Tony Gurr

Posts Tagged ‘testing’

LEARNing to Cope with Exams (Guest Post from Laurence Raw)

In Adult Learners, Assessment, Guest BLOGGERS, Our Universities on 24/07/2013 at 3:04 pm

Assessment (David Boud quote) Ver 02


Many learners from all over Europe will have taken exams this summer; the results might yet not be known.  My fourteen-year-old niece had this experience, and unfortunately she did not do so well.  I realized that the results bore little or no relationship to her intellectual capabilities; she obtained a poor grade on account of what might be termed TESTaphobia.  As I listened to her, I recalled my days at school and university, when I was so scared of exams that I used to imagine myself suffering from chest pains, so that I could go to hospital and obtain some kind of tranquillizers.


I read recently that British Education Secretary Michael Gove insisted that “exams matter because motivation matters … Human beings are hard-wired to seek out challenges … the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning”

But what if the need to jump that hurdle prevents learners from achieving success?  What happens to those whose wires are configured in different ways, and might need to discover alternative means of achieving “further endeavours and deeper LEARNing?”  Many websites offer advice as to how to deal with this condition (by learning from experiences, devising a realistic revision schedule, taking time off or relaxing), but they’re actually missing the point.


Assess Lit 03

The only way to change attitudes towards exams is to change the LEARNing cultures in which they take place.  Learners have to understand that passing exams is not simply about “clearing a hurdle,” but rather providing an opportunity for them to express what they have learned.  Educators should help them to approach an exam in a positive frame of mind; rather like an actor giving a performance in front of the camera, they need to perform to the best of their ability.  And even if they do not do as well as they should, exams are not the be-all and end-all of their educational lives; what matters more is that they should feel they have achieved their own personal goals through the courses that they have taken.


Assidere (original meaning) Ver 02


Perhaps it’s time to go back to first principles; to understand that any program of study is not primarily concerned with the exam but with the experience of LEARNing.  This can only be achieved through negotiation; the working out of a series of mutually shared goals that educators and learners alike feel happy to pursue.  As the course unfolds, so everyone should be encouraged to reflect on its usefulness; this might be achieved through discussion, or by encouraging everyone to keep a journal to record feelings and experiences.  Learners can use this as a means to develop their self-esteem, to discover for themselves what they have LEARNed.

In this type of model, the exam functions as an extension of the journal, enabling learners to expound at greater length what they might have already recorded in their journals, and (in an ideal world) thereby manage to deal successfully with their fears.


However this can only be achieved through educator support.  This is one thing that Gove and his fellow-mandarins in politics will never understand: learners can only develop themselves when they feel that they are part of a community.  A piece in The Guardian written by a practising  educator asks whether there is a line to be drawn between ‘helping’ and ‘hindering’ learners; whether too much support for learners taking exams is not counter-productive: “What do they learn about self-motivation and independence?  If we want them to become lifelong learners, don’t they at some point need to learn how to teach themselves?

I think this is a comment of mind-blowing fatuity, implying that there is some kind of distinction to be drawn between “TEACHing,” and “LEARNing.”

In a LEARNing community in which everyone participates and helps one another, the problem of developing motivation simply doesn’t arise.  Learners might have to take exams, but they can approach them in a positive frame of mind if they are supported by their peers as well as their educators.


Assessment (fattening pigs)

The question here is one of shifting focus, of understanding the psychological reasons why learners fear exams, and restructuring the course of study to help deal with them.  However I fear that no one will be too interested in this solution, especially those politicians who believe that standards can be improved through quick fixes.  At the classroom level, however, I think that improvements can be made, or at least I’d like to think so.


Laurence Raw
(aka @laurenceraw on Twitter)
Baskent University – Ankara, Turkey
Editor: Journal of American Studies of Turkey


Bringing students in from the “cold”…

In Assessment, Classroom Teaching, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness, The Paradigm Debate on 07/10/2011 at 8:27 pm

An old friend of mine called me earlier this week. He works for a major Turkish bank up in İstanbul…can’t say which one!


After we exchanged the usual pleasantries…(and how the hell he knew I had put on some weight, over the bloody phone, I will never know – maybe my voice gets “fatter”, too – ne se)…he launched into a huge “bitching” session about his bank (now you know why I can’t say which one)!


