Sunday, February 13, 2011

The "A" Word, Again

Guest blogger: Dave Royer

To the reader: the following blog uses the “a” word, so sufferers of “a” exhaustion, be forewarned.

In one of my recent classes we had a discussion; it was not explicitly planned, but we were covering a topic that had the potential to elicit strong opinions. I enjoyed hearing the students’ opinions, and their perspectives were interesting. I think it was empowering for them to have an opportunity to express their opinion and to use materials they had learned in my course and in other courses they had taken to support their opinions. After the class was over, I realized that the discussion was spontaneous and creative and completely outside my assessment plan for the course. Is that a bad thing?

At times, I have found the assessment process to be exhausting and occasionally frustrating, but it has revealed a lot about how I teach and what and how my students learn. My teaching has changed, hopefully for the better, because of it. But I hope that assessment does not evolve in a way that suppresses spontaneity and creativity in the classroom; I do not ever want to hear myself say to a class that we do not have time for discussion (or some other activity) because it is not in the assessment plan. I feel that the interchange that occurred in my class was as valuable to the students’ learning experience as a well conceived and constructed SLO.

One final thought – someone might suggest that I could have anticipated the possibility of discussion and designed a rubric to assess it, but it was pleasant to listen and participate without having to keep score.


  1. There was an article making the same point as yours, I think, in today's Chronicle of Higher Ed, called The Great Assessment Diversion" by April Kelly-Woessner, who asks, "How do you talk about instructional objectives if you aren't allowed to use words like 'know,' 'understand,' or 'appreciate'?" She isn't anti assessment, just a bit sad that we aren't any longer allowed to say that our objective is for our students to understand the material, wondering "Do students learn more now that all syllabi are written with measurable action verbs?" Food for thought.
    (I'm not sure if that link works for people without Chronicle subscriptions, but if not and anyone wants the article, just email me and I'll be happy to send you a copy as a Word document.)

  2. Thanks Dave and Linda. "The Great Assessment Diversion" link works for people without Chronicle subscriptions. Here is my answer to the main question:

    Q: After the class was over, I realized that the discussion was spontaneous and creative and completely outside my assessment plan for the course. Is that a bad thing?

    A: No. Middle States will agree "that the interchange that occurred in my [or your] class was as valuable to the students’ learning experience as a well conceived and constructed SLO." I can't find any objection in any of the assessment documents. I think we can make "spontaneity and creativity in the classroom" an SLO. Since we determine SLOs, it's up to us decide what will count.

  3. A productive discussion, whether or not it is spontaneous or creative, is what should be happening in the classroom, and we can’t allow assessment to dictate everything that happens in a classroom. Suskie, in Assessing Student Learning, calls student learning assessment action research “whose purpose is to inform and improve one’s own practice rather than make broad generalizations” (as opposed to empirical research). The goal is not to test every practice. Rather a few measurement tools are put in place to see if students are learning a few important things. If they are, great. If not, why not? What changes can be made?
    As a member of the assessment committee, we are currently reading the program assessment reports. One aspect that I am noticing is that all the measurement tools are quantitative in nature. Qualitative research is underused, a problem because this type of research can shine a light on possibilities that have been overlooked.
    This human dimension played out in that creative and spontaneous discussion. I imagine that the discussion moved students closer to achieving a particular SLO. Your observations and reflections of this event are direct measurements tools that can be used in the assessment process as are student reflections at the end of such a discussion.
    I am also guessing that the discussion is going to inform student performance later on in the semester. Perhaps there is a scheduled assessment tool at that time that will capture the student learning. Then my guesses will have some substance behind them or at least I can read about them in your reports.

    Either way, assessment is not trying to measure everything that happens. It is only trying to inform us about small parts of what is happening.

  4. There is no doubt in my mind that the type of discussion which took place in Dave's class and creativity in general are wonderful motivating factors for student learning and it could actually be included as part of assessment plans.

  5. Sorry, wanted to clarify something. By "included as part of assessment plans," I certainly do not mean that there needs to be some kind of rubric or measurement for every discussion that goes into a classroom- just that creativity and these kind of classroom interchange can be used to help students the most important parts of a course. Of course at some point we do need to measure what the students have learned. But, if we spent every minute of a classroom worrying about what we are going to assess or how we do it, we can become just robotic teachers.

  6. Ali, I agree! We'll see what the visiting Middle States VP (who is our Liaison Officer) says tomorrow 2/18/11.

  7. Dr. royer, I couldn't agree more regarding the possible suffocating effect on spontaneity and enthusiasm in the classroom of over-adherence to "canned" assessment standards and strategies.