What is the purpose of assessment?

Tess Beebe Olten
Tess Beebe Olten

By Special Guest, Tess Beebe Olten, Training Specialist, TBR/TN eCampus

What’s the goal?

Most in education would agree that the primary goal of education is (or should be) to prepare our learners for successful, happy and engaged professional and personal lives after they leave our midst. The goal of assessment, most would further agree, is to measure or evaluate successful learning. But not all of us in education fully realize that formative assessment strategies have added benefit for both learners and teachers. But what is formative assessment? And how is different than the more traditional summative assessment models to which we’re accustomed (such as quizzes, tests, and exams administered at the culmination of learning modules or courses)?

For those unfamiliar with the terms, summative assessment is said to basically MEASURE learning. Formative assessment, on the other hand, IMPROVES learning—as well as teaching! But how does a simple shift in strategy manage to do all that? It all boils down to one simple ingredient that enhances the teaching and learning experience for all involved: feedback!

The word feedback written on a boardIdeally, a well designed learning experience includes ample opportunities for feedback from learner to teacher and from teacher to learner. In fact, there’s a reason many call it the ‘feedback loop’—because, ideally, the feedback continues to cycle back and forth throughout the teaching and learning experience. In fact, ideally, the feedback loop includes interaction between learners as well. The most effective assessment strategies promote ample opportunities for self-assessment, peer assessment and teacher assessment—in a variety of models such as tests, discussion boards, projects, and e-portfolios. This approach is typically supported by the use of rubrics—very detailed, specific, and descriptive grids or tables expressing expected behaviors/outcomes and the grading values associated with each level of accomplishment. Rubrics communicate expectations as well as underscore the relative value of each expectation in the overall assessment.

But what does an effective assessment look like?

For some classes (especially those being delivered on a large scale of fifty or more learners), those traditionally summative tools like quizzes and exams can be used in a successful formative assessment strategy. But if our goal is to prepare students for the challenges they face, how realistic is the multiple choice exam as a SOLE means of assessment? When was the last time your employer came in to your office and said, “We have a problem! And I’m going to need for you to unplug your phone, turn off your computer and lock your bags in the closet. And you have 30 minutes to figure it out … no cheating!”

The dilemma brings us back to the question, “What is the purpose of assessment?” When you ‘test’ your learners, what exactly are you trying to measure or assess? For many, the answer is learner compliance. Tests written to ensure that the learner actually read and memorized their assignments comprise a vast majority of our assessment experiences. But if the assessment were to actually measure or assess learning, it would look more like those real life challenges that we face in our professional and personal lives like solving problems, managing projects, applying for grants, drafting meaningful executive summaries, testing products, drafting project proposals, compiling e-portfolios, developing presentations, and writing critical reviews. Why not replicate the actual challenges that our learners will likely face after they have left our courses?

Final Thoughts

While it’s true that grading such assignments can be a time challenge, the use of self and peer assessments can greatly lighten the load as well as reinforce key learning objectives. And those automated testing tools in our LMS can as easily be written to encourage critical thinking as simple regurgitation of memorized material. For instance, what if the multiple choice question presented a unique problem and the possible solutions required critical thinking and application of learning rather than simply retrieving small details and facts from recent memory? How much more effectively can we assess learning when we take the time to design and implement assessment strategies that encourage the application of learning, rather than simply the reflection of it?