The messiness of it all: Assessment

I am involved in the writing/evaluating of a grant request for a local school that would, as part of its request, consider using collaborative learning tools to promote learning inside and also outside of the classroom. There was interest from the teachers in using tools such a blogging, wikis, Skype and even Second Life as tools for learning.

In one of our meetings there was genuine excitement from the staff about the possibilities they perceived these tools could provide for deep, collaborative work between the students as well as outside the walls of the school.

And then, almost immediately, the bubble burst and the excitement just melted away. Why? Because someone asked about how we –grade– these things, and how do we make sure that these grades reflect reality and even more than that, that those grades “mean something” on the kids’ transcripts…especially if they are applying to college in the near future.

I was then asked to come up with some quantitative research about how social software/collaborative learning tools/ disruptive technologies were improving learning. Data, hard cold data. Nothing touchy feely… real PROOF that these things are helping students learn and helping teachers teach. Insert the sound of my own bubble bursting as well.If you had the chance to listen to our September 28th show, you will get a sense of how such deceptively simple –and yet remarkably complex– the questions “how do you grade that?” or “what do I need to do to get an A in your class?” really are.

I would argue that these are hard questions to answer because, once you see what happens when your students blog for class, or when they use Skype with someone with whom they have never met and yet need to negotiate meaning as well as collaborate and communicate, or when you watch a group of learners create learning resources together in the form of a wiki, you will realize that the way we have been measuring competence / if someone has “learned” something might, just might be, totally based on a very static, black and white, teacher-centric (dare I say proficiency test based) way of assessment that might not be an accurate reflection of what a student has actually learned about a particular subject.Uh oh. I am treading in dangerous terrain right now.

Let me try to center this argument in that little island of academia where I have worked these past 20+ years: language learning. Let me also say that no one knows definitively how a learner acquires a second language. If we knew, gosh darn it, we would all be polyglots. But the brain as a learning machine is a mystery… so we have to rely upon theories based in empirical research…knowing full well that what might work for some of our Second Language Acquisition Scholars and colleagues during their doctoral research might not be replicated during a 9 a.m. Spanish 101 class in the dead of winter in Ohio.

Alice Omaggio-Hadley, in her book, Teaching Language in Context, (Heinle and Heinle, Boston, MA circa 1993) argued that our students need 720 hours of constant contact time (interactions, not just passively listening) with a language to gain proficiency (feel free to define proficiency as you will… for most people it means that you can hold a conversation and read and write in another language… in Spanish this is sometimes called the ability to “defenderse bien” or defend one’s self in a language). Now… is that 720 hours of contact time with me, or could it be 720 hours conversing with a classmate, or with a native speaker via Skype, watching the Simpsons in German…. what? To answer that (at least partially) you need to know about the input that our students need to receive to make this work…

There is another theory that says that a student should be given comprehensible input when learning a language, that is, something that can be understood by the learner based upon his/her current knowledge of the target language and/or what bits of the learner’s native language that might be called upon to help make meaning in the target language. This theory then goes on to say to then learn more, the teachers should ramp it up a bit, and make it comprehensible input + 1, i.e. something that grabs the learner but also forces him/her to stretch slightly to ascertain meaning and to respond in the language being learned.

This is what a learner should experience in order to become proficient in a language. Is Sally’s comprehensible input +1 the same as Joe’s ? Why no, it is not. so what might be scintillating for Sally is just drop dead boring (or worse, incomprehensible) for Joe.

reality check: In a language classroom of twenty students, meeting 50 minutes a class 3 X a week… you will be lucky if each student gets 15 minutes per week of true immersive, contact time in the language. Lucky. (Do the math…. how long will it take to get to 720 hours at this rate?) But that is really okay, I guess, because both the textbooks as well as the assessment tools we use with the textbooks to measure “learning” understands that reality. And they chop the language into little bits and chunks to accomodate our fragmented and fragile learning time.

And so, you have a parallel realities forming…the one we WISH we could create for our students, and the one we ACTUALLY create for them using traditional tools, and limited contact time, for language learning.

Am I saying we should be using blogs, wikis and the use of skype instead of face to face teaching? No. In fact, academic / educational blogging needs to have a F2F component…the blog is an extension of the conversations, the work, the 45 minutes of precious classroom time we have every other day.

