Friday, October 01, 2004

AA = Assessment Addiction

"I'm having school withdrawals! Grade me, tell me I'm so, so smart!" - Lisa Simpson

I will be thought-wandering.... bear with me.

Between the ongoing discussion of NCEA, own assessing of students and of course my assignments and action being assessed, thoughts about assessment are bound to arise. The principal of Newmarket Primary School (coincidentally my next practicum school) came in to talk about "reporting to parents" but mainly it was about what reports should be about. It was very interesting and inspired more than a few thoughts.

She mentioned that even though she knows grades are not at all useful, comments and constructive feedback, she still rushes to check her "grade" on her doctorate work. In fact doctorate work only has "pass" or "fail".

Grades or undue emphasis on grades or the tests that produce them remove the intrinsic motivation in learning. Focus goes from wonder and personal improvement to getting that score or that usual University student question - "Is that going to be in the test?"

I believe that grades have become a kind of psychological drug. Although I crave grades like the next junkie, I feel I am getting real medicine when I get genuine feedback. Real feedback with advice can guide me to be a happier teacher. Grades make me look sideways and compare. And perhaps rightly so for some, because grades are a big part of our culture. They are currency for getting many different kinds of jobs. But they are functionally useless. No sustenance whatsoever although they might shine your ego, or give it a gentle prick to test how durable your ego bubble is.

An interesting question is that if we move strongly towards qualitative assessment (NCEA, unit standards) over quantitative assessment (School C, bursary) will this result in a change in the learning culture of our culture. Going back to the three classes of goal motivation (from a previous post: Performance Approach, Performance Avoidance, and Mastery Approach), it could fundamentally change the nature of motivation. Qualitative assessment will be more closely aligned with the Mastery approach.

But what if you are a competitive person? Perhaps competitiveness is genetic? Robbed of your precious grading, you can no longer rely on an "objective" grade to distinguish you from the dross. Or will there still be competitiveness but over actual ability instead? In other words, a performance approach may still be just as applicable. As will performance avoidance.

Or maybe the grade-competitiveness is a product of the existing culture... so eliminate the constant grading and no longer will people look for a letter or a number to evaluate their entire being and focus on more intrinsic goals of self-improvement. Again, we are in an experimental situation with our country, which for me at least is quite refreshing.

One interesting example which arose in today's lecture where the children actually created the assessing system for an activity, and could grade themselves. e.g. The highest category was: Can do it without help and can teach others how to do it; second highest was: Can do it but needs help sometimes etc. The teacher also mentioned what criteria they would be looking for (as you should because you need to make sure all areas are covered).
With this the children know what is expected of them, can grade themselves and hence take control of the learning process, and not feel like control is outside of them. Fascinating!


James said...

If you want to achieve your goals, it is important to know where you stand currently and how you can progress forwards. Assessment is important because it fulfils both of those roles.

I wouldn't have thought that grades are entirely useless, because they are usually attached to the student's answers that the grade relates to. In this sense, I suppose I'm thinking about the "out of 100" mark that I typically got for an exam at school. You can identify which sections of the exam you did well at and which you need improvement on.

I was a competitive person at school, so I thrived on getting grades and comparing them with my friends. But I still had an interest in what I learnt in my subjects. I am also a numbers person, so getting an assessment in the form of a percentage was helpful for me.

Of course, it is more useful for improvement purposes if you also get critical comments that you can act on. I think that is the mark of a thoughtful teacher.

Whether someone has the "right" motivation, I think, depends on the quality of your teacher. A good teacher will make you feel excited about learning the subject and value the learning itself, not just the qualification it might lead to.

I don't know much about NCEA because we didn't have it while I was at school. If it gives you a reasonably accurate assessment of how well you are doing and how you can improve, then I support it. But, I don't think that grades are inherently bad.

Crypticity said...

When I said grades, I meant usually just a number or something like that and nothing much else. Taking an example from our very paradoxical classes at School of Ed: I did an essay on Gifted Children and handed it in. I got it back with ticks every five centimetres down and then a grade of 7/10. What does that say?

The comments were more geared for the idea of report writing for primary school. Some schools still do ABCDE gradiing. If we look at your writing, what makes an A, or a B etc. It is completely arbitrary. And when you do get a C, what does it do to contribute to learning?

If someone was watching your bowling in a cricket match, would you like to know the coach gave you an A, B, or C etc. derived from your average (which can only really stoke your confidence or dampen your spirits) or would you like to know what you can do to improve your run in stride.

I think we (comparative) achievers probably have a different attitude towards grades than those on the other end of the spectrum. Our current self-esteems may even have been partially founded on grades.

Because grades were seen as so damaging to self-esteem, and reducing motivation in academic pursuits (and in some cases fear of a child getting a beating for their lack of application in some areas), schools went silly and did purely positive grades, which would overlook some of the pressing needs of the children and rightful anger of parents years later.

It is an interesting topic to think about. And it echoes ideas of liberal economics in some ways.

James said...

I agree that if you get a 7/10 for your essay, with so complementary comments, then it's difficult to know what to do with it.

I disagree with marks being influenced too much by making the recipient feel good, because they need to be relevant to the standard of performance. If the performance is bad, then the mark should reflect that. I would expect there to be a lot of comments on how to improve, in such a case, anyway.

People need to understand that failure can be seen as an opportunity to improve. It's not the end of the world. Perhaps this goes back to what you wrote about "intrinsic motivation". If you are too obsessed with your grades, per se, then you probably would be demotivated to learn if you didn't know how to improve them.