…but do we value what we assess?

I was caught by the title of the title of one this week’s reading “We assess what we value”. It really is a striking and concise title, but unfortunately, I don’t think that it’s entirely accurate.

For many of us starting out, and perhaps for many seasoned educators as well, we grade on what we are told is important or what standards exist for our fields.  For early educators, we are even given courses with established syllabi, and in some cases, canned assignments and their grading schemes, with little to no room for improvisation or customization.

they wont even let me customize my grade book! #Bedazzled4Life

One such course for me was one that was designed by an instructor, fired for having low teaching evaluations, which was then resurrected by a new more research-oriented faculty member at the behest of the department as a time saving “this material already exists, use that” gesture. It was passed on to another course director, who was retiring, before ultimately being passed on to a set of graduate instructors.

Zombie lesson plans, leading students to follow suit

I was the first person to ask any questions as to why we did things the way we did and surprisingly, ran into little resistance. Most course directors had little attachment to the material unless it was their own, and were surprised that I wanted to increase my workload and delve deeper into assessing the students’ aptitudes of their learning. Some welcomed my input, and others didn’t like my meddling, but allowed me to continue customizing my courses given that I still tested on the same criteria, making anything I did, an extra add on for me.

my mantra, apparently

Some of my compatriots as well as the junior faculty that I spoke with however, have “discretionary” grades they can give out based on authenticity of knowledge not covered by the strict rubric based grading system. This 10-15 points per semester is supposed to guarantee that those who aren’t ‘book smart’ or ‘good at taking tests’ but demonstrate aptitude and understanding of the material can still get a good grade. However, in the large classes, the onus is on the student to develop rapport with the teach in office hours or interact with the teacher in class enough to show that understanding, making the system flawed as face time can be limited and some students prefer not to engage.

Good morning class, this semester, I’d like to get to know all 3500 of you on a one-on-one basis

But back to my original question, do we really assess what we value? OR at least at the higher-ed level, are we merely doing the bare minimum for assessment? Because anecdotally, I’ve seen many professors, even the ones who appeared to care, still following the more traditional assessment methods, where “body of knowledge” and “how” learning are emphasized.  This tends to leave students asking, “How can I get the maximum grade, and what set of facts can I know that will get me there?”.



  1. I could really relate to your post as a rookie instructor. I’m given material and told to follow it so courses are “consistent” among GTA’s. I am by no means saying this is a bad thing, but I have some qualms about it. Thankfully, I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to share ideas and feedback with the person who is in charge of making such changes to the course. I personally know that I pay particular attention to things on the rubrics that other GTA’s may not harsh on so much. I think the more students you teach, the better intuition you have about what can be considered more valuable. I think these values are something that changes over time.

    1. I agree, it is difficult at first, but I tend not to look at it as consistency from semester to semester as much. Each class is different and each semester gives you different students with their own unique perspectives and challenges. I defer to more senior instructors and of course, professors who have been doing much longer than I have for their advice on how to deal with difficult situations but I think we are still young enough to be able to look at it from the student’s perspective. Having empathy for the students can go a long way. We aren’t those old callous professors yet, and I remind myself of that every time I enter the classroom or uncap my grading pen, I am here because I want to inspire them, not demotivate them from learning.
      I am motivated by the students that come by my office their senior years with grad school or job offer letters, hugging me and thanking me for being the one that encourage them and guided them to their dream path, that’s what really makes it worthwhile in the end.

  2. I asked someone else this question before – do you think that educators in higher ed could provide two kinds of grades – “this is your test grade” and “this is your learner, motivation, curiosity grade”………..do you think that could work in shifting the way people think about education, scores, tests, etc.?

    1. I like the idea of discretionary grades that you can dole out to the people who show the understanding but don’t necessarily have the rubric grades to show for it. These are flexible and can be use to reward those who don’t do well on exams or whom have shown understanding but the grades don’t necessarily represent that.

  3. The number of inaudible “Yes!”-es I said in my head while reading through your post reminded me that we are teaching in the same space =). I now count assessment as one of the most difficult responsibilities of being an engineering educator, one that I admittedly have a lot to learn about. I would say that constructive alignment and reflective practice would play an important part in ensuring that assessment tools are designed appropriately, and truly assess what should be valued. It is, however, a long learning process (at least that’s what I think).

  4. I got an awesome opportunity when I first started teaching to practically revamp a class I was teaching at a community college. I taught a stress management class, and the previous teacher left with only a week’s notice. Even though I didn’t have much time to prepare (which was a bit stressful), I was given freedom to create assignments that seemed to engage the students, not just test scores. The second time I got to teach that class, a few years later, I put in a lot of effort ahead of time to try to improve it even more to really get the students to implement stress management in their daily lives, more than just memorizing facts for a test. It was more work on my part, but I think it led to a much richer experience for the students than if I would have just gone along with how the class was taught before. I agree with you that we should keep asking questions about why things are done a certain way because even though we are new to teaching, we can still make improvements to how a class is taught and how well students learn (not just receive grades).

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