11.02.2016 Why the way we assess students makes no sense.
Have you ever thought about why we test students the way we do? What do I mean? Well, we generally test students in isolation from each other. We generally disallow aids like notes, calculators, textbooks, cellphones. We ban the use of Google and Wikipedia. We set strict time limits and restrict you to your seat. We use a lot of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank, with perhaps a smattering of short essay. Someone is watching you constantly. Now, you may be thinking, "Of course. How else can we keep them from cheating? How else can we find out what they know? How else can we keep them from helping each other?" I would argue that those are the wrong questions. Sugata Mitra has an interesting TED talk, where he develops the idea that the present day education system remains much as it was designed by the British empire in the 18th century. At that time, what was needed were clerks and bookkeepers who could do math in their heads, and read and write without need of help, primarily to keep track of goods moved around the world in sailing ships. He argues convincingly that the education system isn't broken. It works remarkably well. It's just that it trains students to do things that there is little need for in the information age. Rather than testing for the ability to memorize and regurgitate without understanding, we need to redesign assessment around collaboration, persistence, synthesis, and creativity.
When we attempt to solve a problem at home or at work, what are the first things we do? Gather some background information. Consult an expert. Get some help. Brainstorm. Try more than one approach. Keep at it. None of these methods are allowed during a test, but this is the way we solve problems in the real world. Sure, we need to have the vocabulary. When I go to the hardware store, I need to be able to explain the problem so they can recommend the right tool. Yes, I need some basic understanding as a foundation. But why, in the 21st century, when all of the knowledge of humanity is a few clicks away, must I regurgitate memorized facts on an exam without any help? How often would I not have access to these resources in the real, everyday world? Perhaps if I'm lost in the woods, and my cell phone is out of juice, then I would need to solve a problem in isolation and without assistance. But that seems more like the exception than the rule. Cramming for a test, regurgitating a collection of memorized facts, and forgetting it all the next day is like being a bulimic. There is little educational value in consuming information that you can't retain, just as there is little nutritional value in eating food you don't keep down.
Most problems we face in the real world don't occur in an isolation chamber. They don't have someone hovering over you with a stopwatch. They don't require that all of the knowledge required to solve the problem is already in your head. They don't require you to stay seated, or to work alone. They don't present you with five distinct choices, only one of which is correct. They don't allow you only one attempt. That would be crazy. And yet, that's exactly how we test students, from elementary school all the way through college. Think about these questions for a bit. What kinds of students are successful at that kind of testing? How well does that reflect their future performance on the job? What skills do employers regularly ask for? When hiring someone, is it more important that they already know how to do the job, or that they are creative, persistent, able to learn, and able to work well with others? How well do we prepare students for the challeges they will face?
What are the skills we need to employ in modern day problem solving? Usually, they involve gaining an understanding of the problem, either by doing research or getting help from someone who knows more about the topic. Once we understand the problem, we develop one or more strategies to solve it, based on cost, time, effort, available resources. Often, the first solution is inelegant, but it might be good enough. "Fail small, fail often." is advice I've heard from many successful problem solvers. Don't be afraid to try things. Break the problem into pieces and solve each part separately. Creative solutions rarely come from aiming directly at the problem and going full speed ahead. But the key point here is that we learn to be creative by attacking problems not with a head full of facts, but a kit full of tools that can be used again and again. You may be thinking that I've got a point, but it's easier to grade answers right or wrong when we test facts, not opinions. However, it's actually not so hard to grade students a better way. You look at how they tackled the problem. It's the difference between awarding points only for the answer versus asking students to show their work and evaluating both the quality of the end product and the sophistication of their methods. Let them work in teams. Let them use any resources they can get their hands on. This is an approach to teaching and learning that actually prepares students for a job in the real world.
"But wait," you're saying. "If I assign group work, how can I tell who did what?" Yes, that can be tricky. We've all been assigned to a team where one person does almost nothing, and gets the same amount of credit as those who pulled most of the weight. That's a problem with the way the group members were evaluated. But guess who knows who did which parts of the job, and how well they did them? The members of the group. A very clever way to grade students is to have them evaluate their own performance and that of their fellow group members by secret ballot. Average out the peer grades and compare it to the grade they gave themselves. You'd be surprised how accurately this will match your own observations, and how well it reveals who did the work. Of course, you also assign the work an overall grade, so that if everyone agrees to give themselves higher grades than they deserve, there is a correction factor. This method may need to be employed more than once before students realize that their actions are accountable, so don't give up after just one try. You will find that it becomes even more effective as time goes on.
There is another thing you can try when assigning group work, if you're still having challenges. Identify the different kinds of work necessary to put together the final project. For example, in a lab experiment, one person is the group manager, whose job is to lead, organize, plan, make decisions and settle disputes. Another is the experimenter, the hands-on person, who must be good at understanding and following instructions. A third is the data collector, who might also be in charge of creating graphs and charts. A fourth is the analyst and writer of the report. A fifth is the presenter. These are somewhat arbitrary divisions of responsibility, but you get the idea. When you assign duties within the group, people sort themselves into the kind of work they like to do. Students who hate to get up in front of others and talk might be excellent writers. Students who like to present might not want to get their hands dirty, or be good at following detailed instructions. That's ok. Everybody can make a contribution. And, if someone really wants to work alone, let them. As long as they understand they have to do the same amount of work as a whole group would, that's fine. That's how the world works.