In thinking of student assessment for this week’s blog post, I was reminded of a number of topics we’ve discussed in class concerning the backward design approach. For example, I thought immediately of the numerous times we’ve talked about our desires for students, various ways to intellectually engage them with course materials, and the importance of concerning ourselves with much more than the content we teach but the skills set we wish to impart upon our students. I was also reminded of an article I read several weeks ago from the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/Harvard-Seeks-to-Jolt/130683/). The article was primarily about a conference held in February for Harvard’s new teaching emphasis. The project, simply called the Harvard Initiative for Teaching and Learning, is boosted by a $40 million grant and seeks to improve the teaching methods of university professors, enhance the learning capabilities of the student body and improve student skill development. Leaders of the conference argued that most professors tend to teach according to their own “habits and hunches.” Faculty members in attendance attributed this problematic approach to the lack of training graduate students receive on how students learn. Without a necessary background in student learning, new instructors tend to rely upon methods of teaching that emphasis content and lack any consideration of the “cognitive capabilities” they want their students to develop. Of course, we know this type of consideration to be the foundation of the backward design approach. We’ve frequently mentioned the significance of attaching a type of applicable skills set to the courses we create so that we may actively consider the interest of our students. By doing so, we can help our students develop the intellectual capabilities we want them to take away from a class, particularly those that stretch far beyond the content we present.
Another interesting discussion the Chronicle article offered highlighted issues surrounding lectures. As many of us are aware, lecture-based courses promote a type of passive learning where students forget information they may have temporarily absorbed as soon as it’s regurgitated in a multiple-choice assessment. A number of other lecture failures were listed: The lecture hinders the instructor’s ability to “prod students to make meaning of what they learn, to ask questions, extract knowledge, and apply it in a new context.” So how do we construct better lectures or utilize better forms of instruction and assessment?
By getting creative, of course. So, in order for us to improve our assessment skills, we’ll have to open our minds to nontraditional, innovative methods of approach. This article offers a few adventurous ideas. Conference leaders suggested asking students to explain concepts or teach the material they’ve learned to fellow classmates. One of the professors in attendance actually requests short essays from his students asking them to respond to current readings. He then incorporates these weekly responses into his class lectures and discussions. Other professors suggested having students identify relevant areas or questions that their readings have left unaddressed. These assignments can also serve as mild forms of assessment that supplement larger essay or short answer tests. As this article reveals, there are already professors employing a variety of assessment forms to discover those that work best for them. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt us to start treading those unchartered territories.