I’ve been spurred to write this one following a discussion with my colleague Dorothy around assessment. Yes, I know I’ve banged on about this before, but it’s a complex issue & not one that’s easily sorted, I think.
This time I want to think about the nature of the questions we ask. Now, if you look at a lot of our first-year test & exam questions, you’ll see a lot of the ‘list’ or ‘define’ or ‘describe’ or ‘illustrate’ type of thing. Even when words like ‘explain’ are used, the marking often indicates that really all that was looked for was a list of facts – hardly an ‘explanation’. And I’ll be the first to admit that those were the sort of questions I relied on when I started uni teaching. Still do to some degree, because for some students that’s pretty much where they’re at (& I’m not going further into that one just now) & they need at least some questions that they can answer!
But over the last several years I’ve become more & more involved in the process of assessment at a national level, albeit for secondary schools. This has been a real learning curve for me because it’s really forced me to focus on just how to develop a good question that offers students the opportunity to demostrate knowledge and understanding. It’s also made me more aware that, by the time students come through our doors, they’ve already been conditioned to a particular style of questioning: the words ‘describe, explain, discuss’ have particular meanings for them & elicit quite specific responses. ‘Explain’, for example, requires that the student give a reason for an observation or a fact, while for able students ‘discuss’ elicits a fairly complex answer that explains & analyses ideas.
Now, I think there’s a good argument to be made for university lecturers teaching first-year students (& maybe beyond) using this style of questioning. (Of course, it would necessitate thinking about the nature of the answer schedule as well; see above!) It has to do with ‘bridging’ or ‘scaffolding’ students from secondary school into the tertiary learning environment, which is quite different. Students have a lot of new experiences & must confront a range of expectations from their lecturers, which may not be signalled as clearly as they might be. (How many of us have heard a frustrated student say, ‘but I didn’t know what the question was asking for!’?) Finding out about the assessment styles & tools used at school, & using some of those with first-year students, might well be useful step to take in helping students come to terms with everything we’re asking of them.
I think there are other good reasons for tertiary teachers to make themselves more familiar with what’s going on at school. Looking at the means of assessment makes us more aware of how to structure an assessment item that best elicits a demonstration of the students’ knowledge & understanding of a topic (let’s face it, very few university lecturers are trained teachers, with all that this entails). And if you look into the assessment, you perforce become more aware of the curriculum as well. And if you do that, then you gain a better understanding of your incoming students’ prior learning experiences, which in turn makes you better able to link what you’re teaching with what they already know. And this enhances their learning in your classroom.
Focusing more on how assessment operates should have other desirable outcomes as well. One relates to the knotty issue of what our graduates are capable of when they leave our doors at the end of their studies. We’d like to think that they are capable of critical thinking, independent learning, analysing & synthesising facts, & so on. If that’s what we want, then not only do we have to model these attributes, but we also need to signal that’s what we want through the way we assess. Students aren’t slow; if they see that all that’s needed to pass a test is a bit of good old rote learning (because they’ve looked at previous papers & seen that you only ever ask for facts & not analysis or critique), then that’s what they’ll do. Assessment doesn’t simply measure the level of student learning, it shapes the learning outcomes just as much as the actual teaching does.