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Created: July 22, 2003
Latest Update: July 27, 2004
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Site Teaching Modules Academic Assessment in Credited Course Learning

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, July 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

For a variety of good and not-so-good reasons the university assumes the role of certifying your learning by grades that are readily intelligible to future employers and to those with whom you may interact officially in the future. In order for this process of certification to reflect as fairly as possible your actual learning, it is imperative that we work interdependently on determining the measurement of that learning.

Tests don't cut it. First, they produce severe anxiety. Second, they reflect our expectations that all learn in similar fashion, which is not so. Third, there are too many elements of chance that quantitative analysis assumes will be cancelled out by randomness for the group, but will unfairly reflect on individual results. Fourth, the assumption that grades should follow a normal curve doesn't really hold up, when there is not a large normal population to which we are standardizing. And, fifth, though by no means all of the good reasons we could give, tests reflect the teacher's perception of teaching, not the learner's perception of learning.

For all these reasons and many more substantive reasons you'll find adequately explained by Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, Paulo Freire, and most other serious educators, we reject testing and ask that the students share responsibility for the measurement of their own learning. We realize that this is not the standard procedure on either of our campuses, and that it can be frightening because grades count in the world of certification. To allay your concerns over the difference in strategy, we have provided the following explanation of the qualities we seek, and have provided samples, lots of them, to guide you in choosing the measures that will most effectively represent your learning.

See also Standards of Professionalism: Is It an A? Link added July 27, 2004.

Measures We Count Towards Supporting the Excellent Grade We Assume You Choose to Work For

  1. Competency

    By competency we mean that you have e-mailed us or shown us in class or in the hallways some evidence that you understand and can take part in discussions on the basic concepts of the course. We understand that some people are more comfortable speaking out in class, and others prefer to speak more privately, or e-mail us. Over the course of several semesters we have been able to identify some very specific guidelines for communicating competency.

    • Contextual recognition.

      By contextual recognition we mean that even though you may not feel comfortable enough to rephrase the concept in your own words, you are comfortable with our use of the concept in class lectures and discussions, and are able to follow those discussions without feeling at a loss over the concept. (Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives sites recognition as the first level of understanding. Here, we are attempting to measure this effectively at what often remains a latent level.)

      What do you say when you want to convey contextual recognition?

      1. You start with something like "I am now comfortable with the concept of 'hypothesis' at the level of contextual recognition. (technical jargon opitional)."

      2. Then you add some detail from a class or group discussion that involved the concept and that you understood. For example, if the concept is "hypothesis," you might tell me that your group discussed the hypothesis that females were genetically superior at math, and that that was based on the old hypothesis that males were genetically superior at math. Maybe you suspect that the males were wrong all along., and females are actually better at math. Actually females tend to be better at language, and mathematics is a language. From the example you give of the discussion we can see that you have the idea.

    • Reformulation of the Conceptual Definition

      By reformulation of the conceptual definition we mean that you are putting the concept into your own words. This is an important step in making the concept your own. You will find the concept useful to you in the future only to the extent that you have reformulated it in words that will pop into your mind when you need the concept. Also, this is an important step in clarifying whether you have a schemata, part of the idea, or whether you have grasped all the essential elements of the concept. By giving us the concept in your own words, you give us a chance to correct any misconceptions.

      It is to this level of understanding that Jerome S. Bruner refers when he says that if you really understand your topic well, you can manage to teach it to fourth graders. A part of that skill is the ability to let go of the big professional words that fourth graders would not understand and the ability to explain the idea in plain English. This is when 25 words or less comes in handy.

      What do you say when you want to convey that you are reformulating the concept definition?

      1. You start with something like "A reformulation of the concept 'hypothesis' that works for me (technical jargon optional) is that a hypothesis is like an educated guess about what I expect the data to show, how I expect the study to turn out."

