Owning Your Comprehension, Part I

salvēte iterum, amīcissimī. Today’s posts, as promised, are about the issue of owning comprehension. This first one is about some underlying issues of ownership as related to ongoing, in-process assessment; in today’s second post, we’ll look at the specific ways that Tres Columnae participants can assess their reading comprehension. I’ll have more to say about other, big-picture forms of assessment on Saturday. [One quick confession: these posts will come to you as scheduled, but I’ve written them in advance due to a travel commitment this weekend. grātiās maximās to our friends at WordPress.com for their “draft” feature!]

In talking about assessment, we educators often distinguish two kinds: formative and summative. (The link, from a Master’s program in Nursing, is interesting to explore!)  Formative assessment, which occurs during the learning, is designed to give the learner and teacher feedback about how they’re doing so they can improve their performance; summative assessment happens after the learning and is designed to measure how much learning has happened.  (I think it’s interesting that these links, from the University of Michigan, talk about both kinds of assessment in terms of program effectiveness rather than student learning!)  Rick Wormeli, among others, likens the distinction to the difference between a medical test (is anything wrong? if so, how do we fix it?) and an autopsy (OK, why did he die? and is anyone going to sue us?).

Some theorists, such as Rick Stiggins, also distinguish “assessment FOR learning,” which is for the students’ benefit, from “formative assessment,” which is for the teacher’s benefit, while others link both together in the “formative” category.  In any case, there are assessments that happen during the learning process, and there are others that happen after the learning process.  We’ll focus on the first set today.

Actually, I’ve started to think that all assessment except a final examination is formative in a subject, such as a language, where you keep building and using the “old” knowledge and skills as you acquirenew” elements. I suppose there can be summative assessments before the end in other types of classes – for example, when you finish reading Moby Dick, you can perfectly well have a summative assessment of your comprehension; you don’t have to use Moby Dick (though of course a good English teacher might have you refer to it) to understand The Great Gatsby or As I Lay Dying. (That sounds like a fun English class, by the way; can I take it? :-))

But as a Latin learner, you do still need to use accusative plural nouns, purpose clauses, or gerundive phrases after the test, and you do need to remember “the words from Chapter 8” – even in Chapter 18 or Chapter 28.

When I say things like “as a Latin learner, you need to ….,” I realize that I’m making two very retail– or workshop-model assumptions:

  1. that you, the Latin learner, desire to know the language on a deep level, to understand what you’re reading, and to make connections to your life, and
  2. that I, your teacher, should care about what you want.

In other words, I’m assuming that you want to own the learning process, that you also want to own some products of your learning, and that you should want these things. In the specific area of in-process reading comprehension checks for Tres Columnae, I’m making a very specific, and possibly unusual, answer to these questions:

  • Who is the comprehension check for?
  • Who owns the passage?
  • Who owns the comprehension?
  • For that matter, who will actually benefit from the assessment?
  • Who will get the results, and who will end up using them?

In each case, I’m implying that the primary customer of these assessments is the learner, not the teacher or some distant administrator.  Whether we call this a retail model, a workshop model, or (to use Seth Godin’s term from his recent book Tribes) a tribal model, it’s utterly different from the factory approach!

After all, in a factory-model learning system, the learner is the least-important customer for assessment results! That’s why standardized tests don’t really provide meaningful feedback for learners: the learner isn’t the point of the exercise.  (Think again of that link from the University of Michigan, which implies that assessment is about programs, not learners.)  That’s also why the learner gets the results later than everyone else, and why the results aren’t designed to be helpful to the learner!

Think about it! In the American system, the scores go to a school administrator, who distributes them to teachers. The student gets a score report a week or so later, if at all, unless the teacher shares the results informally. It seems “natural” but it’s really crazy when you stop and think about it! Non-US readers, how does that compare with the national exam system in, say, the UK?

Even in a classroom setting, picture a typical test. Who sees the results first? The teacher. Who interprets the results? The teacher. Sometimes the learner doesn’t even find out which answers were right, which answers were wrong, or how “the number” was calculated.

