I’m studying an Art History Masters with the OU at the moment, so I’m going to do a couple of quick posts related to that. I’ll talk about it in general terms in the next post, but wanted to focus on one aspect at then moment, which is assessment.
Assessment has a bad press these days. If you want to be a hipster in the ed tech world, and get lost of cool keynote invites where you say ‘out of the box’ things, then a pretty good line to take is “we should do away with all assessment”. The general feeling is that as soon as you start to assess something you kill it, people start to respond to the assessment rather than learning ‘naturally’, it is a control technique, etc. Let the learner be free.
Okay, I’m being a tad sarcastic, but you’ll have seen this kind of thing floating around on blogs, twitter and at conferences. It’s a trendy thing to say. Assessment is for squares. And it is likely true that we over assess children, particularly in the UK, and that a lot of assessment is boring and deemed irrelevant.
But learners quite like assessment, it motivates them, and helps them structure their learning. They are operating in an alien landscape often, and assessment acts like a map. If they follow these paths they will reach the goal. Often I feel that the anti-assessment voices are based on their own experience, of being confident, experienced learners, and are not really focused on what learners themselves like. It is also an excellent way to give, and receive, feedback.
Which brings me on to my experience (to be guilty of what I just accused others of doing). I’m studying Art History, a domain I know very little about, so although I’m an experienced learner, I’m a newbie in this landscape. I feel quite lost a lot of the time. The forums help a bit, the material is well written and structured. But the assessment is the key. These have been just standard essays so far, nothing radical. But in doing them I have engaged with different material, been forced to structure my thoughts and got to grips with key concepts. I’m just about to submit my second assignment (2,500 words on the concept of style in art history). I did okay on my first assignment, and that was important to find out, that I can do this. I’m also, despite all I know about education (or maybe because of it) not a great student. Assessment is the key manner in which I structure what I have to do, without it I would have wandered away and not come back.
The role of assessment is particularly important for distance students who don’t have a lecturer engaging with them regularly. Maybe in the Oxbridge small tutor group model, you can have less assessment because you have such regular interaction, but for distance ed, it’s vital, which is why the OU made it such a central component of their supported open learning model (soon to be rediscovered by a MOOC company near you). I know a lot of assessment is boring, but just wanted to give it a thumbs up from a learner perspective. Essays are useful – who knew?