Let’s reassess how we assess

Ah, assessment. While complaining about my two-semester assessment course all of last year, I actually appreciate it today. I don’t quite grasp assessment enough to make a career out of it, but I know now that a career in higher education requires an understanding of assessment. And I don’t just mean knowing different research methods or spitting out definitions of external and internal validity. I mean understanding that assessment can be flawed, biased, and not necessarily helpful to student learning.

Assessment also comes in many forms. It’s grades, GPA, student demographic data, student engagement, student satisfaction, student involvement, etc. While it’s critical to assess all of these things and more, it’s important for educators to fully comprehend such assessments. To me, the biggest concern with any form of assessment is that a student is producing some outcome, whether it’s a paper to be graded or a answering questions for a qualitative interview, and that outcome can’t ever fully explain student learning. I get that it’s near impossible to perfect measuring something like learning, but I know we can do better.

I’ve loved readings and videos this week about motivation, because so much of learning comes down to motivation. A student may get a perfect score on a test, but if they weren’t genuinely motivated to learn the subject, it’s likely that they’ll forget all the information as soon as the test is turned in. When we’re “learning” to pass a test, it all comes down to memorization. Sure, grades are a motivating factor for many students, myself included. I work hard for the grade, but I work harder because I truly love learning and I want to benefit from it.

I’ll end with a personal assessment/motivation story: Sophomore year of college, I decided to minor in Economics. I hate math and I’m not good at it. But the conversations I had about economics in other classes intrigued me, and I wanted to pursue it. So I took my first class with a professor who I’d heard was extremely difficult but a great teacher. After struggling the whole semester, and ending with a B, I was confident I could keep going with economics. I suffered through the math components of my other econ classes, but still enjoyed learning the subject. My final semester of econ was coming up and I wanted to take one more class with that challenging professor. People tried really hard to talk me out of it, telling me most people fail or end up dropping. Well, I got a C in the class, barely. But the way that professor taught was more about facing a challenge as best you can than it was about acing the class. He graded tests fairly, and even gave credit to explanations of formulas when you couldn’t remember it. He showed me that learning (and grading) shouldn’t reward regurgitating information, but rather an appreciation of effort and thought. It killed my GPA, but it solidified my love of learning. Thanks Dr. Moul!

 

Mind Gym

After graduating from college, I worked at a learning & development consulting company called Mind Gym. The goal of Mind Gym is to promote lifelong learning in the workplace, and to teach people to think differently. One of Mind Gym’s beliefs suggests that people choose how they think – and with a little exercise of the mind, we can choose to think up some pretty awesome, positive things. Consequently, our life at work and at home can change drastically, allowing us to be more productive in all aspects. But for the most part, people think in rigid, repetitive ways. Go to work, go home, eat, go to sleep, do it all again. For a lot of people, maybe the actual work they do is repetitive, and they see no point to changing how they think. Mind Gym, and this week’s readings, would totally disagree – and so do I!

While the readings for this week focus mainly on education in the form of schooling, so much of it can be applied to work settings. My belief, and Mind Gym’s, is that learning should not end when “formal” education ends. We can’t just graduate from college and stop learning. You got a job that suits you perfectly? Great. Does that mean you’ve peaked? I hope not! And for those who don’t want or don’t have the opportunity to graduate from any formalized educational system, how are we making sure they’re still learning? At Mind Gym, most of the learning centers around people. The learning Mind Gym promotes isn’t math or writing or languages (though it certainly helps to stay on top of those things). Instead, the focus is on how we interact with people at work and how we reflect on ourselves. Are we kind, inclusive, and understanding of others? And are we thinking about our own needs and developmental goals? Without this mindset, we’re more likely to fall back in to routine ways of thinking, back to that “go to work, go home, eat, go to sleep, do it all again” mindset.

I could go on and on about my thoughts on mindful learning, lifelong learning, out-of-classroom learning, etc. . But my biggest take away from working at Mind Gym is simple and concise, and something that Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown mention in “A New Culture of Learning”. It’s also something I try to remember as I work towards a degree in higher education. Learning isn’t the new idea you came up with, or the formula you’ve memorized, or the paper you got an A+ on. Learning is a type of citizenship. It’s how you engage with other people and how you strive for personal development that allows you to contribute something to society, no matter how small. “A New Culture of Learning” tells the story of a young boy named Sam who is a talented programmer. To Sam, the most important part of being a programmer isn’t creating new games, it’s being kind to others in his programming community, and providing them with helpful feedback. If we think about formal education in a similar way, as well as learning beyond a formal education, I think people will be more passionate about topics, more likely to remember and utilize things they’ve learned, and they’ll be happier.

So take a minute to exercise your mind – why are you learning the things you’re currently learning? Because you want that A+, or that promotion, or because you know it will benefit you in a meaningful way?

