Tangled wires.

The Tangle of Assessment

 Published on January 5, 2012 /  Written by and /  0

Grading and assessment are curious beasts, activities many instructors love to hate but ones that nonetheless undergird the institutions where we work.

Peter Elbow begins his essay “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment” with the mission to “attempt to sort out different acts we call assessment” (187). It’s interesting to note his specific phrasing here. He doesn’t say that he intends to “sort out assessment” but rather that he intends to “sort out different acts we call assessment.” From the first sentence of his essay, Elbow makes clear that assessment is a complicated and potentially fractious subject, one that he treads lightly. He continues, “I have been working on this tangle not just because it is interesting and important in itself but because assessment tends so much to drive and control teaching. Much of what we do in the classroom is determined by the assessment structures we work under” (187). The choices we make about assessment, often at the outset of a course (in the syllabus), guide much of what happens within the course. Assessment is a “tangle” for Elbow, both because it is difficult to navigate with any true objectivity and because ideas about assessment influence so much of what happens at institutions and in classrooms.

The interface of an online or hybrid course can place even more emphasis on grading. In the land-based classroom, we spend a good deal of time interacting with our students on a personal (and physically-proximate) level. These interactions can help to reassure students about “where they stand” in the class. In an online class, students often look to grades, points, and percentages in lieu of these more real (and dynamic) face-to-face interactions. At its worst, an online class can become an exercise in data entry, where the quality of student work and learning becomes conflated with scores organized neatly into a spreadsheet. The neat and tidy columns of the LMS (whether D2L, Blackboard, etc.) create a false security, cramming the “tangle” Elbow describes into an artificial sense of order and clarity. This serves to highlight the negative potentials of grading when used as a currency to thresh, to motivate, or to punish, but a currency divorced from the actual learning accomplished.

New modes of thinking, of work production, and of 21st century epistemology require us to reconsider the subject of grading. Clay Shirky observes in his recent books Cognitive Surplus and Here Comes Everybody that digital culture does not just create new ways to work, it gives us the extra set of hands and eyes to consider addressing different goals, new “whys” to work. In Here Comes Everybody he chronicles the story of a programmer who harnessed the power of online interaction in New York City to track down the thief who took his friend’s cell phone. On his own time, he built, moderated, and channelled the feedback of thousands of online sleuths to arrive at this goal. He did not grade them, and he did not offer them compensation. Instead, he gave them a goal that was both realistic and idealistic enough to inspire creative work. As instructors, we solve some of the problem of grades if the work we propose for our students is its own reward, paying dividends in experience, interaction, tighter focus.

We are not suggesting that assessment of all student work must, in an online or hybrid environment, eschew grading and become crowdsourcing. (For an example of how crowdsourcing can be used in the classroom, whether online or hybrid, see Cathy N. Davidson’s “How to Crowdsource Grading.”)  We are suggesting that new environments require a review of principles. By any standard, three major shifts have occurred that mandate such a review: a change in how we work, the change in knowledge production in general, and the hybridization of the classroom. If we are working towards different goals, skills sets, and eventual application, our system of assessment should adapt to this evolution.

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