Why is assessment important?
'Nothing we do to, or for our students is more important than our assessment of their work and the feedback we give them on it. The results of our assessment influence students for the rest of their lives...'Race et al. 1
Assessment and its associated feedback are essential to student learning. However, you may find that more of your time is taken up with the areas of assessment associated with quality assurance, rather than its potential to support students' learning. Well designed assessment has numerous benefits aside from the obvious one of providing a measure of students' progress as it can be a means to engage students with their learning. Ideally then, you should aim to support active learning rather than Assessment of Learning to ensure that the assessment process is an integral part of your students' education.
What is Assessment for Learning?
Assessment for Learning focuses on the opportunities to develop students' ability to evaluate themselves, to make judgements about their own performance and improve upon it. It makes use of authentic assessment methods and offers lots of opportunities for students to develop their skills through formative assessment using summative assessment sparingly.
Assessment is inescapable
Assessment is the engine which drives student learningJohn Cowan2
A student undertaking any form of study will be subject to assessment in one form or another. Similarly, any member of teaching staff will be engage at some point in assessment related work. For some of you, assessment takes up a considerable proportion of your workload, and for students it can be a significant determinant of what, when and how they learn. Getting assessment 'right' is therefore essential, both for your students and for you.
'Good' assessment benefits student learning... and staff
Well-designed assessment can encourage active learning especially when the assessment delivery is innovative and engaging. Peer and self-assessment, for instance, can foster a number of skills, such as reflection, critical thinking and self-awareness â as well as giving students insight into the assessment process. Discussing the ways in which you're assessing with your students can also help to ensure that the aims and goals of your assessments are clear. Utilising assessment that makes use of technology, such as the use of online discussion forums or electronic submission of work, can teach students (and perhaps your colleagues) new skills. If you design your assessments well they can also help to deter plagiarism by reducing the ways in which students can gather and report information. At the end of the day, taking some time to think about why, what and how you're going to assess your students is a worthwhile investment of time. It can help ensure you're assessing the skills and knowledge that you intended and it could open up new possibilities for different ways to assess your students, some of which may be more efficient and effective than the current methods you're using.
- Race, P. Brown, S. and Smith, B. (2005) 500 Tips on assessment: 2nd edition, London: Routledge.
Cowan, J. (2005) In: Designing assessment to enhance student learning. http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/ps/documents/practice_guides/practice_guides/
ps0069_designing_assessment_to_improve_physical_sciences_learning_march_2009.pdf [7th February 2012].
The following resources from Phil Race are a good starting point in thinking about the importance of assessment:
It seems like the best way to reach a desired result would be to focus on that result, try to move toward it, and judge each attempt by how closely you approximate it. But actually that approach is far from optimal. If you focus your attention and effort less on the results you’re hoping for and more on the processes and techniques you use, you will learn faster, become more successful, and be happier with the outcome.
By default we tend to be forward-looking, goal-pursuing, results-focused. Why? Because we’re wired for a discontentment with the present and a striving for a better future. Because results are easier to measure and evaluate than processes. Because we know others judge us based on results and we tend to care too much what others think.
But focusing on process rather than outcome is a much better strategy. Why?
- It eliminates the noise of external factors. Success can follow a flawed effort and failure can follow a flawless effort. In those cases, judging performance by outcome will reinforce the wrong techniques. You’ll achieve mastery of a new skill more quickly if you can learn to detect those cases and reinforce the correct processes whether or not they happened to lead to the desired outcome in that instance.
- It encourages experimentation. When you’re wholly focused on a specific desired result, you’re less willing to try long shots, less inclined to experiment, less open to serendipity, and less likely to stumble on an even better outcome than the one you were aiming for
- It lets you enjoy the process more. Life is lived in the present, not the future, and happiness is a process, not a place. Focusing on process will let you engage more deeply with the present and experience it more fully, which will help you learn faster and experience life more completely.
- It puts you in control. You have only partial control over whether you reach a specific external goal. But you have complete control over the process you use. Whether you give your best effort is entirely within your power. An internal locus of control leads to empowerment, higher self-esteem, and success, all of which contribute meaningfully to life satisfaction.
- It lets you enjoy and benefit more from whatever outcome does occur. In the long run things rarely turn out the way we expect them to. If your happiness is predicated on your success, and if your success is predicated on a specific outcome, you are setting yourself up for a high likelihood of frustration and disappointment. If you instead let go of the need for any particular outcome, you increase your chances for success and contentment. It’s fine to desire a certain outcome; just don’t make your happiness contigent on it. Instead, derive happiness from knowing that you gave every attempt your best effort.
- It will give you confidence. Not confidence that you’ll succeed in the current attempt, but confidence that you’re on the right path to mastery. You’ll worry less about the future because you’ll know that you’ll be happy regardless of the outcome of any given situation or event. You’ll be more free to get out of your comfort zone, to be spontaneous and take risks. And being unattached to a specific outcome means you won’t be needy, or get upset when things don’t go as you had hoped. The more you focus on process over outcome, the more confident you’ll become, and there’s nothing more attractive than confidence.
So how can you focus on process over outcome?
- Don’t pursue the rewards directly, trust that they will come. Focus on the process with diligence and effortful study, and let the outcome take care of itself.
- Stop worrying about what others will think of your performance.
- View each attempt as merely practice for the next attempt.
- Choose for yourself how to rate your performance. Rate yourself based on the effort, not the outcome. Don’t try to win today, try to become a winner. Be happier when your best effort results in defeat than when a weak effort results in victory. Determine what your best effort would look like, and then make it happen.
- Bring awareness to your performance, either during or immediately after it, so you can learn to identify when bad results follow good processes, and vice-versa. With practice you will build the confidence needed to avoid second-guessing yourself when the results are bad but your technique is good.