From time to time my colleagues will argue that we ‘over-assess’ our students (bear in mind that this is the uni setting I’m talking about). I’m never quite sure what ‘over-assess’ actually means. The focus is generally on the number of tests & other assessment items that we require students to sit/submit, & the argument is generally that there should be less of them.
I guess it depends on the type of assessment, & its purpose…
Now, in my experience – & please feel free to disagree here! – assessment in science classes tends to be ‘summative’: it’s looking for a snapshot of what students ‘know’ at a particular point in time (a test, or a final exam). So the ‘over’ proponents would argue that we can get away with fewer tests & still be able to get a meaningful idea of what students actually know. Part of my objection to that rests on the nature of the assessment items, in terms of what the students are being asked. And another part is related to how we communicate with the students about their answers & their outcomes.
OK, objection part I: what do our tests & exams actually ask of the students? A lot of the time, what I see is questions based on simple recall: label this part of a graph/this structure in a dissection; give the definition of ‘x’ or the meaning of ‘y’; use this formula to calculate ‘z’. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I use such questions myself, some of the time, and that it may well be desirable to know that students can identify this or calculate that. Where I think we can have a problem is if this is the only/most common form of assessment question. Why? Because it encourages rote learning, & that sort of learning doesn’t have a long shelf-life in the old grey matter, nor does it encourage in-depth understanding of the subject they’re studying. My own feeling is that tests/exams need to have a mix of questions – some that do let you see if students can recall basic facts & concepts (& which incidentally cater for those students who tend to rely on rote-learning) & some that test understanding & the ability to see the big picture. And – students should know in advance what your assessment items look like, because knowing this does actually have an impact on the learning styles that students adopt.
Not quite sure how the ‘less is more’ approach fits here – you could argue for shorter tests, more often, & in fact that’s what our tutor is doing in assessing lab work: 5-minute mastery tests at the start of each week’s class, on the work they covered in the previous week. This should let us pick up students who are struggling, very quickly indeed, & it also gives students rapid feedback on their understanding of the lab content.
The other concern (well, if I think about it I could probably come up with more, but this will do for tonight!) is the sort of feedback that our assessment provides. Is it summative, where students simply get a mark (which lets us grade them – but which can also, if done early enough, be a way of identifying those at risk of failing)? Or is it formative, where they get constructive feedback on how their learning (or their ability to demonstrate it) is progressing? Which is most helpful, to the learner & to the teacher? Personally I go for a combination of the two, and as time’s gone by I’ve begun using a wider range of formative assessment methods – pop quizzes in lectures, concept mapping in tutorials, alongside the more traditional (& more time-consuming) written comments on essays. The first 2 give both me & the students instant feedback on what they do & don’t understand, which can only be good for their learning & also for my teaching.
Incidentally, in response to the less-is-more approach, a couple of years ago we cut the number of tests in one of the first-year bio papers from 3 to 2. The next semester we went back to 3. Why? Because the tutor & I felt that by the time the first test rolled round, it was almost too late to begin meaningful interventions for some students. (It also meant that if someone missed one test, it didn’t leave me much to go on in calculating an aegrotat.) And because the students themselves, when polled at the end of the semester, indicated an overwhelming preference for the larger number of tests – they felt it was fairer & spread their workload more evenly.
I think I will continue to reject ‘less is more’ for the time being.