 

The imaginary pig cadaver

This summer, I worked as the student coordinator for the German Fulbright Student Summer Institute here at Virginia Tech. For three weeks, 24 German Fulbright students toured campus, hiked the surrounding area, and explored the Blacksburg community. During that time, the students also took two courses: Communicating Science and Scientific and Technical Writing. Essentially, these classes are designed to help students better share scientific topics with the everyday person. But on a deeper level, the courses allow students to make connections across cultural barriers, develop confidence, and enhance awareness for others. I never got to sit in on a class, but from what the students told me, every session was full of high energy activities that pushed them out of their comfort zones while also helping them feel connected to their fellow classmates. As a result, the students felt more than comfortable presenting a topic of their choosing to the class at the end of the three weeks – this was set up sort of like a Ted Talk. They’re awesome.

Every time the students talked about their classes, I cringed out of embarrassment – I’d never feel comfortable doing the activities they did! Improv exercises, dancing, singing, you name it. But I soon realized that the “active learning” made them excited to go to class, and therefore, eager to participate, no matter how embarrassing. Plus, a significant portion of course time was spent working in pairs or in groups, allowing them to form special bonds, and a sense of teamwork. While their final speeches were given individually, there was a lot of collaboration that went into the speeches. And that collaboration was evident in everyone’s support and glowing reviews of each other’s work.

Outside of class, we took the students on a handful of tours, from the VTCRC to the CUBE, to the DREAMS Lab. Amazing things are happening at all of these places, most of which goes right over my head. Aside from the language barrier, I think the German students had a good grasp on what was happening during these tours (they’re a crazy smart group!). But even if the topics are complicated, I feel there’s probably a better way to share the research or business models with the public. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the tours. My mind was blown at every stop, and I’m so proud to attend an institution where all of this important work happens. However, if the goal is to get more people interested in such topics, or to at least update outsiders on what’s going on, I think the approach to learning could use some updates. Perhaps the way learning occurs in these STEM classes is more exciting, I don’t know. Whatever the case may be, I hope that I can provide some insight or guidance for these tours in the future.

Is active learning the answer? Maybe. Could we have played some kind of game, created something ourselves, watched a video. . .danced or sung a song? Maybe! But these tours were quick and jam packed, so maybe a simple change in the setup is all that’s needed? Moreover, Robert Talbert suggests in “Four things lecture is good for” that we shouldn’t be quick to make lectures a thing of the past. For tours with these high-level scientific topics, a lecture might actually be ideal – but those doing the lecturing have to understand the purpose and the context. Also, it was evident during every tour that these scientists and researchers are fiercely passionate about their work. And according to Professor James Gee in “Digital Media – New Learners of the 21st Century”, having a specific passion is important. But as the world develops, the information about which people are passionate will change, too. Therefore, what’s even more important than having a specific passion is being passionate about learning. I think if this mentality were more popular, we’d all do a better job at sharing our particular passions because we’d want others to understand them so that we can swap ideas and opinions. It’s quite isolating to be so passionate about something that we aren’t able to share with other people.

Again, I was truly in awe of all the tours during the Fulbright Student Summer Institute. I’m sure I learned a lot more than I realize, but through all the powerpoints, lectures, and scientific vocabulary, all I really remember is being asked to imagine a pig cadaver as a crash-test-dummy at the Center for Injury Biomechanics. Poor little guy!

 

I’ll admit it: I hate blogging (Week 1)

Perhaps it’s because I’ve only ever been forced to blog for classes that I find it boring – and challenging. To me, the point of a blog is that people willingly share their thoughts with the public, on any topic. This allows for freedom of expression and a personal flare to the writing. Therefore, I struggle to understand why blogging is such a phenomenon among professors right now, even after reading more about blogging as a form of academia. By requiring it for a course, doesn’t that limit and prohibit full honesty in the writing? But I must say, I’m completely open to changing my mind on the matter! And I say all of this to be completely upfront in the hopes that my writing has more truth to it. In blogs for other courses, the writing never sounded like me because I was forcing it.

Moving on. . .as a lover of travel and all things international, I should be the first person to back blogging. How cool is that I can read about students’ lives across the world through a blog or Twitter? On the other hand, I have Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and whatever other social media platforms may emerge in the future, to keep my global friendships alive. Are we looking at these platforms as forms of learning and education, as well? A picture is worth a thousand words, so imagine all we can learn from a person’s 167 Instagram posts! However, I recognize (and agree) that social media is not real life, and it’s only a snippet of a person’s reality – if at all. Can the same be said of blogging? Isn’t it just another form of a person trying to show the rest of the world how smart, cultured, and open-minded they are? #woke

I’m 24 years old. Facebook became huge when I was in 8th grade and we still had to hide our MySpaces from our parents. Ever since, I’ve been so tightly connected to the internet and technology. My phone is rarely out of sight, and I’ve recently made a point to leave it locked away in another room so I could start enjoying the real world again. I don’t need to check Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and even Venmo, on a loop while watching Real Housewives of New York on the TV and reading BuzzFeed on my laptop. Maybe I worry blogging will just strengthen that technology reliance even more. Instead of learning about education, cultures, fashion, art, cooking, and so on through a blog, shouldn’t I be pushing myself to go out and experience those things firsthand?

And here I’ve gone and done exactly what I critique bloggers for – rattled off my opinion on a subject that I’m not well-versed in and that people probably don’t care to hear. And hey Dan Cohen, tweeting doesn’t always have to be an intellectual commentary on one’s professional field. I like reading about what people had for breakfast on Twitter!