In Articles, Assessment and You

by Atifa F. Karim, University of Toronto; originally published November 24, 2016

One of my favourite parts of being a graduate student is the affordance to think in a certain kind of vacuum. It’s a unique freedom and feeling that lends itself to reflecting often and reflecting deeply.

What I offer here (as a current graduate student and emerging/new Higher Education Professional) are reflections on how I approach and understand assessment. I offer these because I believe that assessment neither occurs in isolation, nor is it ideologically neutral. We all approach assessment from a different point of view, in different ways, and with different ends in mind. My hope is that my reflections here will get you thinking critically about where and how your ideas about assessment came to be, and whether or not they (continue to) serve you in a way that is meaningful for your work and your context.

Evaluation vs. Assessment

How do I define assessment?

Sometimes the distinction between evaluation and assessment can be messy. What helps is to remember that assessment has a developmental component to it. Evaluation is rooted in a judgment mentality.

Evaluation asks:

  • Have we met the standard?
  • Have we achieved the learning objective (or goal, or outcome)?

Assessment, on the other hand, asks:

  • How well or poorly have we met the standard?
  • How well or poorly have we achieved the learning objective (or goal, or outcome)?
  • How can we better achieve the learning objective (or goal, or outcome)?

Both are valuable, and I argue that we should use both. They inform each other. But assessment is by its nature focused on providing feedback for improvement. It’s dialectic; it’s between the learner, the learning context, and the standard.

This dialectic quality is what I value the most about assessment (versus evaluation). As a student of higher education, I believe in its transformative power, and I approach assessment as a way to discover and understand narratives of transformation (so that I might be able recreate them). The dialectic nature of assessment lends itself to this understanding. Narratives of transformation are personal and complex. Approaching the work of assessment as engaging in conversations about growth and improvement makes space to learn from these stories.

Assessment and Productivity

What are some ideologies that affect the way I think about assessment?

We are in an era of higher education where there is an increased emphasis on assessment (e.g. key performance indicators, measurable outputs, and quality assurance processes) (Olssen & Peters, 2005). We interact with this reality to varying degrees in our everyday work (e.g. in the need to report numbers, making decisions about programming based on budgets, etc.). For some, this leads to questions about the fundamental purpose and aim of higher education (e.g. Kerr, Flexner, etc.).

I recognize this reality, but believe it is not always useful to set up a dichotomy between education as mediated by the market and knowledge economies (i.e. a focus on product) and education for the sake of education (i.e. a focus on the process). Good assessment focuses on both—the product (i.e. operationalization of knowledge), and the process (i.e. metacognition). Holding both of these frames of thinking in mind, and balancing them, has sometimes been difficult for me. But I remain committed to doing it because I believe we can (and should) do both—educate for careers and educate for citizenship. Our assessment strategies (as part of the larger program cycle) need to attend to that dual function as well.

Approaches to Assessment

How do I approach assessment?

Broadly speaking, we have a lot of goals and expectations for education, and with assessment we are ultimately trying to measure a process (i.e. learning) that is incredibly complex and messy. To manage this difficulty we look to certain measurable proxies (e.g. level of confidence), and try to develop assessment tools that can match the complexity of learners. This is difficult work. What I offer in response is a valuable framework (learnt while doing my BEd) that I often return to when choosing between methods of assessment. It articulates three relationships between learning and assessment.

Assessment of learning

This is the form of assessment that most resembles evaluation. It assesses how well a learner has understood something with respect to a standard (e.g. testing for competency, summative assessment, etc.)

Assessment for learning

These are formative assessments that establish where learners are in the learning process (e.g. surveys before a learning experience).

Assessment as learning

Assessment is integrated as part of the learning activity (e.g. self-reflection activities). These develop learners’ metacognition, and facilitate students’ development as monitors of their own learning.  

These three relationships between assessment and learning support each other, and can be used in combination as part of the same learning activity. Each allows us to understand student learning from a different perspective, and focus on a particular aspect of the learning phenomenon.

Take Away

Donna Harraway (1988) writes that all knowledge is partial and situated—that there is “no view from nowhere”. I extend her metaphor to say that we all approach the work of assessment from a particular viewpoint. Our perspectives have value, and they have limitations. Naming them reifies them. It gives us a way to articulate them to others, to have them challenged, and/or to have them reaffirmed. Reflecting on them gives us the opportunity to become better educators.

I have spent some time here reflecting about my approach and ideas. I invite you to do the same. As part of sustaining an institutional culture of assessment, spend some time, whether on your own or with colleagues, with these questions:

  • What does assessment mean to you?
  • What are some of the ideas that underpin your definition/understanding of assessment?
  • Where do your ideas about assessment come from?
  • How do these ideas about assessment offer value for your work?

I’d love to hear your insights and reflections.


References / Further Reading

Harraway, D. (1998). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599.

Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing success: Assessment, evaluation, and reporting in Ontario schools.

Olssen, M. & Peters, M. A. (2005). Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism. Journal of Educational Policy, 20(3), 313–345.

Written by Atifa F. Karim, Career Educator at University of Toronto Career Centre

Atifa is a York University and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) University of Toronto alumna having recently completed her MEd in Educational Policy and Higher Education (Student Development and Student Services in Higher Education) at OISE. Atifa originally contributed this article November 24, 2016 as part of the series Assessment & You on, which featured a number of perspectives on assessment from across Canada and the US. 

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