Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is Assessment Necessary for Learning?

There is a fantastic discussion on the nature of assessment and learning happening on Will Richardson's blog right now. You should go there and read through the comments. I am re-posting mine here:

To build on Gary’s earlier suggestion that we think about the role of assessment in terms of learning that occurs outside school settings I think it might help even to think about it in the context of other species. Take my dogs for example. Aside from formal training experiences I have observed two distinctly different types of learning experiences they engage in on their own. One involves learning by cause and effect and the other involves discovery.

An example of cause and effect learning is problem solving. This type of learning is fueled heavily by a motivation to attain a result. For example, for most of the day my dogs have free reign of the back yard but at night I lock them in the garage. My shepard-husky mix, who is our most hyper dog and arguably the best problem solver, doesn’t like this kind of confinement and constantly works to find ways to get out. The results of both her failed and successful attempts to open the dog door (or break it open) are forms of feedback and through this trial and error she engages in self-assessment until she has learned what she needs to satisfy the desire that motivates her.

The other type, discovery learning, has no motivational force and also lacks assessment. An example of my dogs learning through discovery is one day my newfoundland discovered, while digging a hole in my yard, that the soil below was cool. When he was a pup, and even a young adult dog, he rarely engaged in digging behaviors but through discovery he learned this was an effective way to keep cool outside on hot days. No one taught him to do this, it was not motivation that led him to dig (if I remember right he was digging because I forgot to trim his nails), and there was no assessment in the form of trail and error. I suppose you could argue that his discovery that the ground was cool was a form of feedback but it certainly was not assessment. And, how do I know he learned that the ground under the top layer of soil was cool? He only digs on hot days and he always sits in his holes. He has one this for ten years (he is 15 years old).

I also engaged in an interesting discussion tonight on Twitter. Here are a few bits an pieces of what I added to that conversation:

How do you self-assess the learning you do on Twitter?less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@jerridkruse what about learning that results from events of discovery? Learning occurs w/o goals. Does assessment need 2b in this equation?less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@shareski can you give an example of when it is not an instrument of control?less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@jonbecker to self assess one has to have an external model (curriculum), or perceived model, to use as a rubric.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@bengrey @jonbecker @shareski isn't assessment just a byproduct of curriculum and a subtle imposition of ones control over another?less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

I am still waiting for an example from Dean. I am curious what your thoughts are on this. Is assessment necessary?


The Book Chook said...

I worry that over-concentration on assessment has caused a downhill slide in engagement, thinking outside the box, and real learning in schools. But I am not sure I could state we should do without assessment in society.

If only we humans could be trusted to self-regulate! Unfortunately, I don't believe we can, so we need some sort of test to establish that I know the rules of the road and can drive competently before I get a driver's license. When I am choosing a dentist to work on my teeth, I almost definitely would choose the one who passed his exams over the one who simply tells me he's sure he can do the work. It doesn't guarantee me anything, but it is some sort of standard I can use when making a choice.

Mrs. Tenkely said...

Assessment has come about as a means to standardize learning. We have to assess in order to know if the standard curriculum has been memorized by students. Do we need assessment for learning? No. Do we need assessment to know if our canned curriculum is working? Yes. Until we can move away from the traditional curriculum model, assessment will be a part of the process. Learning may be involved but often it has more to do with memorization than anything else.

I came up with the same reasoning as The Book Chook for assessment, on some level we do need to be assessed before we can be set loose on society. We want to know that people behind the wheel of a car have the basic knowledge of how to operate that vehicle and follow the rules of the road. We want to know that the doctor operating on us has a certain level of knowledge (that has been assessed). Is the assessment necessary for the learning that happened? I think the answer is still no. However, the assessment in this case points to the learning that was done.

Dean Shareski said...

When I'm golfing with a buddy and I tell him that he's swing is faulty and suggest something he's doing is causing that fault, that's not about control. It's about providing useful feedback.

In that case and in an case in the classroom, that feedback must be welcomed by the learner at some level in order for it to be useful.

I think we use the word assessment and mean very different things. I use it as feedback. Sometimes it's about control and yet at it's best, it's about new perspectives and perhaps critique and advice from a trusted source, be it a colleague, friend, coach, parent or teacher.

Carl Anderson said...


After considering your example I still have to stand by my earlier statement. Giving pointers to a friend golfing would still be a form of "subtle" control over the golf game of your friend. Therefore, even in minute ways assessment and feedback are an instrument of influence or control over another. Where i do depart from Stager's position on this is I don't think all assessment is bad and I don't see trying to influence or control behavior or thoughts as always being a negative. Indeed, training is not always bad. In the example I give with my dogs. Many of the things they have learned on their own have resulted in behaviors that are not in their best interest. The same is true with our students. Many of them need us to do assessment and many of them need training. It is just a matter of how much agency we give them and how much our school systems exert themselves. So the real debate should not be about whether all assessment is good or bad but rather what kinds of assessments are good for our students and how much curriculum is necessary to give them as much agency as possible without learners falling prey to their own ignorance about the content they are trying to learn.