It seems his bank’s senior “my-way-or-the-highway” management team have kicked off a new project…and set up a new project team to ensure all the other divisions are played off against each other (do you really need to know why I “left” banking in my youth). The problem is that this “new” project team is now looking into all those areas that my friend and his colleagues “manage”…and care about deeply (especially, their jobs)!

Being the sensitive and constructive pal I am – I suggested he “walk” and find a new jobNo, I didn’t…I asked him to think about what would need to change to make him and his team feel better and what he could do to try and make that happen.

His response:

“Nothing, we’re out in the cold…we have no voice whatsoever…and will get walked all over…as usual…”

What my friend was really talking about was the fact that he had been “excluded”excluded from a very important process that would impact him, his whole life, his future…

So, I told him to “walk”Come on, he’d find a job before he even started lookingHave you seen the Turkish banking industry these days…many in Europe are already talking of turfing out Greece…and (just) asking İstanbul (the “city” – not the “country”) to join the EU…

Seriously, though…we have all probably felt like this from time to time. Being made to feel like an “outsider” is never a positive experience…think about the last time it happened to you!

All this made me think about studentsand, the ways in which we, as educators, may (inadvertently) make learners feel like this.


In an earlier post, I discussed the idea of how students are often treated as “outsiders” in allthingsassessment……and, reflecting on how my dear friend was feeling, I though to meself… “time for this to STOP”!

Come on…if we look at what students want from assessment, they do not have many needs really. Seriously…they do not really care that much about reliability, validity and fitness-for-purpose (they are things we have to worry about…and worry about them we should)!

if we take a quick look at the research, and contrary to all the “folk wisdom” that students just want “easy exams”, all they really want is:

  • Unambiguous expectations…because they value, and expect, transparency in the way they will be assessed
  • Authentic tasks…because they value assessment that they perceive as “real”
  • Choice and flexibility…because they value the opportunity to showcase their particular talents in the best light


Don’t YOU feel the same way? I know I do…

So, here’s the first “test” for your institution:

  • Do you give every student a detailed “coversheet” at the beginning of each year / semester explaining how they will be assessed, the different types of assessment activities you will use, the “weights” of those different assessment events, any specific performance criteria that you will use to “grade” or “mark” student work – and also details of how (and when) you will provide them with feedback on their growth and development? 
  • Do you take the time to go over the “coversheet” outlining its key elements on Day ONE and provide students with the opportunity to ask questions and clarify any issues? 
  • Do you and your institution see this documentation and wider process as a hard and fast “contract” between you and your learners – a promise of the service you will provide to them?


It ain’t rocket-science…and it’s how we would expect to be treated ourselves.


As teachers or lecturers we often “joke” about how many of us have been asked the “mother” of all assessment questions from students:

“Um, do we have to know this? Will it be on the test?”

Wouldn’t it be great if we simply removed the “need” for this question to ever be asked – again…ever? The bottom line is that most students ask this question because our behaviours and actions have ensured they are “assessment outsiders”. Even worse, their experiences with us over the years have learned them that there will always be a “test”…


When will we learn…and help learn our students…that:

Assessment is something that teachers

DO WITH students BEFORE, DURING and AFTER learning

NOT, just:

Assessment is something that teachers

DO TO students AFTER learning


OK, while we are on this point – let’s try a second “test”:

  • Does your institution have a written statement of what it values in assessment, a set of principles that informs the development of assessment matrices, events and tasks and also guidelines that help teachers be as effective as they can be when they assess students?
  • Do all your teachers own these values and principles – know them (or at least are able to locate them), “live” them as part of the way they interact with students and contribute to upgrading or improving them over time?
  • Do students know them and can they make connections between the way their teachers do the business of assessment – and the way students are expected to do the business of learning?

As far as students are concerned, there is nothing more central to the learning experience than assessment…and they know that assessment can affect their whole future lives and careers.

Surely, we owe it to them to have all of these things in place…or, at least, have a thunk about them!


If, as we noted earlier, assessment is the “engine”:

The real problem here is, of course, that many institutions and educators still view assessment as “weighing and measuring”. Yes, it is a fact of life that some form of measurement needs to take place…how else would we know who to “graduate”?

