critical analysis, creativity, energy and innovation, not to mention discipline and engagement are the attributes most people need in a new job. Few of these attributes are addressed in an exam-heavy environment. 

So I'd like to open the floor as it were to discuss the issue of college-level assessment. What does it accomplish? How does it fit with your educational/pedagogical philosophy?What if anything do we need to be testing? Why? How would quitting the assessment game threaten or enhance your teaching program? What are the alternatives? 

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