The Assessment Dilemma – Not Limits

Assessment and student evaluation are hotly debated topics within and across courses, departments and the university. It’s my current, yet informed, view that most instructors choose not to deeply engage in the debate and tend to settle for relatively traditional, static modes and methods of assessing student understanding and work. These modes tend to focus on recall and are punitively framed. These methods tend to be multiple choice exams and essays the value of which is determined by the course expert: the instructor. Those who attempt to embrace important and valuable alternative methods, like peer assessment, struggle with issues of engagement, rigor, and time. Both the traditional and the alternative suffer from gamesmanship, and both tend to be less rewarding than students and instructor would like. Why is this so?


Multiple books attempt to offer approaches and explanations for deeper and more meaningful student assessment. For example, the now famous Classroom Assessment Techniques (CAT’s) of Angelo and Cross is an excellent resource for those seeking to better understand the relationship between micro and macro assessment systems and approaches. Micro being what we do on a daily basis, and macro being what we do to structure assessment for the course as a whole. Then there is Tovani’s I Read It, But Don’t Get It; the title taken directly from a student comment. Tovani is a reading specialist for adolescent readers, and her book is packed with practical ways to help improve and measure reading comprehension.  How about Introduction to Rubrics by Stevens and Levi? Or Planning Assessment in Higher Education by Middaugh….yay! Want a conference? How about Indiana University’s 2014 Assessment Institute? Here is a great link by Gettysburg College entitled Books on Assessment in Higher Education. What these efforts show us, in part, is that assessment is important; assessment can be meaningful, assessment is a vital part of deep learning and intellectual growth. What it might also show us, though, are the limited ways assessment is typically conceived and approached.

What are some of these limitations that pose challenges to dynamic assessment and evaluation? I REALLY want to write on this question, BUT…. I also want to write on how I am approaching my own challenges and limitations. If you desire an exciting approach to thinking about formative assessment as it manifests itself in classroom assignments, then I strongly recommend John Bean’s amazing book Engaging Ideas. It’s one of the books I wish I wrote. Although Bean focuses on writing, his approach is brilliantly generalizable because he places the thinking first. For example, we can ask of every course, unit, assignment, and activity the following question: What is the intellectual product (insight, skill, disposition, attitude, understanding, etc.) that I want to result from this? If we are not explicit about this, then I question the extent we can systematically and strategically build learning opportunities that cultivate the thinking we wish to see. Moreover, if we are not explicit about the thinking we wish students to engage in, then what’s the probability we’ll be aware of and open to students’ putting their own perspectives and approaches? This are THE questions I ask of my instruction and consultations at every step of the way. My ultimate goal is for those I work with (faculty and students) to help me define the thinking as we cultivate a community of practice.

So, what might a dynamic and integrated approach to assessment look like in an unpopular, but required, undergraduate, general education course at a large public, urban, open-enrollment university? The real question is: What are the various forms a dynamic approach to assessment can take in the aforementioned context? I say this because there isn’t one thing to do. Wrong mindset. My goal is to have students take ownership and responsibility over the criteria that evaluate the quality of their thinking. I say thinking instead of work because an organizing principle is that “the quality of your work reflects the quality of your thinking.” We make choices and our intellectual products reflect those choices. Own them for better or worse. I’m sure some readers are smiling as they think about the “quality” of my thinking embedded in this blog space. I am making a choice of output over deep elaboration. My choice.

UNIV 200: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument

We just finished our second class meeting yesterday. Ownership and Responsibility are two of the many key ideas driving our learning in this class. These require commitment. If students choose to stay in class, we will demand of each other nothing less than following out the implications of what it means to be committed to doing intellectual work. I told them yesterday that my goal is transformation: I want every student to leave my class positively transformed; not convinced of a particular conclusion, but transformed intellectually as they experience it. So, the question is: HOW?!!!

We will complete our first major task this week, which is a living document of sorts. We will be finishing our grade profiles. These profiles (I discussed in an earlier blog) will focus on clarifying the types of thinking (intellectual moves, attitudes, dispositions, skills, work, etc.) a particular grade represents. They are creating them, and my role is to ensure appropriate levels of breadth and rigor. For example, since this is a process course we will celebrate development. This criteria, which they will clarify, is a condition that did not emerge in our initial discussions, so I made it explicit. Consider this STEP 1. (NOTE: this is only one of the things we are doing even though it is central to all work we do).

STEP 2:  As noted, the grade profiles are a living document, so we will be adding to, contextualizing, and refining it as we go. This is a necessary part of the process because one cannot expect thorough evaluation of any early intellectual product in a process course. Rather, lenses help students scaffold their thinking as they create and assess their work. For example, the first set of tasks have focused on analyzing our thinking, beliefs and perceptions through the lens of identifying and evaluating the validity of our (and other’s) assumptions. How do we add to it? I’ve implemented a long standing practice of mine I used to call the Learning Log, but I have re-titled it The Backpack.

Why backpack? Don’t think of it as a school backpack. Rather it is a backpacking pack. It is your life as you navigate unfamiliar terrain.


This is where I am beginning to challenge traditional notions of portfolios, which is a later post. I want transfer! I want conscious transfer! I want ownership necessary for confident transfer! I want students to determine how people will read their work (portfolio) by placing the thinking first. The work are mere examples of thinking they have mastered, are developing, and lack. What if a student was able to articulate something like: “Here are five example of the skills I’ve developed that capture my ability to systematically ask analytic questions. The first example highlights how I focus on analyzing through conceptual lenses: assumptions, perspectives, alternatives, context, etc. The second example captures my ability to identify relevant, alternative perspectives and interpretations and consider them critically. The third example builds off my second and showcases my skill and desire to enter emphatically into alternative perspectives….” I want students to tell employers, supervisors, graduate schools/professors what they intellectually bring to the table. The future student places thinking first. Doing so facilitates greater probability for transfer to other situations, problems and contexts. That’s a claim I convinced of until evidence tells me to give the power to others.

In short, The Backpack is another evolving document that we add to. It highlights intellectual moves and attitudes as they emerge in class. Make the implicit, EXPLICIT!  It will have examples, strategies, links. It’s a record of how they think and what they can do to think more strategically. It’s organic in that they create it. My role is to help them see what they are doing. Here’s the catch. Once it’s written, they have a resource and are required to consult it. STEP 3: Their assignments, our discussions, our groups work, our reflections MUST practice and mindfully implement the moves in The Backpack. Moreover, they have to make reasoned choices as to which moves help them accomplish particular micro and macro goals.

The Backpack (full of things they can take with them as they orient their way through life) is one example of my attempt to create a dynamic, integrated and hopefully transformative approach to assessment. At the core, students are writing their story of intellectual development. More examples to come.


One thought on “The Assessment Dilemma – Not Limits

Comments are closed.