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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Assessment and Feedback Metaphors

When I asked in class for my 401 students to come up with an image or word to represent assessment, two of the student group's suggestions made me think deeply about what assessment is and does. The word was "placement," and the image was of a road leading off into the distance where there is a city and the sun setting.

With placement, one could say that grades and assessment tell you where a student is. What is their place? Where on the road to the Emerald City are they? The question that occurred to me is this: how do we know where we are in general? What helps us distinguish when we have moved from one place to another? Landmarks, signs, and features of geography or the built environment are the indicators of place and define limits and borders of space. It is natural, then, for people to determine where they are by looking at external sign-posts like grades. Grades and assessments can show where students are relative to others with the idea that they don't get lost. Statisticians and test-makers determine what it means to be at a fifth-grade reading level, for example.

But academic achievement and advancement is not a literal domain, and so external landmarks like grades can distort and in fact mislead students. This is particularly the case when grades, rather than signposts or markers of progress along the journey, become the destination. If the signposts we offer are just like boxes to be checked off on a scavenger hunt, they become as trivial as finding an old tire (or whatever it is people find on scavenger hunts).

So what should feedback (as an integral part of assessment) be like in order to avoid the trap of triviality? Sticking with the placement and road metaphor, we could argue that feedback should be like a compass: a guide to keep students on track towards the goal of reaching the Emerald City. But I am going another direction (haha).

Feedback can be confusing or provide guidance. There is nothing worse for me, when reading professor feedback on a paper, to see a checkmark or a question mark to the side of a paragraph. "What does that mean?!" I think. But there are other times a teacher asks a question that helps me think about what I have written in a new way. In rare cases, teacher comments have helped me glimpse a whole new world I didn't even realize my writing had implied.

So for me the ultimate goal of feedback is for it to be like a mirror: teachers hold a mirror up to their students so that they can see themselves in a new light. With the new light, they can see where they are and decide for themselves which direction they would like to go.


At 5:29 PM, Blogger Paul Troy said...

As a prospective educator, I find myself questioning the way grading impacts a classroom. I hope that grades are never the destination but do see them as a means of filling up the tank along the way. Maybe the result is a high grade filling you up all the way and getting you the farthest until you fill up again and a lower grade only filling you up half way. The result is you having to work even harder to achieve that goal or destination. Just some random thoughts on the matter.

At 6:51 PM, Blogger Travis Eckert said...

Grades seem to be the easy out nowadays, as administrators and government officials must have some way to readily access students in some sort of meaningful way. However, grades don't have to be the sole form of feedback, but can serve as a way to be very clear in how a student is progressing, or not progressing. In Nancie Atwell's, In The Middle, she describes her teaching philosophy when it comes to writing (which inevitably includes reading instruction). Essentially, she does not critique students with the deadly red pen, the pen that students are marked down for because of incorrect grammar usage. Instead, Atwell teaches these grammar rules gradually, as opposed to simply presenting a series of grammatical rules and expecting students to apply them consistently. But the true meat of her instruction is that she insists on the writing workshop format, where students record their writings in a classroom journal. With any provided teacher comments, this would provide clear teacher feedback, and something that the teacher, student, and parents can look back on to see the student's progress and where the student needs to improve. With that, I'd have to agree with you, feedback is meant to show student's a reflection of themselves and their progress, so they can decide where to go next in their educational life.

At 6:33 PM, Blogger BrianKSohn said...

From Chris Barlow, a friend and teacher:
Within the traditional ed paradigm, I think the metaphor is instructive and even helpful to young educators. I think it works to illuminate the way assessment should fit into a teacher's understanding of student progress.

Here's my beef: the road or path as a metaphor for education. It implies a destination, an objective, which is troublingly assumed always to be a requirement of education. We treat knowledge as if there's a defined amount of it, and then measure how much of it students know and understand through assessments.

After reading the post a few times, I don't think your metaphor is explicitly predicated on this assumption, but it lends itself to that kind of interpretation easily. That said, where I think the metaphor falls short is to provoke educators think about the kind of path or journey they are trying to help students have. What if, instead of the Emerald City (also a metaphor I'm not a huge fan of, as it implies that once the student arrives, all her ails will be fixed, and it reeks of the collegiate Ivory Tower), the metaphor was a student journeying into an unknown, unmapped area? How would your feedback be different to prepare and guide a student into that kind of experience, rather than one in which you as the teacher know all the correct answers?

My point is that good teachers teach so that their students at some point can, at least hypothetically, transcend the expertise of the teacher. In this way, assessment is not just about placing students on the path (i.e. on a linear progression); it is also about observing how students work independently and face novel challenges. The key is for a teacher to observe the patterns and their respective outcomes and articulate them so that the student can face similar challenges with better outcomes in the future.


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