Disrupting Assessment

[Reader Beware: This might be the most prattlenogging I’ve done in a long time … it’s a long one, but it’s a kernel of something good and important, I think. Well, *I* think. You tell me! Comments encouraged.]

Randy Bass recently wrote this AMAZING FABULOUS INCREDIBLE INSIGHTFUL BRILLIANT (etc. etc.) article in the March / April 2012 Educause Review titled Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education. When I read it I thought to myself (and said out loud to several colleagues to whom I forwarded the link): Yes! What he said! Hear ye, hear ye!  Listen up folks — this is important, and this is good!  We need to pay attention to this!

One of the final summary points he makes about the “post-course” era is this (I added bold for emphasis):

Finally, we need to take the problem of learning in the post-course era very seriously. The learning we are coming to value most is not always where we are putting our greatest interest and effort in assessment, including the emerging discussions about “learning analytics.” To be sure, we should work very hard and carefully to align, document, and capture our current assessments of student learning; at the same time, we should be attentive and ambitious in figuring out how we want to cultivate and evaluate learning in this expansive environment.

He makes a good point: we need to talk about what I am calling “disrupting assessment.” I think this idea nicely works with the Assessment 2020 work coming from the Australian Learning & Teaching Council. The first — and in my mind most significant principle — framing this work is as follows:

Assessment is a central feature of teaching and the curriculum. It powerfully frames how students learn and what students achieve. It is one of the most significant influences on students’ experience of higher education and all that they gain from it. The reason for an explicit focus on improving assessment practice is the huge impact it has on the quality of learning.

Assessment has become a fraught word and unpopular concept because it’s become separated from learning and because it may often be used to “measure” the least important things we do (borrowing a phrase from my Provost). But it can and should serve learning — students’ learning, our learning as individual faculty and administrators, and our organizations’ learning. Why have we disconnected assessment from learning? Why have we focused on assessment OF learning instead of FOR and AS learning? Because we need institutional accountability? Some say so! (And to be fair, sometimes I am some of the “some.” More on this later…)

Image generously donated for use in this post by Noah Henscheid (noahhenscheid.com).

I keep coming back to the philosophical statement about assessment from CSU Monterey Bay (which I’ve written about before, HERE):

Assessment is a dynamic pedagogy that enhances, extends, supports, and expands student learning.

I think this is where I begin to connect important principles of  Prior Learning Assessment to disrupting assessment in higher education. PLA  is about prior learning chronologically, but more importantly perhaps, it is also about learning that occurs outside of, as Bass describes, “bounded, self-contained courses.” PLA is typically not about measurement or accountability; PLA, when done well, IS about students’ critical reflection on their outside-of-college-courses experiences, and the process of reflection (of making the implicit explicit, of making meaning, of constructing knowledge) helps turn their experiences into learning (as Boud, Keogh, and Walker contributed in their book Reflection: Turning Experience Into Learning; Boud, by the way, is a primary author of Assessment 2020, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that there’s a connection for me here – whereas some people like to play the game 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, I seem to be playing the game 6 Degrees of David Boud).

PLA is both about assessing learning and generating learning by reflecting on learning. PLA, as an assessment “method,” is learning! It is “a dynamic pedagogy that enhances, extends, supports, and expands student learning” in all sorts of ways! What if assessment in general could also be about reflective practice — ours and our students? Wouldn’t that be cool?

In 2000, Thomas wrote a piece about PLA as a “quiet revolution,” in which he asserted that PLA as a movement challenges formal educational systems, which not only define knowledge but also define how knowledge should be learned (and thus, perhaps by extension, assessed). Well now, as Bass has pointed out, there are myriad other things challenging these formal educational systems as well. So perhaps it’s time for PLA to be an unquiet revolution — to become an integrated force (along with all of the other forces outlined by Bass) that helps us disrupt assessment. I like this energy, and I believe it lines up with Bass’ call to action, accordingly:

If we are beginning to see that the greatest impact on learning is in these boundary-crossing, integrative, and socially networked experiences, then we need to re-create dimensions of these experiences in the learning designs that bridge the classroom with life outside of it.

I want this bridge to be anchored by the quiet but revolutionary ideas about learning and assessment and reflective practice that PLA has been putting on the table for the past 40+ years. In doing so, we can disrupt assessment in order to connect it to much more meaningful ventures.


Boud, D. et al (eds.) (1985). Reflection. Turning experience into learning, London: Kogan.

Thomas, A. (2000). Prior learning assessment: The quiet revolution. In A.Wilson & E. Hayes (Eds.). Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education. (pp. 508-522). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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