‘Assessment’ is a dirty word — but digital products can reclaim it

The potential of real-time analytics to enable formative assessment

Assessment has become a dirty word in education. At a conference in Jordan this week, a policymaker stopped me cold during my product demo, outraged by the mere mention of an initial assessment. He looked at me as if I heralded from Mars, or had cursed his loved ones (or perhaps both). My unexpected adversary proceeded to preach chapter and verse on the virtues of “implanting” students with hope, compassion, empathy, creativity rather than testing them. The outright rejection of assessment, whatever its form or purpose, was a prominent theme at the conference. Speakers met with raucous applause by suggesting that a twenty first century education must be free of measurement.

Baby and bath water come to mind.

The notion of assessing students has been tainted by its associations with high-stakes testing. It is high-stakes testing that narrows the scope of learning and teaching by valuing only that which can be measured. When assessment is exploited as an accountability measure, it all too often induces a chain of perverse incentives throughout the education system, where test performance trumps substantive learning experiences.

But assessment encompasses so much more then high-stakes testing. For our pedagogies to advance, and for those so-called twenty first century skills to mean a jot, we need reliable ways of tracking students’ knowledge and understanding — as far as we are able to — and responding to their thinking as it occurs. We need formative assessment.

Formative assessment is, to borrow from Dylan Wiliam, responsive teaching. Learning is optimised when students receive feedback on their thought processes. The feedback should be instant and actionable, regular and accurate. No single assessment carries the judgement or pressure of a high-stakes exam. Formative assessment is not about grades or rank, but rather supporting students to actively reflect throughout their learning. It centers on deliberate practice and honing of discrete knowledge and skills. The high stakes and perverse incentives of exams make way for practical guidance on what to do next. Formative assessment marks a shift from assessment of learning to assessment for learning.

As I tried in vain to express to my new friend, the digital medium is ideally suited to this nobler purpose of assessment. That’s not to say digital products will replace teachers’ own observation, judgement and feedback: I would only trust a human for feedback on the deepest and most holistic elements of learning. There is, however, a significant corpus of knowledge/skills that a) students are expected to acquire, b) lends itself to formative assessment and c) can be handled by technology.

Real-time analytics power up the consumer apps we have come to depend on. These apps monitor behaviours and inputs in real-time and respond based on your individual needs and preferences. The most delightful apps will motivate you with a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic goals.

A well-designed digital learning experience will similarly capture elements of students’ thinking and provide instant feedback for them to move forward with — the more intelligent the system, the more customised the feedback. It will emphasise improvement ahead of performance, discarding blunt ability labels in favour of growth metrics. And it will integrate teachers into the feedback loop, making analytics available for them to apply their own judgements on how to advance their students’ learning.

An untapped potential of digital learning is the integration of assessment and learning. The richest environments manage to bake assessment into the learning experience, much as you roam through game worlds barely cognisant of the underlying measurement structures. In the realm, assessment is learning. Game-based learning, alas, is yet to nail it , although it does point to the fullest expression of what assessment can be: a subtle servant of learning and teaching.

Assessment must never overstretch its bounds and we must resist the tendency to exaggerate what technology can measure. Data, however Big or fanciful, does not automatically translate into meaningful insight. Nonetheless, real-time analytics carry enormous potential to enable the most practical, noble forms of assessment. The onus on instructional designers to reclaim assessment as a force for good. Failing that, you may just need to give it another name — anyone for responsive teaching?

I am a research mathematician turned educator. Say hello on Twitter or LinkedIn and sign up below to receive more content like this.

Mathematics. Education. Innovation. Views my own.

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