Rhizo15: Symbolic measurement

I can’t measure learning, only the symbolic artifacts of learning.

That’s not so strange. We measure civic responsibility by how many people vote, but we can’t measure how “good” those votes are, the extent to which they are backed by intelligent thought or research into the issues. We can only measure outcomes.

As a college instructor with over 200 students and no assistants, I’m in an impossible situation to assess learning. I can only assess outcome achievement. I pretend that I can create assignments that will produce symbolic artifacts of learning. Then I grade the artifacts.

But it’s all a ruse. A student comes in with certain skills. Perhaps they already know how to learn, or have already learned the subject. They get As and Bs because they are engaged and eager to learn. When I give them an A for producing excellent outcomes, I have no idea whether I am grading their learning. What if they already knew or had examined the material before my class? What if they did all the work, but it didn’t change their mind or approach in any way? The “A” is a measurement of outcome achievement, regardless of background.

Similarly, the student who turns in no work at all may have learned something, something amazing, something that may or may not have related to what I taught, but was connected to my class. I’ve had military wives who learned, not history, but how important it was for them to have somewhere to be each day. I had a surfer guy who learned that if he synthesized information and then created his own interpretation, his conclusions were valid and could be important to others. I have students who learn that if they are polite to me and treat me with respect, they will in turn be treated with respect, and students who learn that faceless institutions don’t have to be impersonal.

If my measurement for that were individual, it wouldn’t relate to their grade in History. If my measurement were societal, I’d need to look to society. When I look to society, I see an awful lot of people behaving as if they’ve learned nothing from history. So instead I hope that they learned what they needed, whether or not I was able to assess it.

(this post related to the Rhizo15 class)

7 thoughts on “Rhizo15: Symbolic measurement

  1. I’m learning a lot from the unstructured, undirected, unassessed MOOC that is #rhizo15. I’m grateful to be connected to people whose thinking I would otherwise have no access to. At this point I don’t feel I have anything intelligent to say about assessment but reading others’ posts has enriched my thinking. I’ve been convinced for a while now that assessment as we know it in schools and universities is not perfect but actually, as you put it, it’s worse than that – it’s a ruse. We talk about assessment a lot at school but I think we’re going around in circles and missing the mark. Lisa, how would you envisage a better system for university entrance exams? Although that really has nothing to do with the assessment you are talking about, does it?

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  2. Lisa, this is so meaningful to me. The various aspects of what students learn are really so incredibly impacted by so many forces, and how we see the learning is impacted by our own perceptions, what we know of the students, what we have time to look for, etc. Great post!

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