Words that strike fear into people – assessments, exams, appraisal, evaluation, tests! What is assessment and what is its purpose?

Assessment is an emotive subject. It takes people back to that large gym hall with coats and bags at the front, teachers pacing up and down the rows and rows of teenagers scribbling away at pace or looking worriedly into the distance. People say they just cannot ‘do’ exams. The pressure kicks in and they just cannot perform. Heart racing, sweating and a blank mind despite months of hard work. Test anxiety is both physiological and psychological. It doesn’t have to be so stressful or favour just those who can ‘perform’ on the day.

To ‘be assessed’ is a chance to prove that you can do what you and your educators set out to do at the beginning of any particular course or intervention. It is also an opportunity to gauge where an individual is. A type of diagnostic. You can’t solve a problem or provide the correct solution to a task if you don’t know the current state of play. Having the correct information is vital and we shouldn’t shy away from this data – as long as it’s useful to both the student and educator. I’m a runner in my spare time and I constantly use data from my runs to track progress. There is so much of it though that you can addicted. Aside from the quantitative it is important to add in the qualitative – how were you feeling that day? What had you been doing that week?  More on big data later.

I am describing any type of assessment – final exam to small MOOC or 20 minute e-learning assessment. To be assessed, there has to be standards in place and objectives set. For educators designing assessment this is key. If the aim of the learning intervention is to evaluate two arguments and come to a conclusion then that is what should be assessed. If the learning intervention is to sell more widgets, then this is the ultimate assessment – how many more have you sold since the learning intervention?

The assessment is not just about the individual being assessed. Many learning designers and educators are tasked with evaluating their learning. This can often be the biggest cause of frustration for those being evaluated. Rightly, learning institutions are looking to improve how they teach and assess. It is important that this search for quantitative data to assess systems and approaches to learning do not get in the way of the actual learning taking place. In a vocational setting, a mechanic may be required to repair a particular fault in a car engine. Observation and the fact that the mechanic can repair the fault and the car functions as set out in standards and objectives is true assessment and not 20 multiple choice questions with an arbitrary 80% pass mark. Don’t get me started on the lazy 80% grade! What if the 20% the mechanic gets wrong is the section on brakes working correctly! This data is just the start and with big data learning analytics we can capture huge amounts of data but the question is for what purpose? The question that educators must ask here  is who is this assessment for? If it is for them and the organisation and not the learner, questions must be asked. Primary education has recently be faced with similar questions. Are test results for the pupils or the teachers?

Creativity is high on the agenda of learning designers when it comes to delivering content. Assessment is often forgotten in this process and bolted on at the end. Learner centred design is vital and highly acclaimed for delivery but not always for assessment. Making the whole process of learning and assessment should be seamless and blended.

We must use both formative and summative assessment correctly. Formative assessment should be used from the outset, the learner interacting with content, doing stuff with it and getting feedback on their work. Summative should again feel seamless, a final opportunity to prove that the learner has reached the required standards. Many new pedagogies are at educators disposal. Stealth assessment is just one innovation which assesses performance based on the learner doing what they will do in the real world with unobtrusive methods. I’m going to take you back to that gym hall and exam (sorry!). When in the real world will somebody be given a task to complete and then asked to hand in all of their possessions and sit in silence to complete the task in 2 hours under extreme pressure? Even Alan Sugar would not do that for viewing figures on the Apprentice. Stripping away experts, colleagues and mobile devices connected to the world, removes reality from the task in the cruelest of ways. The world of work and education in 2016 is highly connected with (may too much) information coming from every angle, why remove that for a final assessment?

Assessment is vital and we have so many ways to embed it into the whole blended and seamless learning experience. Assessment should be interwoven with the learning process, providing formative feedback with a final opportunity to prove (however that may be) that those original learning objectives have been achieved. And as with the delivery of content – learner centred!


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