Assessment: More Than Just the “After”

Ask any university student and they will tell you – when the syllabus is handed out on the first day of class, the first thing their eyes scan for is the breakdown of the semester’s assignments and corresponding grading scheme. Why is there so much stress when it comes to assessment? Well, there is often too much emphasis placed on the outcome of the assessment, such that assessment has now become a tool to sort, rank, and judge student intelligence and performance. But assessment doesn’t have to be viewed as an evil punishment. This week’s readings for my ECS 300 class were on the topic of assessment, particularly the concept of “assessment for learning” (Alberta Ministry of Education, 2005) ––discussing ways in which educators can improve assessment for students, as well as the benefits of assessment for both students and teachers.

In the first reading, Chapter 6 from “Our Words, Our Ways” by the Alberta Ministry of Education, assessment is described as a vital part of the learning process that should facilitate and support student learning. However, many of the assessment practices used in schools today do just the opposite, one example being heavily weighted unit tests or final exams. I have experienced this first hand, as many of my university chemistry finals have been worth 45-60% of my final grade. While some students thrive in exam situations, there are many problems that arise as a result of heavily weighted exam. First, it supports a “one try to get it right” mentality that does not facilitate student learning. With this type of assessment, rather than putting effort or care into their studying, students often cram, trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible for the exam, only to forget what they have “learned” the minute that the test is complete. I use the word ‘learned’ in quotations here, because it is obvious that this assessment practice interrupts the process of solidifying knowledge into the long-term memory. Furthermore, heavily weighted exams do not support student learning, for other learning opportunities, such as assignments, projects, reports, etc., are weighted less, thus indicating to students that they are not worth their time or effort. However, from my own experience, my learning has benefited the most from these additional learning opportunities, and they should be of more importance in student assessment.

Another problem with tests is that they come with time constraints. Time-limited tests simply “provide information on how quickly students can process information and develop responses” (Alberta Ministry of Education, 2005). The fast-paced atmosphere of a timed test can put a lot of pressure on students––students may experience feelings of stress or anxiety, which can lead to poor performance, or students might feel rushed and not put forward their best quality work, thus not accurately reflecting what they have learned.

It is clear that, alone, exams are not a useful tool to assess student learning. What I have learned from this reading is that, in order to facilitate and support student learning, assessment should be a multi-dimensional process. In other words, assessment should be continual over the learning process and should come in many forms in order to “accommodate individual differences, learning preferences, and learning strengths” (Alberta Ministry of Education, 2005). In addition, one of the most important aspects of assessment is that it should be fair––providing opportunity for second-chance assessment so that students have time to self-evaluate, reflect, and practice their learning.

In the chapter, participation and late penalties were deemed unfair assessment practices, which I do not agree with. I believe that both are fair assessment tactics if used appropriately. The reading describes participation in terms of effort and attitude in class; however, I believe that participation can encompass coming to class prepared, contributing to class/group discussions, working well with others, etc. This does not mean that every student has to contribute to a class discussion in order to receive full marks, but I think that it is fair to ask students to participate in their own learning as reciprocity of effort is crucial for success. Regarding late penalties, I believe that teachers should understand that there are factors outside of student control that can affect whether a student completes an assignment on time. In this sense, I think teachers should provide class time for students to work on assignments so they can raise any questions or concerns with the teacher directly. I also believe that teachers should be flexible and allow extensions if need be. However, as aforementioned, participation in one’s learning is important, so I believe it is fair for teachers to have expectations of their students to put time and effort into their work.

I think it is important to mention that this reading discusses effective assessment practices for Aboriginal students; however, I believe that many of the points made in this chapter were relevant to the assessment of all students, so I chose to address my blog as such. I was disappointed with the reading in this regard, as when Aboriginal students were discussed, it was done so in a general or stereotypical way.

The second reading, “Learning to Love Assessment” by Carol Ann Tomlinson, emphasizes the benefits of assessment for students and teachers alike. Much like how educators use assessment to monitor student learning, a lot can be learned from monitored assessment. Assessment allows teachers to gauge, based on student learning, how effective a certain teaching strategy is as well as if there needs to be modifications. As Tomlinson correctly put it, “it became excruciatingly clear that my brilliant teaching was not quite brilliant for everyone in my classes” (2008). Essentially, assessment is a direct reflection of a teacher’s practices and allows for self-evaluation.

Assessment can also be beneficial for students, as it points out areas that need improvement; however, assessment also points out areas of strength. I believe that it is just as important to discover students’ strengths because by identifying and praising these strengths, we can promote a sense of possibility in students and foster their self-esteem. Furthermore, if we as educators include students in the assessment process and let them guide their own learning, it makes students more accountable for their learning, and it also makes the learning process more enjoyable.

Overall, I enjoyed these two readings. They both confirmed, yet made me confront and analyze some of my beliefs about assessment, but they also introduced new ideas that I will take with me for my future teaching practices.

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