Of course, in a factory-model school, that all makes perfect sense! After all, the learner is essentially raw material used in the learning process, or possibly a product, or maybe at best a low-skilled, assembly-line production worker. Over at the Oldsmobile plant, you would hardly share quality-control statistics with the incoming shipments of door panels 🙂 or even with the completed cars!:-)   You might, perhaps, talk with the workers about quality-control problems, but they really wouldn’t need – or even want – the big picture. What they’d need (and what so many learners get in learning factories) is

  • encouragement (or maybe threats) to work harder
  • “motivation” in the form of rewards for improved performance (bonuses for the workers, high grades or extra privileges for the students)
  • some minimal feedback about how to do their job more efficiently (if they’re doing OK)
  • a system of progressively more-unpleasant consequences if they aren’t doing their job properly (warnings, reprimands, etc., for the factory workers; disciplinary consequences, bad grades, course failure, retention, etc., for the students).

After all, in a learning factory, the individual, idiosyncratic learning of a particular student isn’t really the point. What matters is the overall effectiveness of the manufacturing process, not the outcomes for a particular product.  The auto workers don’t (and really shouldn’t) care whether the seventy-fifth car down the line today will become a rental car, a family hauler, or a taxi, and it’s not up to them whether #75 will be driven for two months or 20 years before it’s scrappe

In the same way, when factory-model schools “test” (and notice that “test” is an intransitive verb these days!), they’re not really measuring individual students’ learning per se. What’s really important (and you can see this if you read what politicians, educational researchers, business leaders, and even parent groups say about testing) is “teacher effectiveness” or perhaps the effectiveness of the curriculum – the production process.

By contrast, in both a retail and a workshop model, assessment is primarily about the individual learner. Yes, the teacher needs the information too; after all, it’s the teacher’s job to sell each learner the right learning products (in a retail model) or help each one develop and refine the needed skills (in a workshop model). Both, however, are so far removed from the philosophy of the factory that factory-model workers don’t even understand – or want to understand – the language.

In this context, it’s interesting to consider the relationship between the engineering and production departments, on the one hand, and the sales and marketing departments, on the other, in a lot of manufacturing companies. They don’t speak the same language either, and they often don’t get along very well! After all, their worlds are totally diferent!)

quid respondētis, amīcī et sodālēs? Who do you think should own assessment results? Or are there multiple owners? And if the learner is the primary owner, how does that change the process?

In our next post today, we’ll look at how Tres Columnae answers these questions for in-process reading comprehension checks. Then, on Saturday, we’ll look at our answers for more summative tasks. More in a bit.

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Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 8:28 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Hi Justin, I’m very sympathetic to your view that all assessment is (or should be) formative. As teachers and students immersed in the process, how could it be otherwise? Summative assessments serve other people’s needs – but not that of students and learners (since the learning process is NEVER done). At least, that’s how it seems to me – and the insane emphasis on summative assessment is what makes me despair of so much of what is passing for school reform in this country these days (and the unchallenged dominance of the “final exam” at the university level).

    One of the things I have enjoyed most about formative assessments in an online environment is that students can take them repeatedly, without shame or embarrassment; it’s between them and the computer, and I am not involved except as the person who creates the assessment. Formative assessment also benefits from immediate feedback – something easy online, and much harder in a traditional classroom setting.

    One of the things I have worked hardest on is to impress upon my students that the goal is NOT to get “100%” on every quiz. Since I allow students to retake the quiz, some of my high-achieving over-anxious students will take a quiz over and over again, wasting their valuable time in a quest to raise their score from a 95% to the magical 100%. So, I promote heavily something I call the 80% rule, encouraging them to move on to the next learning activity as soon as they get an 80% or better on the quiz (you can see it here on this list of study tips which appear at random inside my class quizzing site). There’s nothing super-sophisticated about the little reading quizzes as instruments to measure learning – so, since the quiz itself is imperfect, the quest to get a perfect score on the quiz is meaningless… although it sometimes takes a while for students to get used to that idea, after having spent years imprisoned in the cult of summative assessment where the testing instruments have to be much more precise (or, should be… even if we all know they are not!). 🙂

    • Laura, I’m glad to find at least one other person who agrees with me about formative assessment! I love your point that “Summative assessments serve other people’s needs – but not that of students or learners (since the learning process is NEVER done.”

      Yes, online formative assessments have a lot of advantages for students: no shame, no embarrassment, no delay in feedback. And you’re right, students do need to learn that “getting 100%” isn’t always the goal. I’m not sure how to make that happen in a face-to-face environment, but it’s a lot more possible in the type of online environment we’re looking at here. Thanks for the study tips, too. I’ll have more to say about them in a post later this week.


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