Assessment is Telling a Story
I chuckled as I read one of these memes texted to me by an under-motivated member of my family sitting just feet from me. We were discussing the day’s chores, which included raking. The meme depicted an individual sitting at a table with a banner that read, “Any lawn best enjoys winter under a soft cover of leaves. Change my mind.” As I thought about and carefully crafted my response to that meme, I got an idea for my own meme.
Academic assessment is unnecessary, change my mind.
I imagine myself at a booth with this bold declaration with not a lot of takers. To occupy my mind, I would probably spend the time guessing who among those walking by would simply agree and who might wholeheartedly disagree but not be up for a debate.
As we walk through the process of writing your assessment story, I challenge you to send those stories to me in response to my meme. But first, we must define assessment.
What is Assessment?
The word entails a wide range of activities. They are encompassed by the broad definition offered by the Oxford Languages website, “Assessment is the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.” For our purposes, if it provides information that helps with decision-making, it is assessment.
Let’s take a look at the assessment process through a storytelling metaphor.
First, much like the plot of a good fiction book or television series, we need to clearly define what is being assessed. This is the equivalent of setting the scene.
Are we assessing the characters? Characters in our assessment story may be ourselves (teaching), our students (student learning, accountability, retention, career preparedness), or any number of other persons in the academic environment.
We might also choose to assess the scene itself by looking at where the learning happens. We might ask questions like, how effective is the learning environment (classroom, learning management system, textbook, etc.)?
In nearly every story, there is some type of question to resolve. In our assessment story, this is the hard part, i.e., defining what you want to know. Your goal might be to identify the next math course for a student-advisee (diagnostic), provide feedback to students or yourself as the instructor on how a course is going at midterm (formative), or identify if you have met your objective of fully preparing graduates for an entry-level career in the workplace (summative). At any level, assessment should have a clearly defined purpose, a specific goal.
For a good start, fill out the rows in this graphic with specifics for the level at which you will be conducting an assessment.
Assessment: One Mystery Solved in a Series of Mysteries
Once we identify what should be measured and by whom, the next step is to implement the assessment, including analyzing and interpreting the information gathered from the process.
Think of this information as the clues a storyteller provides throughout the novel or television series. This information can be used in piecing together your assessment story. By using these clues to modify the learning experience, the classroom, the program, and any other factors affecting the academic environment, you (or your department) become the hero in your assessment story. It is this modification as a result of assessment that motivates the process as self-repeating. Success builds on success.
Assessment is a circular process starting with identifying what should be measured and how it should be measured, moving on to implementation and understanding information gathered from the process, and making any appropriate changes, only to begin the problem solving process again.
"Feedback functions formatively only if the information fed back to the learner is used by the learner in improving performance.” ― Dylan Wiliam,
Embedded Formative Assessment
There is No One Right Way to Assess
The stories we read and watch on TV often have complex plots, with many possible solutions. Assessment can be just as complex. The assessment process can be a time-consuming and sometimes invasive process. The specific role and level of assessment is therefore a topic for discussion within a unit who can best assess the tradeoffs.
I, in particular, feel for those individuals charged with assessing whether to admit to their university our young men and women.
My son has spent many hours writing his college applications, providing an array of evidence of his worthiness including quantitative measures such as his high school grade point average, class rank, and his transcript, which would indicate the level of difficulty of his classes. He also is asked to provide more qualitatively assessed information such as evidence of his experiences which demonstrate leadership, volunteerism, and, for lack of a better term, well-roundedness, as well as a dizzying array of essays under a range of topics from how he handled a difficult situation to where he sees the world in 50 years.
As he drudges through the process, he stops long enough to reminisce about the contrasting simplicity of the process in China. They rely on one two-day exam taken by high school seniors as the sole criteria to determine which universities a student may attend, with exceptions such as students with a special talent. The system seems to work in China, although of course, like any system of assessment, it is not perfect.
Assessment is Unnecessary, Change my Mind.
The reality is that assessment is hard work, and this hard work starts long before the assessment exercise begins. The rewards can be indirect and elusive and there are naturally real or perceived risks because the very nature of assessment implies we are calling into question how things are currently done.
Should we still do it?
I don’t know, I’m not done writing my assessment story, we’ll see if this latest blog post leads to a major plot twist. Let me know in the comments below how your assessment story is coming along.
For those of you who read all the way to the end, at the time of this writing, fall has turned into winter. Our family experienced many outdoor activities before the snow fell, but none involved raking leaves. As I look out the window, there is no evidence of the blanket of untouched leaves, just beautiful white snow. Under the snow I am sure the soft blanket of leaves allows my lawn to rest comfortably this winter season.
Have a great beginning to the New Year.
About the Author:
Cheryl Wachenheim is a professor in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. She has been teaching at NDSU for twenty-two years, each better than the previous. She has two children.