Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Discussion with a first year teacher around marks

Recently, I had a discussion with a first year teacher after 4 months of teaching in her first year, here is how it went:
Her: I’m scared I not going to have enough summative assessments at the end of this year.
Me: How many is enough?
Her: I went around to other teachers and discussed and the general consensus is around 25-30 if I averaged it out.  Some teachers had even given 50.
Me: Do these other teachers teach the same exact students you do?
Her: No, they teach different courses and different subject
Me:  How do the students of other classes and teachers of different subjects have anything to do with your students?
Her: Then who should I be asking?
Me: your students, ask them how important is having 30 assessments, would you prefer less assessment of higher quality or more of lower quality?  We must understand that the more grades we give students, the more we lower the value of everything we have graded to far.
her: Dave, don’t we give more summative assessments to allow for students to have more chances in achieving the best grade possible.
Me: So it sounds as if this strategy has nothing to do with learning.  It sounds as if we are giving more assessments to allow students to get the best score in the “Game” of school.
We then engaged in a discussion around the meaning of assessment and marks.  She started from a belief that there is an actual number of summative assessments which she is required to have for each student.  I hope I showed how wrong this belief was!  Teachers never should have a goal of the number of summative assessments to give students, and in fact we should be aspiring to have zero summative assessments throughout the course and start moving to entirely formative assessments.  The only summative assessment which should occur is at the end of the course, only under the assumption that no more learning can occur.


  1. There is a lot of material to cover. I think teachers use, and over use at times, assessments simply to cover the material. I am finding this more and more with my son. There is simply a lot to cover if you want to do it right. People have expectations for school, especially parents. They want their children to aspire. By the way, wouldn't someone that says zero assessments be as extreme as someone that says 50? The teacher should apply a very good rule of thumb, aim for the middle, and find your way from there. Avoid extremes.

  2. You must teach in a magical land.

  3. Here is a test related issue for you Dave, involving reading instead of math...

  4. I agree that the issue of assessment should not be reduced to "how many" and, even worse, "the more, the better".
    However, I also feel that we need to ask some related questions that may place the issue under a different light.
    What are we assessing, for whom and for what purpose?
    If the answer is, respectively, the acquired skills, for the official record and to have a future reference, then I agree with Dave that no more than 1 test is needed. In fact, the teacher's global assessment may be more truthful and reliable than a common test, no matter how well design it may be.
    But is this what the whole school year is designed to do? Give a reference for future use?
    As Dave keeps hammering, learning should be the primary purpose. From that point of view, assessment should be done at several levels, to assess several aspects, should be primarily for the benefit of the learner (student, if you prefer) and this, again, for several reasons, including future reference and individual's reflection and satisfaction, but also including more factors.
    I grew up and went through school in Italy, all the way up to my B.Sc. Not that the Italian system is perfect, but just to give you a different approach, ALL my assessments included an oral component, during which the teacher would ask the students some starting questions and, following the student's reply, more questions to see how far the student was able to go. I have NEVER seen this done here, except at the graduate level, while I was used to it from grade 1. Here we may have class discussions, but do we have an assessment of this type? Of course "I have never seen it" is not the same as "they are not done", so I would love to stand corrected. But even if I am, it will likely be the exception, not a basic component of the assessment method. Why?
    Again, this is just one example, one can think of many more and I could identify lots of other key aspects of assessment that are usually ignored. But this is a blog, and my daughter is about to leave to go back to Victoria. So, back to you, Bob and Dave...

  5. Oh, and for Anonymous' benefit, yes Red Deer is a magical land, especially at this time of the year: the snow is beautiful...

  6. I agree with you Dave, particularly with your last sentence. However, if there is only one summative assessment, students should have a number of tries. Especially in mathematics, it does a lot more good to have mastered one level before moving on to the next one, so having courses that last for a fixed time and allowing students to accumulate whatever grade that they can (in the "game of school") is far less useful than allowing time flexibility and requiring them to achieve a high level mastery in the final summative assessment.

    University courses typically have few assessments, and the pressure to achieve high grades is great. But this can be very demoralizing ... if you bomb the mid-term test, there go your chances of a high grade, and your stress levels go from high to bursting. Time-flexibility would give every student the opportunity to master the material, and would give them a better chance to succeed at the next level. The "game" aspect of school would be finished, and students and teachers could focus on learning. But universities are very rigid, and making any structural changes is very difficult.