Field of Science

Assessment versus teaching - again

The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published a commentary that chides teaching faculty for not embracing assessment. And if we don’t embrace assessment, how do we know our students are learning? Do “we rely on evidence that is dubious (teaching evaluations) or circular (grades)”, they ask?
Well, girls, why are you so interested in this issue? Oh, yes, their commentary is actually flogging their soon to be published book on assessment, so you know of their deep commitment to learning. Once again the Phactor will pull on his boots and wade into this issue because he continues to wonder why to these women presume faculty don’t know when students are learning? You think we read about it in student evaluations? Hardly. Why would you think grades circular when those grades reflect levels of learning in evidence after extensive assessment? Basically it means they don’t trust faculty to do their jobs. Or maybe things are way more subjective in their disciplines? Granted the ABCs are not a nuanced reflection of my extensive assessments, but graduate schools and employers don’t want to read my essays discussing those nuances about various students in various courses; they want a quick short-hand of relative learning, grades. When asked for recommendations, the long version is provided. No, what these twits want is what many administrators want; some sort of broad assessment "instrument" (their word, not mine) that can be used across disciplines, colleges, and universities, although they admit that neither the National Survey of Student Engagement nor any other standardized assessment instruments, blunt as they are, can capture disciplinary knowledge and approaches to critical thought. That ladies is why they bloody well need disciplinary experts like me! My basis for reaching a conclusion that students have learned something is based upon their relative abilities to meet learning measures of several sorts including their answers to exam questions.
Here’s an example from just one of my disciplinary exams for an undergraduate course in plant diversity in its entirety less the more objective portions (definitions, factoids, etc.).
1. Chloroplasts and mitochondria are two of the cellular hallmarks of eukaryotic organisms. Evaluate the hypotheses that account for these organelles based upon observations and testable predictions.
2. Complex metabolisms appear to be constructed of smaller, simpler, ancestral components, some of which adopt new functions. Use photosynthesis and phylogenetic hypotheses to illustrate this concept.
3. Relative to the chemistry of the Universe how usual are the elemental components of life?
4. Ribosomal RNA sequence data provided biologists with a new phylogenetic understanding of all living organisms and had a major effect on our definition of Kingdom Monera. Explain.
5. Chlorophyll is composed of what type of building block molecule? What does phylogeny suggest about the hypothetical origin of chlorophyll? How does it differ in function from its presumed predecessor?
6. What are extremophile organisms, and why might our perspective of what is extreme be somewhat skewed? Why is the biology of extremophiles important to our understanding of early life on Earth?
7. What is the carbon biochemical fingerprint of life and what does it tell us?
8. Why is actin and actin binding protein so important in the early evolution of eukaryotic organisms?
9. For the longest time no fossil evidence of life was known prior to the Cambrian when fossils of large conspicuous organisms suddenly appear. How was fossil evidence of ancient life found? How old and what kinds of fossils were found? Then evaluate the sudden appearance of fossils.
Now having read those do you think students who can answer such questions have failed to demonstrate any learning? Think you could pull the answers for an exam like that out of the air and BS me without having done adequate reading and study, and learned something? Do you think the instructor incapable of discriminating objectively among excellent, good, poor, and terrible answers? Oh yes, and then later concepts are built upon these concepts, so cramming and purging won't do the trick. Do you still think you can capture disciplinary knowledge and critical thought on some sort of assessment instrument that doesn't simplify it to the banal? Sorry ladies, you sound clueless about the depth, detail, and sophistication of disciplines and that is the only gap that exists between teaching and assessment, so best leave assessment to us, the real professionals.

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