4 Summative Assessment

Before we explore alternatives to direct instruction, we need a short side conversation about assessment. Remember the wisdom of Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” Direct instruction, more than most models assumes you know where the class is supposed to be going. Another way to frame this is Stephen Covey’s “begin with the end in mind“. Or in IT terms, what are the deliverables? As an instructor, you need to deliver lessons. But what must the students deliver? Also, what kind of quality assurance is there to verify the students delivered performances to meet the requirements of the course? The educational theory term for these considerations is Summative Assessment.

Summative Assessment occurs at the end of the class, to verify how much each student has learned. Final exams by their nature are summative. In summative assessments, there are no “do overs”. So depending on how much grading weight goes on the final exam (or any other summative assessment), summative assessments can be high stakes. There are European, Asian, and other countries around the world that think some massively high stakes exam at the end of a school year (or even a school career), is the right way to teach. United States education, in general, tends to favor more frequent, and lower stakes assessments. When student diversity is in play, ultra-high stakes assessments are a bad idea. Underneath racial, gender, age, socio-economic, and every other kind of diversity is a more primal sort of cognitive diversity. This cognitive diversity is often called “learning style”. Assume your students come with all sorts of different learning styles. Some prefer to read. Others prefer to listen. Others do better with videos or illustrations. Some need to be hands-on. Anyway, our “layered” instructional tool kit can handle all sorts of cognitive diversity (following sections will show how), but if the quarter grade is based mostly on a single high stakes exam, your outcome measures will make it look like half the class learned nothing at all. Why? Because narrow measures get narrow data. If it’s all an essay test, you lose students uncomfortable with reading or writing. If it’s all a multiple choice test, you lose students who are more creative or hands-on. If it’s all a performance test, even students who basically know the content may freeze up due to performance anxiety.  If you put all your assessment eggs in one basket, prepare to break a lot of eggs!

There is nothing unreasonable about requiring students to demonstrate learning at the end of the quarter. Handing out the equivalent of “participation trophies” to every student does students no favors. Grade inflation has predictably led employers to discount transcripts and grade point averages as measures of student employment-worthiness.  So having an actual grading standard (something for students to live up to), is by far the preferred approach. But to make high standards work for students who start the class in very different places, you need to create multiple pathways up the mountain, so to speak. For diversity education, diversify summative assessments first and foremost. Don’t base more than about 20% of the exam grade on any one thing. Mix and match essays, demonstrations, factual questions, opinion questions, calculations, and recall. Don’t make failure on any one activity tantamount to failure on the whole exam. For complex questions (like essays, demonstrations, or lengthy calculations) give partial credit as appropriate, based on demonstrated partial understanding. Even on a summative assessment like a final exam, recognizing an underlying continuous improvement model is valid. In IT, there is always a “next version”. Schools arbitrarily force quarter grade submission at specific calendar dates, but it’s still a good idea to act as if the student can pick up where they left off in the “next version.” Remember that classes are part of pathways, pathways are part of degree programs, and degree programs are part of lifelong learning. In this greater scheme of things, a given final exam is just one of many milestones.


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Making Connections: Instructors Guide for Information Technology Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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