But, assessment is not just about the “assessment-of-learning” (if we assume that learning can, in fact, be measured at all – indeed, it might be said that teachers can never truly understand what has been learned – only the students know this)! Assessment is also an integral component of LEARNing – and learning-orientated assessment processes can not only help us engage students in rich, authentic tasks, but also contribute (in an on-going manner) to the growth and development of all our learners.

I am, of course, talking about “assessment-for-learning” (the term coined by Caroline Gipps in 1994) and “assessment-as-learning” – the innovative approach adopted and developed by the faculty at Alverno College from 1973 onwards.

As Boud (1995) noted, “all assessments lead to some kind of student learning” – however, approaches that emphasise the “for” and “as” varieties of assessment connect the assessment of student learning to programme and institutional outcomes.

These approaches to assessing student learning do not only rely on testing a student’s “possession of knowledge” – they focus on the “use of knowledge” (in action) and what students can “do” with what they know and learn.

As Englemann (2007), a member of the Alverno philosophy faculty, notes:

As an Alverno faculty member, it is no longer possible to imagine teaching without assessing, because for us to teach is to assess, continuously, what our students are learning, and what they can do with what they know. We assess in order to improve the learning process, to give each student, and groups of students, guidance for their learning. At this point in the life of our curriculum and our academic culture, if our accrediting body were to say: “You no longer have to go to the trouble of assessing student learning,” we would still do it anyway.


This not “new” – as the original definition of assessment illustrates (OK – we can let the Greeks stay in the EU – just because of this – the Italians, too):

However, these models of “assessment-as-learning” and “assessment-for-learning” rely  heavily on student self-assessment and teaching students how to observe, analyse, and judge their own performance (on the basis of explicit and published criteria) – not just delivering “content” in pre-packed and off-the-shelf “course units” or using a textbook  (but actively developing meta-cognition in all students).

These approaches, it could be argued, require a fundamental “belief” that all students are capable of becoming adaptable, flexible, and independent in their learning and decision-making…they are BTW!


Gulpvalues, beliefs and principles again!

Double gulpnew roles, new skills and new abilities for educators!

One of the most important of these is the provision of quality diagnostic feedback from teachers (remember the “lubricant”) – feedback that allows students to further reflect and then determine how they can act to improve their own performance levels.

Not just a “grade”…

We all know:

Anyways, for many institutions and educators, this involves a serious re-thunk of what assessment means to those involved in the process, in addition to the teacher-student relationship in that process.


This was noted by teachers and researchers working on the REAP Project (in Scotland) – and involves the re-conceptualisation of assessment as a collaborative process where students are viewed as “partners in assessment” – they realised that we cannot continue to keep students on the “outside” anymore!

Like Alverno, the guys on the REAP Project have realised that taking this kind of LEARNing and ASSESSMENT PERSPECTIVE results in:




OK – ready for the penultimate “test”? Go on – be a devil!

  • Does your assessment of students begin with educational values, reflect an understanding of learning as multi-dimensional and also respect the diverse talents and ways of learning of your students?
  • Do the assessment tasks and events you currently use communicate high expectations to your students, encourage contact between teachers and learners and develop reciprocity and collaboration between groups of students?
  • Do your assessment events emphasise “time-on-task” and going that “extra mile”, give credit for using both active learning techniques and creativity – and also support this with timely, on-going expert feedback?


A couple more come on, you can do it;

  • Do your assessment tasks include an element of self- and peer-assessment and offer possibilities for students to explore a wider range of “knowledge”: procedural (“knowing how”), schematic (“knowing why”), and strategic (“knowing when certain knowledge applies, where it applies, and how it applies”)?
  • Do you support this type of self-assessment by “teaching” students to understand and interpret the criteria by which they are assessed – and assess themselves?


If you got through those last ones without feeling the need to grab the closest bottle of aspirin (or Prozac), you are probably ready for the next “big” question (inspired by Race, 2002):

  • What is “broken” with assessment at your institution? How do you know? What are YOU going to do about it?


But, remember first have a thunk about:

  • What do you want to keep that you already have or do in allthingsassessment?
  • What do you want that you don’t already have or do in allthingsassessment?
  • What do you have or do now that you don’t want to keep in allthingsassessment?
  • What don’t you have or do that you don’t want in allthingsassessment?


YOUR students deserve nothing less…as “assessment insiders”!


Besides, you never know what may appear when the snow thaws….