I have a confession to make. I am a super giant nerd. In case this hasn’t been obvious in previous posts, read on to confirm. I think it started back in my undergrad when I learned that I would have to take a statistics class for my psychology degree. I was dreading the class because I struggled with math for my entire school life.
However, something miraculous happened. Statistics just clicked for me. Suddenly, math made sense! When the numbers I was calculating actually connected to something tangible and meaningful, my brain could compute. And right there, my love for an early research was born.
My first year of grad school, we had to take a basic Communication Research classes: one course in quantitative studies and one course in qualitative studies. It quickly became evident that the “side” you chose predicted your personality: “Quantoids” were deemed the nerdy number-crunchers whereas “Qaullies” were the philosophers of thought. (I wish I had made up these labels as a joke. Alas, kids are cruel even as adults.) I was a “Quantoid” yet I rejected the nerdy implications of the label… to the extend that I re-designed my thesis dissertation as a qualitative study just to prove I wasn’t only a statistics nerd. But even in the early onset of my academic career, I loved numbers. I loved seeing the statistics as useful metrics for how my students performed, thus helping me assess how well I was succeeding as a teacher.
All this is precursor to explain and justify my affinity for assessment. For many of my colleagues, assessment draws one of several negative reactions: ambivalence, annoyance, confusion, or a general feeling that it is a waste of our precious teaching time.
For me, assessment is the opportunity to collect valuable data and to use that data for the noble purpose of improving education for students, whether that means improving students’ comprehension or grades or helping me to deliver my content more effectively.
When I hear “assessment,” my brain immediately goes to formal, mandated assessment required in colleges to obtain and keep accreditation credentials. I first think of identifying a specific college or district student learning outcome and finding a quantitative way to calculate students results in that particular category.
For me (and fellow nerds), this is exciting and fun, while for other people, this is the workplace equivalent of having a root canal. However, the more I have studied the formal side of assessment (as a department assessment coordinator and currently a course co- lead), I realize that assessment does not have to be a huge, formal, quantitative research undertaking.
We assess in our classes every single day formally and informally, directly and indirectly, with grades and without. We are all familiar with the traditional forms of assessment like exams and papers. Most of my classes have a heavy emphasis on public speaking. In my COM 225 class, which is Public Speaking, a whopping 75% of their grade comes from speeches. These are the formal assessments of the class.
But to help students build the necessary skills needed to deliver great presentations, I administer many practice activities and skill building activities throughout the semester. These are rarely graded, but are required as part of the students participation. I realized that these are an excellent source of formative assessment; they assess the students’ current strengths and weaknesses so I can provide more direct feedback. This results in improved scores on the students graded tests, but even more than that, it provides a place where students can practice their skills and gain more confidence, and helps to foster a more friendly and knowledgeable audience, which decreases students’ nervousness.
One such activity is something I call the Actor’s Studio. A group of students will be assigned a particular concept from the lesson of the day. The students create a skit where they demonstrate the concept for the rest of the class, then the audience (the other students) try to guess the concept being demonstrated.
I love this activity because it requires creativity from the presenters as well as collaboration with their fellow group members. It also uses higher level thinking along Bloom’s Taxonomy. Rather than simply defining the concept, performing a skit requires deeper understanding to be able to apply the content to a scenario. In addition, it helps the rest of the students practice good audience behavior with active listening and critical thinking. This helps me identify areas where students clearly “get” a concept and areas where students could be confused.
Another activity I use for assessment is the Great Debate. In this activity, I put a resolution on the board that clearly has at least two sides. I start with a lighter, pop culture prompt such as “Joaquin Phoenix was the best Joker.”(We move on to more serious issues based on the class and their interests.) Upon initial reading of the resolution, students have to place themselves against one of three walls in the room: the right side if they agree with the resolution, the left side of the room if they disagree with the resolution, and the back wall of the room if they are undecided or ambivalent.
Next, I asked for a volunteer from the “pro wall” to explain why they support this particular resolution. The speaker has one minute to attempt to persuade the rest of the audience. At the end of the one minute I ask if anyone has been persuaded? If so, they can move to a different wall. Then, I ask for a volunteer from the con side to explain why they are against the resolution. Again, the speaker has one minute to attempt to persuade us. And students are allowed to relocate should they be persuaded. This activity engages students and encourages them to analyze information as well as their decision-making.
In the debrief to this activity, we discuss which speeches persuaded us and why. Regarless of the actual topic, the stratgies we use to convince others to change their mind (or feelings or attitudes or beleifs or behaviors) are the concepts of Persuaive speaking fromt he textbook. This activity assesses understanding of the concepts while also challenging students to apply the concepts in real life.
These two activities hopefully help to demonstrate the variation Assessment can take, from formal and traditional to playful and, dare-I-say fun.