Assessing Assessments: How We Discourage Learning by Trampling Imagination

We are assessed everyday of our lives, whether we realize it or not, on pretty much everything we do. Obviously, we are assessed in school on how well we can remember what is taught to us and are given a grade that reflects the teacher’s opinion of our performances. We are assessed when playing sports based on how well we run, throw, shoot a basket, etc and are assessed by either making the team or not and then by either starting or bench-warming. Outside of these more obvious examples of being assessed, we are assessed based on what we wear, how we look, what car we drive, what food we buy, etc. And, sadly, I admit that I am guilty of assessing people (typically subconsciously) on all of these accounts. I think it is probably pretty fair to say that all of us do this, unintentionally. For example, when I go grocery shopping, if I see someone with a cart full of soda, cookies, chips, etc with no fresh fruit and veggies, I typically think that this person is really unhealthy and/or poorly informed on nutritional guidelines (even though they could just being buying a bunch of food for their Super Bowl party, and that particular shopping cart is not at all indicative of their overall eating habits). This is a perfect example of why grading students on everything is not ideal. That person at the store would have received an “F” in Health Ed based on that day’s shopping cart … but maybe overall, he/she/they would get an “A+. Grades are snapshots … not the big picture.

Assessment is a part of life, whether we like it or not. But, there are so many approaches we can take towards assessing others. In regards to our education system, grades are king, despite the evidence showing that grading students reduces their interest in what is being taught and encourages students to take the path of least resistance in order to get good grades (Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades”). Kohn discusses how some schools have found success in replacing letter/number grades with “narrative assessments” or to have students assign themselves grades and then have the teacher and student discuss the reasons behind this assessment. The teacher, of course, has the final say – but I like that this enables kids to think critically about how they perform and gives them a voice. However, this seems like it would be a huge amount of work for the teachers – and therefore, likely not possible in large college classes. That said, this form of assessment is commonly used in “the real world” through our annual reviews where we self-assess, get assessed, and discuss with our superiors. Since a major point of going to school is preparation for “the real world,” shouldn’t we assess students in a way that directly translates to how they will be assessed later in life? Giving grades on everything would be the equivalent to my advisor micromanaging me every day and critiquing everything I do constantly (rather than look at the bigger picture of my strengths, weaknesses, etc). Our assessment should be part of our learning adventure – not an evaluation of how we “perform” every step along the way. If I were to run a marathon, I might trip at mile 15 but still get a PR.

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In my opinion, the biggest problem with grades is that it can discourage imagination, creativity, and risk-taking. Students are encouraged to follow the path of least resistance, which minimizes the creation of novel ideas. Liu & Noppe-Brandon (in Imagination First) discuss how Einstein is the picture of intelligence not because he was necessarily significantly smarter than the average person (though he very well may have been), but because he was not afraid to imagine, create, and fail. Failure is such an important learning tool, but in school we are taught that failing is bad, and it means we aren’t learning and succeeding. Most people will admit that they learn more from their failures than their successes, so why do we make “failure” such a bad thing? At the end of the day, qualitative feedback is much more beneficial than a letter or numeric grade. When grades are assigned, even if teachers provide qualitative feedback, most students ignore the feedback if they are happy with the letter/number grade (or if they just don’t care). Students would learn more if they were actually asked to read and absorb the feedback and make the corrections.

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At the end of the day, assessments will never go away. And I don’t think that they should. Being assessed encourages us to grow. It is HOW we are assessed that matters.

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5 Replies to “Assessing Assessments: How We Discourage Learning by Trampling Imagination”

  1. I really enjoyed your post! So many times, assessments are used at the end of a project or section of a class and so students just see their grade and move on to whatever is next. I definitely agree that we should assess students along the way and allow opportunities for revision and improvement. There are some other types of assessments that could be incorporated into larger classes in particular and allow students to get more informal feedback or feedback from their peers. Maybe some of these more informal assessments could also provide feedback that is more in line with what students will experience in their profession.

    1. I agree — especially at the college level! It may be challenging to provide career-specific feedback to middle schoolers/high schoolers (as many of them won’t know what they want to do), but professionally-based feedback for college students is critical!

  2. I am reminded of P.E. class, where we had state testing. To get good scores, you had to run a mile under a certain time, run the Pacer in so many laps, and be able to do x amount of pull-ups. I played softball every year for about 10 years and still couldn’t meet the standards for these tests! Why not base students’ P.E. scores on effort? Not everyone is built the same or has the same metabolism.
    I believe that gauging student success academically should be more than just effort though, it should reflect true understanding of the material. But I agree with you, grades inhibit imagination…from one of the readings, the author mentioned a girl whose soul was crushed when she learned her writing assignment involved a rubric. Where’s the room for creativity when you’re graded on whether or not you fulfilled some requirement in a box?

    1. I feel that PE classes, in particular, were really demoralizing for a lot of people. Even athletes, as you mentioned, could not always achieve the state’s “standards.” And people who did not enjoy sports, really struggled. I remember one girl who wasn’t even given the opportunity to try pull-ups because the teacher “knew she couldn’t do it.” That has stuck with me for 15 years.

  3. Great post. I give you an A+. Wait, who am I to grade you? That is another situation I am concerned with in regards to educational structure. Do the teachers have a mastery of the subject matter? It makes me think of my first go at college. I was in a chemistry lab and the average quiz grade was a low C after 4 weeks. The instructor, a PhD student, became upset and asked why we couldn’t do better. He took the next quiz with us, as the quiz was prepared by the lecturing professor, and received a B. Assessments are imagination and stifling the creativity of people. Einstein was a C student so he must be average at best. Imaging how smart the students were back then. To get better grades than Einstein. Edison’s quote about the light bulb and his failures came to mind in reading your post as well. He didn’t fail but learned hundreds of ways not to make a light bulb. The PE class discussion is a wonderful example of why grades and strict assessments do not work. Thank you for this and giving clarity to the subject.

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