Fearing Assessment; Fearing Learning (And Fearing David Brooks)

O this learning, what a thing it is! ~Grumio in Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare

Twice this past month I’ve heard the word “fear” used by faculty when referring to their experience of assessing student learning in their courses. One person described it as fear of students disagreeing with their grade or feedback, or generally unhappy with the judgment the instructor made about their work and requesting explanation and justification (much of which could be alleviated, I thought, if the instructor made the criteria transparent to students, or even better, if the criteria were collectively developed with students, but I digress…).

Thanks to Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha on Flickr for making this photo available for use.

The other person described her fear that she lacks the ability to discern quality and to really be able to tell what a student has learned. She described her lack of confidence in using a writing rubric to “judge” what about a student’s writing, as exemplified in a single assignment, is exceptional and what is developing (and every shade of grey in between). I appreciated her honesty with this challenge; I’ve certainly faced it as well (though in my case, “fear” was not a word I used to describe what I experienced as a “bleepin’ assessment conundrum!”). Nonetheless, her description reminded me of something from Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: “Teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.”

So, too, is learning.

I am pretty certain that learners fear assessment as well, which is truly unfortunate and totally not necessary, and in the end, adversely affects our ability to learn. When faculty work from a “gotcha” perspective, of course assessment is something to fear! I remember a Shakespeare course I took in college that made me have night terrors; I couldn’t sleep that term because that class and that prof were seriously scary. Our final grade consisted of our scores on 5 tests: a test after each unit (comedy, drama, history, and what was the other??? – poetry, I guess), and the big ugly final exam, 3 hours of closed book / closed notes mental torture. These tests were tricky because they were designed as “gotcha” tests (including the essay part of the tests, for which we could use only one side of a single piece of unlined white 8.5 x 11″ paper to address the topic, for no clear reason other than the prof didn’t want to read more than what could fit in this designated space). It was always obvious from the smirk on his face and comments under his moldy breath that the curmudgeonly old prof enjoyed this process. These tests didn’t in any way advance or enhance my learning (I memorized a lot of Shakespeare that term but I didn’t learn any of it except for a few random quotes I can pull out of my head for cocktail parties or blog posts); they didn’t help me appreciate Shakespeare in new ways, or connect important themes or ideas to topics I was interested in. They freaked me out! Why was that necessary?

And now there is something else to fear: David Brooks, writing this op-ed piece in The New York Times, has called for value-added assessments.

Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing . . . There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t. . . This is the beginning of college reform.

To which I reply: ARE YOU SERIOUS? How will THIS advance learning on the part of students, and on the part of faculty and institutions? Punish schools that don’t. Really? Punishment creates fear; punishment creates distrust. And fear and distrust do not promote learning — for students or any of us! I don’t disagree that we need to know how we’re doing … we do! We really, really do! But I absolutely believe that this approach is completely antithetical to actually promoting learning (note that I didn’t say “producing” learning, the term Brooks used, as if learning were something that gets assembled on a conveyor belt). This approach will foster fear; fear inhibits learning. Period.

Colleges (and faculty) have to remove fear first — this should be the beginning of college reform. I think it was Shakespeare who once wrote:

Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.

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