Recently I’ve heard two different people say the following about assessment:
- Assessment is the driver for all learning (in HE)
- Active learning and assessment are the same thing
I think that both of these statements are obviously wrong, or they ought to be.
I can, sadly, understand how assessment becomes the motivating factor for many students because the stresses of being a student and the pressure to always get the best grade override any joy that there might be in learning for the sake of learning, so I can appreciate (1) being said, at least as an observation about the current state of affairs in HE.
The last semester that I taught undergraduate philosophy was particularly fraught, with many tutorials being cancelled due to union strikes and others snowed off, but one event stands out, even now. A particularly bright student went off at a tangent, and I suggested some reading that might interest him, probably some Wittgenstein. After the tutorial, a group complained to the course convenor that I was wasting their time by talking about materials that would not be needed for the final exam. This wasn’t the only reason that I handed in my notice and walked away from that post, but it was a contributing factor.
However, (2) just strikes me as bizarre. Putting to one side my issues with the term ‘active learning’ (I don’t believe that learning can be passive – for learning to be happening, there must be something active ‘in the learner’s head’), then I think that we could reasonably assert that a student who is working on an assessment is actively learning, but that does not entail that all (active) learning is or involves assessment. When I reflect on the times that I have learnt the most, they have usually had nothing to do with assessment. The serious fun that happens during experiences such as #CLMooc, #DS106 and the rhizos have led to some of the most meaningful learning that I’ve ever experienced – and assessment most definitely had no part in those experiences.
The bright student in my story above might have ended up using the ‘extra’ learning he had done as part of a future assessment, or he might not – learning is not contingent on past or future assessment. All of this shows that active learning and assessment are not the same thing, and that there can be learning without assessment. And I think I am going to go further and assert that there can also be a type of learning that happens despite assessment. If students are over assessed, as they sometimes can be, then any extra curricula activity – and the meaningful learning that happens as a result of serendipity – will have to be fitted in somehow. And if there is pressure, from whichever direction, to teach to the test, then the keen student who strays beyond the required materials will be learning despite assessment.
Assessment has its place, and accreditation is important. But assessment is not the whole picture, and we should firmly resist anyone who suggests that it is.