Hairballs (Yes, This Is About Teaching, Learning, And Assessment)

The other night we hosted a grown-up dinner party (ok, ok, it was a potluck) for the parents of my kid’s classmates. I thought it would be nice to get to know these folks given that our kids might be together for the next several years and that between the hustle and bustle of pick-up and drop-off we know each other’s cars, but not each other’s names, let alone which parents belong to which kids.

In the midst of the getting-to-know you conversations, I shared that I was the Dean of Learning & Assessment at Marylhurst University, and this is what I got from one parent:


And she made this awful choking sound, like she had a hairball stuck in her throat.

Here is a picture of my cats instead of a picture of their hairballs. Because that's the kind of blogger I am.

Huh? How can you “hate” assessment? Hating eggplant? I get that! Not really enjoying a boring baseball game? TOTALLY!

But assessment? Huh?

I really didn’t expect or understand her reaction! I mean, for me, good assessment is an act of care. It’s also an act of learning! It’s certainly not the bane of my existence. (Understatement!)

But in all fairness, that’s what I call “good” assessment — when assessment furthers the learning of our students, ourselves, and our institutions. There is also “bad” assessment … and this is likely what she has experienced. And I can totally understand that like a bad digestive system or a bad meal, one might have a hairball-like reaction to bad assessment.

I had a conversation with a colleague last week in which he differentiated good and bad assessment using the words “weak” and “strong.” Weak assessment doesn’t really tell us anything meaningful, and though it might be easier to implement (e.g., a standardized test that spits results into a spreadsheet), it may not help learners learn or teachers teach. Strong assessment, on the other hand, is useful; it helps learners, it helps instructors, it helps programs, and it helps institutions.

I’m not a fan of the dichotomies of bad / good, weak / strong, hate / like . And I thought that there might be an analogy in how people view and do assessment from learning theory, namely, that people have different conceptions of learning (thanks to my dissertation friends Marton and Booth, no relation, I get this!). If people have different conceptions of learning, then of course they would have different conceptions of assessment!

So let’s try this on. Check out a summary of five different conceptions of learning from one study, here:

Conceptions of Learning

Now – let’s take this framework one further step and apply it to assessment.

1. If learning is seen as an increase in knowledge, then assessment would attempt to measure that increase. Thus, we might do a pre-test, a post-test, and look at the difference. Ho hum…

2. If learning is seen as memorizing, then assessment would attempt to measure what students have memorized. Thus, an assessment would likely ask students to “spit back” what they “learned.” (Speaking of hairballs…)

3. If learning is seen as acquiring facts, skills, and methods that can be applied later, then assessment might be more authentic, seeing if students can actually apply their learning to “real-world” projects or problems. So we might ask students to write an essay to see if they can write, instead of take a multiple-choice test to see if they can write. (Right?) Now we are getting somewhere, though still more weak than strong on the continuum, perhaps.

4. If learning is seen as deep process for meaning-making, whereby learners relate content to themselves and their worlds, then assessment would likely support this learning process. Again, authentic assessment opportunities — like writing a persuasive letter to their congressperson to demonstrate their ability to construct a well-informed written argument — come to mind. We also might delve into self-assessment here as well. (Let the angels sing!)

5. If learning is seen as transformative (btw: AWESOME!), that is “interpreting and understanding reality in a different way,” then assessment would attempt to capture this re-interpretation and transformation. And man – that’s sure hard to do! And it usually must involve and value self-assessment. YAY! And wow – how meaningful this can be to both learner and instructor!

This might be one explanation why different individuals — as well as different disciplines and different institutions  — see assessment differently. (Might…or might not. Afterall, this blog is called PrattleNog for a reason, people! I’m just thinkin’ outloud here.)

Or perhaps I have gone too far. Maybe people just hear that word and automatically get hair stuck in their throat. Which is too bad, because coughing up (or cleaning up!) a hairball is rarely a learning experience. And assessment — when done strong*, right*, and good* — is.

(*Note: Grammar is intentionally messed up. I’m an English teacher at heart and by degree; I know it should be “strongly,” “rightly,” and “goodly.”)


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