November 11, 2011

Baby or Bathwater?

I am working with a number of great institutions/programs on the development of meaningful assessment processes.  Of course, I love what I do so it is easy to let it consume me as I know that ultimately, a successful process will lead to more successful students.  However, I am struck about how easy it is to get so focused on the process that we forget the real purpose of all this activity--thus the title of this entry.  Yes, the process is designed to determine how well the program/institution is doing in producing student outcomes.  However, is that all there is?

If we believe that student learning is cumulative over time and that what students learn in one course they will use, practice, or further develop in another course, then it becomes clear that collecting data in a "summative" course that documents student learning is sufficient to know how well the program/institution is doing in delivering education.  However, we need to remember that this is about STUDENTS and what they know or can do.   Research tells us that students do best when they know the performance that is expected of them and when they get feedback on their performance.  Individual students should be provided information on what is expected of them (i.e., what will be on the test) and given feedback on their performance in formative contexts (courses/experiences before the summative assessment).  For example, do they get the scoring rubric that will be used to evaluate their performance or do they get written comments as to how to improve their performance?  Does their performance "count" in the final grading process?  If they are being asked to write an essay about the importance of diversity in the work setting, do they also get feedback on their writing as well as the "content" of the essay?  If so, is it considered a part of the grade for the assignment?  Is writing important in all contexts or just writing classes?  What is the message that is being sent to students? 

Providing students with feedback on their performance throughout the curriculum will improve the student outcomes by the end of the program.  It is important that we don't leave students out of this process.  Too many times we only get bathwater.

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