Adventures in Assessment

Critical thinking is a meaningless concept these days. It’s been overused so much that it is no longer really credible. Moreover, we are hard pressed to find many people who actually agree on what the concept means, let alone how to go about ensuring that students acquire it. So, what are we, as educators, parents, employers, and employees supposed to do when one of the top sought after skills is for all intents and purposes bankrupt? We allow our students to become lost on the paths of thinking.

For the last three years I have served on an assessment committee at the university where I work, and the experience has been enlightening to say the least. I must say right off the bat that all of the people involved have only the best interests of student learning at heart. Yet, something has gone array with the practice of assessment on a national level. The people involved with assessment practices have become preoccupied with the minutia of rubrics, or scoring guides as it is know by its euphemism, standardized testing, artifacts, indirect and direct measures, and a host of other jargon-rich aspects. The real question of learning and what it means to think in the contemporary world has been lost. However, I am not yet cynical enough to believe that thinking has been irrevocably lost.

Genuine assessment asks one very important two-part question: what do we want our students to know, and how do we know that they are learning it? Doubtless, the importance of this question is not only essential for learning as such, but the legitimacy of departments and programs throughout higher education. When I was chair of the English Department I asked what an English major might look like at the end of four years. I brought in a graphic of a body outline on a white piece of paper, and my plan was to fill in that outline with some terms of importance. Needless to say, the exercise was met with little enthusiasm. The fault was mine in that I failed to explain the exercise as carefully as I should have, but I still think the exercise a valuable one.

Epistemological questions are certainly the backbone of careful critical inquiry. Yet, I have found that most of those who champion assessment are not really interested in the philosophical aspect of what it means to think. Instead, I have found that the focus is almost entirely on quantifiable questions that have nothing to do with epistemology. This is where my problems and concerns with assessment begin. What we have instead is a lot of talk about rubrics, textbooks, and delivery systems; it’s enough to make one’s head spin like that girl from The Exorcist. Two things that I will limit myself to briefly attacking are rubrics and common texts.

Rubrics do work for some classes, but for others they fail to measure thinking. Rubrics, especially for courses in the humanities, impose the narrowest of boundaries around thinking. The rubric is at least partially designed to give the student the most and best possible information on how he or she will be evaluated on any given assignment. The problem is that most students will complete that assignment according to the specific criteria of the rubric. Any sort of meditative thinking, to borrow a concept from Heidegger, is impossible from that point on. The student is not asked to complete an assignment, but instead, asked and evaluated on if he or she can follow directions with the minimum amount of interpretation. Common rubrics are even more reprehensible and irresponsible. Common rubrics are rubrics used for various assignments in various disciplines. The whole idea of a common rubric not only limits thinking on the part of the student, it also infringes on academic freedom. But who really cares about academic freedom other than professors, right?

Common textbooks across various sections of one class, again, may work for an economics class, but this does not work for a class in the humanities. I recently overheard a conversation at a conference where a certain faculty member was arguing in favor of using a common text for a literature class. I was so mystified that I had to leave the room. I teach a particular rotation of classes every year, and every time a class comes around again I (most of the time) use completely different texts. Part of an education is the ability for a student to take a class with a particular professor. I do think that the list of textbooks being used in a particular class should be published well before the class begins, but I see absolutely no intellectual value in mandating that various sections of classes use the same textbook just so that the university can “guarantee” that every student basically received the same information.

Assessment constitutes the standardization of thinking. Thinking means putting oneself at risk, and with assessment the risks to the thinker are minimized for purposes of standardization. Perhaps that is why we are confronted with a generation that feels itself to be entitled to an “A” simply because they have paid tuition, as well as a generation that will not be as smart as its predecessor. Assessment has been around for a long time, and it does not show signs of going anywhere in the near future. As a result we are educating a generation to think in a standard, like-minded way that is as robotic and narrow as any indoctrination of the past. Instead of rethinking how we teach, we should rethink assessment and return to its original intentions.

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