Thoughts on Education – 2/7/2012 – Evaluation and Assessment

Sorry for yesterday’s lack of a post.  I decided to take the evening off and watch some shows with my wife and then go to bed early.  We were watching In Search of Myths & Heroes from the BBC on Netflix.  We watched 2 of the 4 episodes last night, one on Shangri-La and one on King Arthur.  Not the most groundbreaking show in the world, but I did enjoy it.  We had watched an earlier episode on The Queen of Sheba, but I didn’t really pay enough attention to that one to saymuch one way or another.  The fourth myth is going to be Jason and the Argonauts.

On to education.  I had another conversation with my Dean today regarding the future of the educational system.  I had remarked that I have seen a larger number of students already skipping class than normal at this time of the semester.  Informally, I have heard the same from other colleagues as well.  It is always an interesting phenomenon, as to when students stop coming.  I’ve had about 1/4 not showing up already, which is a bit early, as that level of absence usually doesn’t come until after the first major graded assignment, which is still over a week away for me.  What is also interesting, as I’m thinking about it here, is that my highest level of attendance is always in my smallest section.  I get 1/4-1/3 loss in attendance over the course of the semester in a 40-person class, but I will have perfect or near-perfect attendance in my two-way video section that only features 15 students directly in front of me.  I wonder if that’s another advantage of smaller classes, in that there are fewer places to hide, so more people come.  Just a theory.  Anyway, from there, our conversation turned to hybrid classes and the problem of evaluation/assessment.  He presented a compelling idea that we have discussed before, namely simplifying down the grading standards.  Right now, we use a 5-point system, A-F to determine a person’s grade in the class.  Yet, some of those grades are basically useless.  The D is a grade that means nothing.  You don’t fail if you get one and have to appear in front of the Academic Appeals committee, but you don’t get any real credit for the D and have to repeat the class.  There’s also a case to be made that a B or C aren’t all that different.  That does not mean that they aren’t different now, but that, in reality, both basically mean satisfactory completion and mastery of the material.  Then, an A is excellent.  So, what if we went to a model where instead of A-F, we just had three grades — Excellent, Satisfactory/Mastery, Failure.  As my Dean said, those are the real grades that matter to the students.  Most are just looking for satisfactory, while a few really want to push it the extra mile into Excellent.  The rest will Fail.  Any thoughts on that?

Another interesting idea that we discussed is how you would evaluate on that scale.  Actually, we talked about the whole evaluation/assessment process.  The problem with any class that moves beyond just a standard model for assessment (quizzes, tests, essays, etc.) is that the grading automatically becomes more subjective at that point.  Instead of being able to point to a number that the student earned, you have to look instead at a feeling about the student from the performance of the student in the class.  I can’t take credit for this, as my Dean is the one to give this example, but I like it, so I am repeating it here.  The example is that if I go through a semester with a group of students, doing primarily discussion and class work as the fundamental assessment, then I will, at the end of the semester, be asked to assign a grade.  It will be a grade that will be hard to justify, as I would not be able to tell someone coming in a specific number grade that the student earned.  Yet, I would be able to evaluate the progress and aptitude of the student well, as I interacted with that student over the course of an entire semester, having that student talk, discuss, evaluate, participate, and create different projects, discussion, and writing.  I would be very confident in the grade that I gave the student, but I would not be able to justify it in the traditional manner.  However, if I was to give a student a B or Satisfactory, I would be confident in that evaluation.  My Dean also pointed out that I could probably ask colleagues to come in and evaluate that student or ask how that student presented him or herself in their classes, and they would probably come to a similar conclusion.  And, what is my justification, really?  Ten years of teaching experience certainly is a part of it.  Ten years of evaluating students works as well.  A further discussion we had as part of this dealt with the new state standards coming down the pipeline.  Again, they are meant to be evaluated quantitatively, but the essence of them is qualitative and subjective.  Making the students jump through hoops to get the right number grade is one way to do it, but if you had some system that was more subjective yet acceptable would be interesting as well.

I don’t know really.  It was a long, productive talk that we had, and my mind is still processing some of it.  I was going to do some article reviews as well here, but I’ve gotten so caught up in thinking about this that I think I’m going to go ahead and close here for the day.  I have articles and can talk about them tomorrow.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

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