    • Comparing and Contrasting the Concept with Another

      By comparing and contrasting the concept with another what we mean is that you recognize that somehow the concepts are related, and you are trying to distinguish between them. Again, this is an important part of learning. When you compare and contrast several of the basic concepts from a course you are actually reviewing the course material in a way that permits you to develop an overview, and to see the way that the concepts fit together into the theories that shape that area of the discipline. To perform this kind of analysis is to take the first steps toward the eventual grasp of criticism you will want to have as you finish the course.

      What do you say when you want to convey that you are comparing and contrasting concepts for a better grasp of an overview of the course?

      1. Suppose Maria says to me in class: "Measures of association are related to tests of significance, right? Like a measure of association would be a t-test."

        Now right there I get to stop her. For a t-test is a test of significance, not a measure of assocation. Perfectly clear to those of us who are statisticians, but not an everyday fact that's likely to pop into your mind.

        In the classroom, we are able to get the two concepts separated out. But it takes courage to be willing to make such mistakes orally. Please remember that the mistakes do a lot more than tell us that you don't have something straight. They let us see which parts you do have straight and how to teach you the rest of the concept. Maria's confusion of a measure of association with a test of significance told me that Maria was focused on the right section of the course and precisely where her confusion was. Now I can write an explanation of these two concepts that will help the whole class get these concepts straight: Measures of association tell us how much of the variation in one variable can be accounted for by variation in another variable. i.e. IQ accounts for 78% of the variation on achievement test scores. Whereas a t-test tells me only that two groups of students who took the achievement test had a greater difference in achievement test scores than could be accounted for by random chance. Hey, we'll probably need to go over that several more times before everybody gets it straight.

        It also takes courage, for some of us more, for some of us less, to make that mistake in writing. But mistakes are an important guide to our learning. Maria did not lose points by that mistake; she gained points for her willingness to let us see her learning. If I don't know what you're thinking, I can't direct your thoughts where they need to go.

  2. Consistency

    By consistency we mean that you have stayed in touch with us by e-mail and/or by casual contacts recorded in our grade books, so that we did not have to wonder whether you were a field mouse. Some of you have stayed in touch by face to face interaction either in class or in the hallways throughout the semester. We are pleased to report that our e-mails with phrases like "need a face to go with the name" have actually resulted in our seeing more faces after class, in our offices, in the hallways and at lunch.

    For more detail on how to communicate consistency see Maintatining Consistency in Academic Accountability.

  3. Creativity

    By creativity we mean the same qualities that give an A to a term paper or a project or any other endeavor: For a term paper that might be:

    1. Choice of topic

      1. Well delimited, so you can say something meaningful in space or time alloted. Juvenile delinquency is not a well delimited topic. Entire courses and books are included in the topic. You need to delimit to something you can manage: antecedents of delinquency as experienced by class members with juveniles in their families. You might have some difficulty getting people to tell you about their families, so the sample is probably unrealistic, but the topic is small enough.
      2. Topic in which you yourself are interested, so that you will be willing to read or collect data in good faith.
      3. Topic that will somehow add to the knowledge we have of the field. Local, personal data might add to our knowledge because we could see to what extent it fits with theoretical studies and publications.

    2. Methods

      1. Adapted realistically to the time allowed for the paper or project.
      2. Knowledge of sampling, whether volunteer
      3. Use of secondary analysis, or public data base where appropriate
      4. Realistic and valid measurement

    3. Theory and Expectations

      1. Theoretical basis for approach taken Dummy tables or discussion of expected results with some idea of what on earth they're good for

    4. Results and Conclusions

      1. Results presented clearly and concisely so they can be grasped by reader easily, preferably through both graphic tables and wirtten explanation.
      2. Conclusions that suggest that the question your study asked was answered within the strict limitations of the context.
      3. Conclusions that suggest that you really wanted the answer to the question and see some validity to further work in that area, or feel the question is adequately resolved.

