Is it time to reassess student assessment?

A man disinfects tables in an empty exam room as a metaphor for Is it time to rethink s tudent assessment?

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A negotiation of power

“She mopped the floor with us in discussions.”

I was stung by this comment on an anonymous teaching evaluation during my first year of teaching – and it has stuck with me through the intervening six years. I thought I was collaborating, coaching, creating an intellectual community: inviting my students to test out new ideas even as I challenged them from my standing as an expert in my field. Yet this student saw me as an uncomfortable mix of referee and competitive peer with an unfair advantage. What I thought of as a playground was perceived as an obstacle course.

I suspect now that my failure to teach through dialogue stemmed from the fact that the class – designed in imitation of those I had experienced as a student – had traditional exams: namely, two comprehensive tests, a midterm and a final. This constructed hurdles that inhibited intellectual experimentation, that vital skill that turns humanities students into effective question-askers, data-finders and alternative-weighers. In subsequent iterations of the course, I introduced assignments that did not primarily assess retention but helped students exercise imagination, practise empathy and chase curiosity.

These included in-class exercises in which students researched characters from the past and then role-played them in a re-enactment of historical happenings. In my history classes, I have also had students compose an ancient letter in the voice of a historical person – famous, infamous or traditionally voiceless – and then annotate the letter as if they were a modern scholar who “found” it. This type of assignment invites the student to demonstrate mastery of content (both primary and secondary sources) while having the benefit of cultivating creativity.

Perhaps most importantly, feedback from me on these assignments feels to students like trusted coaching rather than refereeing – although I also required traditional research papers from them, with university-mandated word lengths; it seemed a natural complement to encouraging curiosity.

As the pandemic hit, professors who care deeply about student success have scrambled to help themselves and their students adapt not only to new online platforms, but also to new time constraints, anxieties and griefs. The least advantaged, in particular, have been facing unanticipated hurdles and pressures that are much worse than exams.

This has made it difficult for students (and teachers) to be creative, focus on big ideas or take any kind of risk. One cannot play when survival is at stake. And since assessment should ultimately serve the student, we teachers should modify our modes of assessment to meet their needs. For me, this meant flexible deadlines, zero questions about absences and a couple of cancelled classes with the direction to exercise or sleep. I came to realise that I would rather extend compassion, with the risk that a cheater scores a point, than police my students to the brink of mutual exhaustion.

Yet rather than decreasing the quality of the students’ education, I believe that the result has been greater pedagogical effectiveness. Because what is left is that which matters most.

Allow me to share the conclusion to which the pandemic’s forced paring down of pedagogical priorities has led me: it is time in the undergraduate humanities classroom to do away not only with the high-pressure exam but also with the traditional research paper.

Digging in libraries belongs to an older generation. With the steady stream of in-your-face information and misinformation available, the urgent skill that students need now is not research but analysis. They need to be able to follow an argument, find and define its explicit and implicit terms, assess its logic and scrutinise the ways in which the data underpinning its empirical claims have been gathered and are being deployed. They also need to be able to contextualise the argument within larger conversations and to interrogate their own instinctive responses to it.

Such skills can be practised through multiple models of assignments, such as low-stakes presentations, short essays, staged debates and blog posts. Instructor feedback on such assignments is sometimes hard for students to confront because it strikes right at the heart of what and how they are thinking. But when the challenges are pressing and compassion reigns, the learning environment can be magic.

Assessment in a university classroom is, indeed, always a negotiation of power. Some students, like my former one who felt mopped years ago, will be empowered by this approach. Others will continue to feel entitled to the A they’ve always thought they deserved. But I have come to believe that my job as an educator is to persuade, not to discipline.

Jill Hicks-Keeton is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.

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