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Rethinking student assessment: “A test is really just a survey of student knowledge”

April 14, 2019
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Written by Jackie Amsden, Teaching and Learning Centre

Dan Laitsch (associate professor, education) doesn’t believe in exams. So, how does he determine his students’ final grades? He asks them.

For nine years, Laitsch, who is also the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy, has concluded his undergraduate education classes by holding interviews with each of the students (up to 35 students per class). He invites them to recommend the grade they feel they have earned and explain why.

“The interview is about assessing how their learning has progressed throughout the course, where they started, where they ended and how they got there. I ask them to walk me through their assignments and tell me what I may not know about their process of creating them, such as the intensity of the labour they put into them, the challenges they overcame, or the depth of learning they experienced.”

The possible outcomes, notes Laitsch, aren’t quite as broad as that description might imply.

“We both have a general sense of where the student is because they are submitting assignments throughout the course and receiving marks on those. But at the time of the interview their final work hasn’t been assessed, so there is a certain amount of ambiguity that we can navigate together.”

Applying academic rigour to student assessment

Laitsch explains that his interview-based evaluation approach is based on two beliefs: that conventional assessment methods are not error-free measures of learning, and that students should be assessed on their own merit, rather than in comparison to one another.

“I’m very concerned about the reliability and validity of the decisions we make based on the traditional tools we have for assessing student learning, and so what I do is to apply the same rigour to student assessment as I would to research and evaluation. For example, a test is really just a survey of student knowledge. And that means there can be challenges in collecting data and a substantial margin of error, particularly if it’s used as the only means of data collection.”

Laitsch further explains that the interview, combined with the various assignment grades, provides him with a more accurate and nuanced picture of the students’ progress—something that he feels is essential to determining their final grades.

Eliminating the bell curve

“There is no bell curve in my class. I feel it’s unfair to compare a criminology student with no background in this field taking my course on curriculum theory to a fourth-year education student. That means that an A, B or C for the criminology student may not look the same as the A, B or C for the education student because the learning they’ve experienced isn’t the same.”

Laitsch dismisses concerns that students might use the opportunity to try to get a higher mark than they deserve, noting that the point of the conversation is to have a transparent exchange with a clear and agreed-upon outcome. In most cases, he says, students actually propose a grade lower than what he has in mind.

Skepticism, followed by greater learning

The biggest challenge, he says, is overcoming students’ skepticism about this form of assessment.

“Students are not used to this form of grading … They aren’t used to meaningful self-evaluation and reflection on their learning. They are used to competitive assessments that are test-based. There is uncertainty inherent in this approach that can be troubling to them.”

However, Laitsch notes that, while it may be uncomfortable, that uncertainty is a powerful driver for learning.

“Because my students are given the freedom to focus on the journey instead of the end goal—such as an exam score—I see them creating products that they are proud of, products of a very high quality. I see them being more intrinsically motivated, and they take charge of their learning in a different, more empowered way.”