Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Two types of assessment (and is there any title more boring than that?)

Is there any uglier phrase in the English language than "assessment instrument"?

I exposed my first-year students to an assessment instrument today, stretching them on the rack until their joints snapped and their eyes popped out. 

No wait, that's not right....I made them use #2 pencils to fill in bubbles on a bubble sheet in response to multiple-choice questions designed to measure their skills in a variety of writing-related tasks, not including actual writing. I don't make any secret of my dislike for this particular assessment instrument, so while they were bubbling away, I read the results of a different type of assessment.

It's the final homework assignment of the semester, the final piece of low-stakes writing before the high-stakes research paper is due, and this time I asked them to write a brief essay reflecting on what they've learned about writing this semester and how much more they need to learn. Even though this reflection essay is worth only five points, they generally produce a fairly polished example of their writing skills, which I can compare to their earliest writing in the class in order to see improvement. 

But I also enjoy reading their feedback about which elements of the course have made a difference in their writing. They gripe and whine about being required to write, on average, 1000 words each week for my class, but many of them admit in their reflection essays that those frequent writing assignments (with feedback) improve their writing skills and increase their confidence more than anything else in the class.

Only two students mentioned the textbook and how its templates helped them structure their writing more effectively. This accords with what I've seen on papers throughout the semester: the students who benefit most by the textbook's templates are the more competent writers, while others just can't manage to translate templates in a book into coherent sentences in their own writing. 

Several students mentioned how much they've learned about research and citation, and one even used the magic phrase "critical thinking," which made me want to pump my fists in the air (except I didn't want to disturb their bubbling). One even name-checked the reference librarian who introduced the class to the online catalog, which, says the student, changed her life.

I don't fool myself into thinking that my first-year students adore my class or that I've changed all their lives forever--after all, they wrote this reflection essay for credit, with names attached, knowing I'll be grading their final research papers next week, so they're not going to throw me under the bus. But the quality of their writing and the elements they highlight suggest that we've moved them at least a little way down the road toward writing competence.

Bubbling competence they've got down pat.  

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