Ideas: Powerful Assessment for Student Life?

I have been recently thinking a lot about the connections between assessment of student academic learning and that of student co-curricular activities, as well as student life programming. As the University is moving away from more limiting educational frameworks based on traditional “foundational knowledge acquisition” towards more holistic approaches to teaching a learning open to active learning, community connections, and integration of theoretical and practical knowledge, the lines between academic learning assessment and evaluation of other student activities are becoming blurred.

I discovered a lot of great ideas and inspiration while working at the 10th Annual Teaching & Learning Symposium “Re:Think – Navigation and Transformation in Today’s Learning Landscape” on May 10 2016.

The themes of “educative” and forward-looking assessment came up many times during the Symposium. Overall, “powerful assessment” was outlined as one of high priorities on the radar of teachers who are re-designing their courses as well as many leaders working on program, degree, and university levels.  As opposed to more traditional “audit-ive-type assessment,” educative assessment provides opportunities for learning in itself and thus enhances student development (rather than just serving a basis for assigning a grade). For instance, educative assessment can offer students a practical question or task they may face as future employees, allowing them to actually use what they have learned.

Once striking example of this kind of learning assessment was offered by Beth Fischer, a teaching stream professor at Woodsworth College.  When teaching first-year students about cold war and nuclear security, she uses a series of role-play exercises that challenge students to think through practical problems and help them “digest” and understand issues of great complexity and global significance such as a theoretical concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. For example, a role-play exercise that simulates a nuclear crisis challenges students to reason through their response in a limited timeframe. The class is divided into two groups – Soviet and American leaders. The students receive a series of “intelligence reports” about immediate nuclear threat, based on real-life historical events. They are required to respond to as a group, considering what they know, what they need to know, and their options. The goal is to create a learning environment that engages students, cultivates their curiosity, and, through novel assessments, deepens their understanding while building community. While prompted to demonstrate their knowledge of facts and ideas, students get an opportunity to practice – or learn – creative and critical thinking, time management, and empathy.

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For sure, assessment of this type requires clearly defined and detailed criteria and standards, as well as a great deal of resources and commitment from teachers and facilitators.   As reported by many symposium participants, the student reactions to these assessments have been positive. Educative and forward-looking assessment might have a great potential for student leadership development, career education, and intercultural learning: it offers an opportunity of direct assessment of student development combined with new learning opportunities.

In case you are interested in reading more on Powerful Assessment Strategies at U of T, the new teaching and learning publication Re:Think is a great start. And Jennifer Esmail wrote a great post about using classroom techniques  that is a great compliment to what I saw and learned last week.

By Svitlana Frunchak, CIE

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