In past decades, there’s no doubt that our education culture is skewed toward different forms of quantitative assessment. We see this in the form of standardized tests, college entrance exams, and our obsession with grade-point averages.
The argument is that objective, quantitative evaluation through exams eliminates instructor subjectivity and provide greater equity. They are also, many argue, the only way to evaluate student performance accurately at scale (such as across all U.S. public schools).
In this constructive debate on grading and outcomes, however, I wonder if we aren’t failing to ask a critical question.
How is our approach to evaluation helping prepare students for success in their future professional life?
In general, curriculum and assessment/evaluation are designed with specific outcomes or goals in mind. We scaffold our curriculum for elementary schools to prepare students for secondary education. We do the same in our high schools, designing curriculum with the goals of providing both a terminal credential (the high school degree) and preparing students to continue their education in college. Along the way, we design performance evaluations (exams, quizzes, homework) to measure students’ readiness to meet each of these individual goals.
In our obsession with getting the right measurements for these outcomes, however, have we missed the bigger picture?
To be clear, I am not arguing, in any way, against high-quality assessment and evaluation of student performance. I believe it is imperative that we use assessment and evaluation to determine each student’s level of mastery in a subject at different times.
What I am questioning is the benefits of our current approaches with regards to preparing students for the ultimate goal — performing the role of citizens who are productive and valued members of our society and workforce.
How are we aligning educational assessment and evaluation with the types of evaluation students will face in their jobs and careers? This is a fundamental question we ask in our curriculum design at TEL. And, as good learning designers generally do, we begin by looking at our ultimate desired evidence of mastery.
As curriculum designers, we want every course to provide scaffolding — both in terms of information and practice — that leads to professional flourishing. When it comes to how to evaluate student performance, we give ample thought to the kinds of performance evaluation students will face in their professional lives. Ideally, our approach to assessment and evaluation in our courses will help prepare students for their future professional experiences.
To achieve this goal, we ask ourselves about the types of performance evaluation students will encounter in their professional careers. At a high-level, we see four essential types of performance evaluation in business.
Expert evaluation — This is the type of evaluation and feedback provided by superiors or boards that govern certification in specific areas. This evaluation comes in a variety of forms, ranging from examinations to annual reviews.
Peer evaluation — Evaluation from peers is also important to career success. It takes the form of formal peer reviews, feedback provided through group projects, and informal reputation ratings developed within the work community over time.
Public evaluation — In the business world, our work is often experienced by direct customers and the broader public. Their rubric for evaluation is their personal expectations, and they seldom hesitate to provide feedback. Public evaluation can include things such as customer feedback, company performance, and public media reactions.
Self-evaluation — Successful employees in every segment of the workforce are able to self-evaluate and set new goals for improvement based on their observations.
If these are the essential forms of performance evaluation our students will face in their professional lives, how can we better align the performance evaluation in our courses to prepare students?
At TEL, we view expert, peer, and self-evaluations as both assessment frameworks and skills that our students need to develop for success in their professional careers. With that in mind, we work to scaffold and interleave these three forms of evaluation throughout each course, with the goals of (1) providing a clear, well-rounded measurement of student performance, (2) giving students ample and diverse feedback regarding their performance, much like they will experience in their professional life, and (3) helping students develop the ability to offer constructive feedback to their peers and to critically assess their own work.
In a typical course, we begin by modeling feedback through expert evaluation. This is rubric-based and given by an instructor or other subject matter expert. Once we have modeled expert evaluation in a subject, we can begin interleaving rubric-based peer and self-evaluation. Along the way, we also introduce expert evaluation in the form of summative assessments. By the end of a course, we want students to be able to provide peer and self-evaluation that is both helpful and moving closer to the models provided in our expert evaluation.
We believe this approach to evaluating student performance allows us to meet the needs of our institutional partners and, at the same time, prepare our students well for their lives beyond the classroom.
Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library