There are three articles in this issue that deal with student assessment and learning. One offers an interesting approach that has students writing and answering their own exam questions; another introduces the idea of feedforward, which provides feedback before rather than after learning; and a third challenges our conceptualization of feedback, suggesting that it's not something teachers should be doing for students but something self-regulating learners need to be able to do for themselves.
Reading these articles has got me thinking about how very set most of us are in our assessment practices. I'm not suggesting that what we do is wrong, although everything we do can always be done better, just that when we get into these patterns of thinking (in this case about assessment) our practices tend to stay the same. We use the same methods to assess learning—we have our favorite brand of testing, we have students write papers, do group projects, etc. We make these assessment choices automatically, no longer aware of the assumptions inherent in them or that there may be quite different ways of thinking about how we help students learn and then assess the effectiveness of their efforts.
We also end up thinking that the problems with how we assess are endemic and unsolvable. Take cheating, for example. We know it's rampant, we know it compromises the very heart of the educational enterprise, and we do our best to prevent it in our classes, but we also pretty much accept it as inevitable. We are stuck thinking that the only way to test student knowledge is with teacher-provided exam questions, which students answer in a teacher-controlled environment. But that's not the only possibility. The student-written-exam approach takes the cheating problem off the table, and it does so without robbing exams of their rigor. Or take the problem of students ignoring, or at least not acting on, the careful, often comprehensive feedback teachers provide. What is the matter with them? we ask ourselves and each other. As the piece on feedback points out, much of the literature suggests the problem is not with the students, but rather with us and how we're providing the feedback. So we try to improve our feedback. According to the authors, that's not the solution. We need to rethink the role of feedback in learning, and they provide an interesting reconceptualization.
Those of us living on the East Coast are driving on roads that have endured a tough winter. We can't drive around all the potholes. We regularly experience jarring bumps, after which we gasp and fervently hope that car parts have not been left on the road. Sometimes our thinking roads are too smooth and familiar. Occasionally we need to run over an intellectual pothole and get abruptly bounced to a new location. Yes, it's disruptive, sometimes it hurts, and it can even be dangerous. But there's an even more serious hidden danger. Just because a given way of thinking feels smooth doesn't mean the ground underneath is stable. Maybe it has shifted or sunk, and what we're about to experience is a sinkhole, not just a pothole.
So read these pieces with an open mind. Maybe you won't agree, but that's fine. The goal is for these interesting ideas to promote thinking about how we assess student learning, why we do it that way, and what might happen if we changed.