    5. Myriad Choices

      This entire list suggests that we would be grading any term paper or project at every step of its development, and that there would be choices for you to make which could affect your grade at every one of these points. The entire process is fraught with ambiguity, and completing a term paper in no way guarantees a grade of A or B.

      We do not want term papers. They do not fit into the scheme of learning within which we work. If you wish to work as you would on a term paper, then choose one of the conferences available and work on a collaborative professional paper. That does fit with our scheme of learning.

      But we hold you to the same standards. Whatever you do, do something that is well delimited, something that will help you answer a question to which you really do want an answer, or something about which you really do want to say something. Then evaluate and use good academic resources for whatever you say. Say it clearly, in plain English. And, for us, make it brief enough that others can and will read it. That means a few paragraphs under typical circumstances, since our classes tend to be large. Put in links to references, and think about what you are saying. Say it to your colleagues on the site.

      And please don't forget that whatever you submit to measure your creative learning should be conceptually linked to the course and to the material we have studied in the course. Off the wall won't cut it!

  4. Cooperation

    By cooperation, we mean give us a good faith hearing. Instead of telling us how you've always done it, try doing it our way. As Ph.D.s, trust us, we know how you've always done it, and it hasn't worked. Maybe it worked for you to get As, but it hasn't worked to produce an educated populace with strong competencies, able to build strong social bonds and to effectively use public discourse to manage the tension between freedom for the individual and the good of the society. Question that? Look around you or read a newspaper or listen to TV news, in authentic good faith.

    By cooperation, we also mean give your fellow students and fellow citizens a good faith hearing. Do not assume that your teachers have the answers. If we did, we'd make it work. The answers to the questions we're asking depend on all of us, interdependently, and on our good faith towards one another.

    Work with others to whatever extent you can. "No man is an island." None of us hold all the cards, know all the stories, even understand all the questions. Groups in our courses are amorphic. The group's lifespan exists only for that work session. At other work sessions, others may join or leave the group. As often as we've said that, I still hear people giving other people assignments for a group meeting. If we refuse to set up time barriers, you set your own? Set a meeting time. But be gracious if someone doesn't make it. Someone is bound to not get the work done on time. It is structurally violent to force each other into such situations. Try not to do that. Just work with those who are there, at whatever level they are, with whatever work they have done. You may discover skills they have you never dreamt of. Or you may provide the acceptance that makes a stay in school/leave school decision swing in favor of staying. It is to the advantage of us all that each of us get all the education we can. We do not give group grades, so your work doesn't depend on the other person's effort. That's precisely so structural violence won't develop.

    Recognize that your teachers are trying to form a dialog with you. Try to include them. Both by e-mail and in face-to-face interaction. Include them as colleagues, and let them be tired, let them not know sometimes, accept them, too. School will definitely be better off if we all decide it's not such a bad place to work and study.

  5. Communication

    Given that grades are required, and that our teaching is equally required, as is your attendance, we could all function as individuals related only by the fact that we are caught in the same social system, each performing his/her task, and leave that task knowing little more about each other than when we came in, and having made no attempt to create a "climate of learning" (Pullias, Earl V.), in which more than the categorical bureaucratic ritualistic learning goes on.

    OR we could engage in dialogic conversation open to answerability. That means we could recognize that what we have to say will enter into what Others have to say, and that the utterance and the very process of its communication will change all of us who listen and respond in good faith. Actually, it will change us whether we act in good faith or no. It's just that in our classrooms we ask that you be in good faith so that the aesthetic process that results from this answerable communiction will produce a "good" and "pleasureable" climate of learning, for which we grant that "good" and "pleasurable" are open interdependent value claims. Luckily we aren't called upon to define the aesthetic process itself or to define "good" in this case. But we are called upon to learn and function in the climate of learning we create together. So we ask that you enter this aesthetic process in good faith and respect the delicate growth of the community of learners in our classroom.

Draft for Text on the Identity Narrative of Learning
by jeanne curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright, November 1999