Defining Assessment Published 2006-07-27

Someone once told me (and I am sure you have heard it too) that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. If this were true, then those students making the most mistakes would be learning more than those who received perfect scores. The folly of this comparison lies in both the purpose of assessment - summative rather than formative - and in the assumption people know how to learn from their mistakes. This post looks at traditional assessment and offers some suggestions on how to improve our model of assessing our students.

The word "assessment" is often associated with the idea of judging or even determining the value of something. Traditional assessment tools like tests and exams certainly fall into this category. They are used to determine how well a student has done - to judge the student's performance. Summative assessment provides a gauge as to where a student is or how far a student has progressed in the learning process. In the hands of a good educator, this information can be used prescriptively to help the student. But from the perspective of the student, the assessment is too often viewed as determination of the student's knowledge, ability, and even worth.

Think of the last time you returned a set of tests. Did you congratulate Suzy in front of the class for getting the highest grade? Did you sneak a message to Billy asking him to talk to you after class about his performance on the test? Did you place the tests face down so other students could not see a student's score? Did you assign an overall score to the assessment and was this the most prominent feedback on the page (i.e. was it on the top of the first page)? Was this overall score the first thing that your students checked when they received their test? Were the only questions about the test on your scoring?

Each of these scenarios focuses on the result rather than what was or could have been learned from the assessment. We celebrate high scores while low scores are viewed with concern. Sounds practical, but does this really foster learning?

Two issues emerge from this discussion:

1) Teachers can de-emphasize traditional summative assessments by incorporating alternative assessments including informal and authentic assessment. By 'informal' assessment, I am referring to activities designed, not necessarily for a grade, but for feedback. While formal assessments have a fixed set of standards by which all students are measured, informal assessments are more flexible and attempt to identify strengths and weaknesses of individual students irrespective of the class as a whole. These can include journals, papers, discussions, and prescriptive tutorials.

With 'authentic' assessment, I am speaking of activities designed to have a life beyond the classroom and survive beyond the school year. They give the student a chance to create something that they can point to with pride. Such assignments motivate students to do their best work, both in the original draft as well as subsequent revisions (many of which might not even be requested by the teacher).

2) Teachers must teach students how to learn from their mistakes. This includes how to both give and receive constructive criticism so that the student focuses on the prescriptive comments and not view the criticism as a form of judgment. To accomplish this goal, teachers need to create an environment safe for exchanging ideas for improving students' work. The significant side-effect of this is that the students will gain the skill/ability to continue learning throughout life.

By rethinking assessment in our classes we can teach students how to learn from their mistakes as well as provide valuable feedback to others - a valuable skill that they can take with them through out their academic and professional careers.