Driving out the grade-hunting demons: Assessment as Learning.

One cultural problem in my learning context is that as a result of institutional processes that are meant to empower students (and it does) students are focused on the bottom line.  The min-max principle sees wise students minimize their effort to maximize their grade outputs.  That is to say, for many, there is a stronger focus on outcomes & achievement (credits) than learning.  There is a recent push for new course design principles to focus more on topics of learning than assessment & credits.  How & to what extent this translates as a success in alleviating this remains to be seen.


A culture of over-emphasis on academic grades & success is a double-edged sword.  Finding success from extrinsic motivators like grades can lead to intrinsic motivation.  More often, though, it leads to a narrow output & outcome approach to assignments & distinguishes assessment from learning.  Assessment, curriculum, learning, & praxis should be part of what Phil Wood describes as an interpenetrating process.  An outcomes-based approach skews the focus away from this balance.  Learning is always complex: one dimension is the individual cognition process; another is the social construction process; there are our emotive mental models; & there are the structures that are imposed.


If we approach learning in a linear fashion, we are not being student centred or having a needs-based curriculum.  Students do not learn at the same pace, even if you teach stuff, they have not all learned it at the same pace, so why is there so much insistence on uniformity & conformity? By sticking to elements of traditional or even more modern teaching patterns of extensive prescription are we really dehumanizing the education process?


If we blurr the lines between learning processes & assessment, this means that the processes become prioritized rather than the outcomes.  It is not that formative or diagnostic assessment is good or bad, it is the context in which it is used.  Are they used to push further towards a prescriptive model or are they being used as a holistic element in the entire process of learning.  To this end, formative assessment models in current use are not sufficient to reduce the liminality between assessment & learning.


Ruth Dann contests that a model of assessment as learning sees assessment fully embedded within learning.   This involves assessment while teaching to shape the next steps, & assessment by teaching where a teacher evaluates the amount & what type of help is required to maximize learning.  What is great about this model is that it places the focus on the interactive processes in teaching that are used to inform the future direction of what is next.  Feedback is less formalized & acts more as a dialogue.  In a sense, a move towards co-construction or Ako.


If we want to develop lifelong learners, then we need to be pushing towards more independence or autodidacticism.  If one thinks how historians work, they work in a community of scholars who provide critique & peer review to co-construct as a community the nature of our historical knowledge.  This is why community of inquiry models are a pragmatic tool or conceptual approach in building a learning community.  So we need to be aware of the implications of our approaches.  For brevity, below is a three-part structure to the learning process.


  1. One approach is a receptive-transmission model.  Teachers act as the font of all wisdom to pass on their knowledge & skills to students.  Such a model constructs learning as highly individualized & focuses on learning new stuff (a focus on the cognitive element).  Feedback in this model acts to evaluate their work.  It is like a gift given to the students by an expert to help them do better.
  2. A second approach is the constructive model.  The teacher is still the expert & they act as a facilitator to help students discover the new knowledge or skills.  The teacher aids them in the process of meaning making.  This model still focuses on the cognitive element of learning but it does take into account the social element of learning more frequently.  This view sees learning as being developed through experience.  Feedback is focused around the teacher being an expert who uses open questions or insights to enable students to gain new understandings.  Feedback in this model is a two-way process but the primary aim is to describe & discuss the experiences.
  3. A third approach is the co-constructed model.  This model aligns strongly with the concept of Ako & the there is a more equal power dynamic in which the teacher views themselves as a learner.  In this process the teacher is also a facilitator who help students discover new knowledge & skills.  However, it also adds a further dimension: facilitation of self-reflection & the adoption of a reflexive process where everyone is learning through collaborative dialogue.  In this model the cognitive, social, & emotional dimensions are seen as equally as important as each other.  Feedback on learning is a reciprocal process of talking about learning.  It aims to illuminate learning for all & feedback becomes a process of dialogue.  All learners in the community are connected through a series of loops in their engagement with this feedback process.

In order to attempt to move further towards the third way, there are a series of approaches that I aim expanding further & adopting.  Increasing the loops through dialectic discussions & having peer review processes more formalized will help.  Having open & visual conversation spaces, like a wall or whiteboard of questions, ideas or problems or the use of virtual environments for conversations like Slack may help improve the extent of this discussion process.  Having conversation recording documents that are co-contructed & facilitating formalised processes of reflection & collaboration will also be helpful.  The shift to a portfolio process
that encompasses a broader range of evidence of student learning is a productive start.  Through this adoption I will be able to better gauge important elements that are still missing & to evaluate any negative impacts the imposition of my structures on students is having.


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