The interaction between student and teacher, knowledge and learner, learner and learner begins to shift and to change with these tools. And that is why when we talk about assessment (as we have defined it in the past) and try to apply it to this type of learning , we realize that the old rulers, numbers, calibrations don’t fit anymore.

Bigger question still: Are the current forms of assessment really grading what our students actually learn…or are they grading what our students are able to regurgitate, produce, and parrot back to us? Helen Barrett’s distinction of Assessment OF Learning vs Assessment FOR learning merits mention here, as does the distinction she makes between SUMMATIVE assessment vs FORMATIVE assessment. Which type of learning do you promote in your class?

When the teacher “guides from the side” and lets the students explore, experience, fall flat on their faces, crawl from the wreckage, get their bearings and move forward… it is a scary scary thing. And yet, within the safety and security of a learning environment, where everyone (including the teacher) is there to learn and everyone (including the students) is there to teach, absolutely extraordinary things have and will happen.

How do we grade this stuff? Well, if as teachers (or if as a class) we set clear objectives for the group and for the individuals, and tangible goals, then the rest is easy. Setting the bar slightly beyond a student’s reach is great (remember: comprehensible input + 1, for one day, but maybe comprhensible input +15 by the end of the semester) but that bar will and must vary from student to student.

What do you want the outcome of your students time in your classroom to be? If you answer that question by saying you want your students to gain proficiency in a language, to scuba dive vs snorkel through the content of the class, then you should consider these tools. If what you want is perfect spelling, grammatical accuracy and rote memorization of vocabulary, then I would say these tools are not your cup of tea.

Grading, just like learning, therefore, should be a process of mapping knowledge over time. As our students’ production changes, and so too should our grading schemes. LLU has started to pull together some ideas about grading onour wiki and we welcome your input as well.

Enough already. I offer these two images as a visual reminder that the way social software asks us to learn, and how it also mimics the way in which we actually, neurologically, already do learn.

An image of a section the blogosphere

A Map of the blogosphere
An image of a neural network
a map of a neural network
I defy anyone to tell me what a B+ looks like in this world.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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  1. Barbara (the other one) · October 2, 2006 Reply


    Fabulous post. I love the distinctions you make between kinds of 720 hours worth of contact–suddenly our teaching methods need to come under a bit more scrutiny, eh? What kinds of experiences do we offer our students during those 720 hours before we consider assessment at all? And what exactly do we means by proficiency in ANY subject? The ability to take a test that measures the ability to take that test?

    But of course, as a dinner guest commented across my table last night as she complained that a particular teacher in her child’s school was using blogs, yes, but still droning on for the entire class period; she said, “Unfortunately, the teacher’s personality, energy, commitment, mood–all of that makes a huge difference in what a student learns.” What social software–thoughtfully used–can do is lower the impact of the teacher’s personality on the classroom and instead push the subject matter and the students’ engagement with it into the center.

    I don’t think it is difficult to assess what goes on in blogging, wikis, Skype, podcasting. I really don’t. You ask the students. You watch the students. You set goals with the students. You design rubrics for excellence with the students by looking at work from previous semesters for clues as to what we mean in my field at this level, for instance, by clarity, depth of analysis, coherence, voice. (Now tell me that measuring those kinds of elements can be done objectively…) You have the students write ongoing narrative self-evaluations. Ask them what they are learning and how that measures up to what the group set as appropriate standards. As Helen points out, assessment for learning involves the learner.

    That your audience wanted some hard data to prove that these tools and approaches improve student learning is a fair enough request–we should have to demonstrate the effectiveness of any of our pedagogical appraoches–but as you so clearly put forward here, if that includes grading blogs according to some teacher-imposed standards dating from the factory-model of education, well, then that makes no sense at all. How I know that these approaches work is that my students are winning college-wide writing awards for the work done in these classes, that they go on to do exceptional work in the next level class (as reported by their professors), and that they come back in droves asking if there isn’t some way to get our class back together and have a new learning adventure together, and that they want to do independent studies with me that involve blogs and digital media. This work ignites my students. Now I know that I need to get researchers into my classrooms to do some longitudinal studies.

    Great work.

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