In Assessment and You

by Lesley D’Souza

Assessment & You, written by Lesley D’Souza, features a number of perspectives on assessment  from across Canada and the US. Originally published on in 2016, this series dives into the depths of assessment knowledge and practice, aiming to build a culture of assessment for Student Affairs in Canada.

Generally, when I hear staff discussing assessment, it’s from the perspective of assessment as a tool for use upon students or systems to investigate and gain understanding. Which makes sense, because that is how we most often use it. But we run the risk of losing out on valuable learning opportunities when we work only from this perspective, as we can make assessment a transformative process for our students.

We know that we can prime students for learning by sharing our learning outcomes in advance of the learning experience (i.e. opening sessions with a slide of intended outcomes). It’s not a big reach to realize that assessment does not only act as a tool to provide us with information, but it can be a key element of the learning process. Sometimes I hear from staff that assessment is rigid and limits our ability to be creative and I could not disagree more. The act of assessing is fundamentally based on our own curiosity and subsequent input should further fuel that creativity. I want to learn even more after I find out something interesting in my data. The key to my lifelong learning is, in fact, assessment. And though you might call it something else, I suspect that this is true for many of us.

Imagine how the learning experiences of our students could change if we plugged them into assessment during our programs? They could think critically and reflect on their position within the landscape of knowledge and develop their own understanding of where they want to go. They could follow their own curiosity. Make no mistake, we love to reflect and investigate ourselves. Look at the prevalence of the hundreds of online quizzes to find out who you are, what you know, and how you compare to others. Sometimes the carrot to engage students in learning is simply to appeal to their inner desire to know themselves better.

Our K–12 colleagues have already learned this lesson, and in many cases, codified it into policy. Here is an excerpt from the Ontario Government’s 2010 policy document, “Growing for Success: Assessment, Evaluation & Reporting in Ontario Schools”.

This framework for looking at assessment from three perspectives is just as applicable in higher education as in K–12. So let’s talk about where we’re at on these three dimensions.

Assessing For Learning

We are doing this, but sometimes not enough. This is the diagnostic and formative process that we use to try and understand the baseline of our students for comparison to our end results and also what allows us to “course correct” during the program or experience so that we’re more likely to reach the outcomes we’ve set. These could be needs, climate, or pre-experience assessments that help us take a snapshot of students in the moment so that we can act accordingly and help them to their next step in the learning process. Indeed, how can we know where we are going, or how far we’ve come unless we mark our starting point and look around at several points along the way.

Assessing Of Learning

This is where we spend most of our time. This is every feedback survey, summary of attendance, end of experience tool, etc. This is where we use summative techniques to allow us to evaluate how successful our program was, but it’s only part of the picture we need to understand before we can fully appreciate the learning landscape. When we’re asked to show results, it makes sense that we pull information from the entire experience at the end, but that isn’t giving us the big picture.

Assessing As Learning

This is where transformation happens, and where co-curricular experiences in higher education can likely improve the most. We can create self-assessments or reflective assessment tools that students carry out as part of our programming and it can do double duty by giving us valuable data and provide the foundation for critical reflection. They can achieve the outcomes we set, at times, by completing the very data collection tools we need to understand what is happening in the learning space. Many staff already include these things in their programs, but then hesitate to share them when called upon for results. We think they’re not valid simply because the information wasn’t collected in a survey or database.

In addition to this, new knowledge of neurobiology has shown us that cognitive and emotional development are inextricably linked. While we used to believe that rational, critical reflection was the sole tool that supported transformative learning, we know now that there have to be techniques and tools that support multiple ways of knowing. The beauty of this is that assessment doesn’t have to always be seated in the realm of rational thought.

Data storytelling is an ever more required skill set and to do it successfully we must gather narrative data alongside our quantitative results. Numbers simply can’t do the job on their own when it comes to storytelling. These collections of narrative can help us transform what might have been stark, clinical results reporting into compelling, empathy-generating data stories. Qualitative data gets a bad rap, but it is actually vital to telling the story of whole people. The bonus here, or perhaps the real point of collecting narrative, is that the process of telling their stories can form the basis for truly powerful learning from our students by tapping into their limbic system and capturing the power of human emotion.

For example, take a look at this graph produced by NASA about changing levels of carbon dioxide on our planet.

Chart of climate change data from NASA: "For 650,000 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide had never been above this line." The line is 330 parts per million. In 2014, we're at 400.

It sure looks terrifying to me. I graduated with a science degree and I have no doubts that we are currently in a period of human-caused climate change. I also have two kids and I feel a lot of anxiety about what kind of a world they will grow up in. But I also know that my fear does not motivate me to make change; it paralyzes me. It’s literally so scary, that I turn my attention away so that I can avert potential panic. It’s baffling that our inaction might not be caused by a lack of belief in climate change, but in our confidence that it is happening; that is, until you start to look at deeper human nature and how we learn, relate, and empathize.

Now, I want you to take a brief look at these materials on the same topic.

People on an amusement ride, photographed from below looking up, inside a giant concrete cylinder.

Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future

National Geographic

“Wind turbines surround a coal-fired power plant near Garzweiler in western Germany. Renewables now generate 27 percent of the country’s electricity, up from 9 percent a decade ago. Eventually they’ll crowd out coal—although Germany is switching off its nuclear plants first.

Four people in canoes, paddling down a lake.

Climate Stories

Climate Generation

“Those of us who grew up in the late fifties and early sixties remember many things that are no longer a part of our everyday lives: party telephone lines, addresses without ZIP codes, lessons in twirling batons, the static of transistor radios, and spending much of the summer barefoot. I remember all of these things with a sense of nostalgia, but the memories I cherish most were created at a cabin “up north” at Gull Lake.” —Sue’s Climate Story

I read these stories and look at the images and I’m reminded that even though we feel anonymous, our strength is in our ability to feel with other people. Alan Rickman once said, “It is an ancient need to be told stories.” He was right. Our empathy and hope are far more motivating than fear, so think about this the next time you’re advocating for change on your campus, or working on sharing results from a program. We can’t afford to think that our worth is obvious and clearly represented in unadorned data. We have to share stories of positive change and hope so that we can help our students, our peers, and our leaders join in an empathy revolution. Make no mistake, data is vital, but it is stories that can—and will—change the world.


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