Sunday, January 12, 2014

Assessment: Telling Our Stories

I am in the process of preparing a presentation for an assessment conference in June to be held at Alabama A&M University. I am very excited about the opportunities to both attend and present at this annual event.

I am speaking on the subject of MOOCs, and whether they can or should be incorporated into our own curricula. The idea of marrying two seemingly disparate entities (MOOCs and traditional higher education) is not unlike struggling with the relationship of qualitative and quantitative assessment strategies.

And it has me thinking about the nature of assessment. It has me wondering how I can convey to the audience my concern for the over-reliance on data that I observe, without giving the impression that I don't value the data at all. Quite the contrary! I'm a scientist, a mathematician every bit as much as I am an artist and a writer. I just don't think that the data tells the entire story when it comes to the important role of assessment.

What kind of assessment, though? Are we talking institutional assessment? Program assessment? Or the assessment of teaching and learning that occurs within our institutions? So often it seems that teaching and learning are segregated in the planning and assessment processes in ways that make both more difficult to both assess and address.

But I think we're really talking about all forms of assessment here. The assessment design is so critical to the analysis of perceived outcomes that there are have to be standards of compliance on all levels. But establishing those standards doesn't have to abolish the narrative that must necessarily accompany the data.

How many of us want to be assessed on any level based purely on data? As institutions, we don't want our accrediting agencies looking only at our numbers with no consideration of the stories, efforts and the context supporting those numbers. Numbers tell a story, but it's not always the whole or even near truth. We all know that.

So when we think of student learning, we must even-handedly afford them the same opportunity for a narrative. Our numbers don't TELL our story, their merely support and document its narrative. There's no doubt that the data, the grades, the statistics all matter. But without the story, they can lead us astray. Data might make us think that a student has learned something that they really have not learned. Or that they haven't learned something that has in fact taken hold inside of them and begun to transform the way they think and process information for the rest of their lives.

One of the worst grades I ever received was on a written exam from a philosophy professor I had in freshman year. The course was all about logic. We were being taught to think logically in philosophical terms. None of us fared well on paper (luckily, that was just an exercise in compliance and those grades were dismissed in the end), but the impact of the professor's teaching on me was so profound that over 30 years later, I still remembered his name, his face and many of the things he said verbatim from our classes that semester. He was one of two professors that I remember vividly even three decades later who had profound life-long impact on my relationship to the world. Neither ever asked me a multiple choice question; one never even gave a test or quiz. They based our final grades on the conversations that they had held with each of us, the narrative that contextualized our performance data.

I was student teaching one semester. My internship grade was based on how many times I had written in my journal that semester. I don't think it was even read, as I received no feedback on its content. The entries were counted and my grade was finalized. I got a B because I had missed a week in the journal due to illness/stress. I was not allowed to retroactively journal. And all I had to show for that internship was this grade on a transcript that was the only physical record of my college experience. Even though my journal told the story of several personal breakthroughs with at-risk youth in my classes.

I want us all to remember that data without a narrative is, at best, dangerous to the mission and its objectives. At its worst, it leads us in circles or down the entirely wrong roads with our efforts.

The Web, in its infinite power, has the ability to help us deliver  BOTH our data AND our stories in ways that have increasing meaning to—and impact upon—not only the learners we serve, but ourselves as teachers. Teaching and learning can no more easily be separated than the wax and wane of the moon, or high and low tides of the ocean. You cannot measure (or assess, which is not synonymous with measurement!) one without measuring and assessing the other. Because for every measurement, there is a deeper story to tell of connection, engagement, risk, effort and ultimately, outcome.

How will we tell our own stories? How will we tell the stories of our teaching and learning? How will we support our students telling theirs? With a transcript? Or an e-portfolio? A body of work (research, art, etc.) ... ?

Because when they tell their stories, they are telling ours, too.

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