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  • Writer's pictureDave Taylor

Academic Evaluation as a Learning Tool

Representative and fair academic evaluation instruments are certainly difficult to develop, and even harder to consistently implement and assess. I present this perspective as food for thought for those out there who are responsible for evaluating student learning, with respect to the assessment of successful performance of required knowledge and skill acquisition needed by a student to achieve a successful exit from a course of study.

Let’s say a student writes their first exam in a course and scores 60% based on the subjective assessment of the faculty member responsible for the evaluation. At that specific point in time, the 60% approximately and may rightly represent the student’s acquisition of a mediocre, yet satisfactory level of performance outcomes covered by the assessment to that point in time by the professor in charge of the course.

Upon review of the 40% of the exam where the student fell below acceptable standards, if facilitated by the professor, the student may then realize their errors and now has the ability to take corrective action and improve their understanding and level of successful performance within the course material covered thus far. If this corrective action is successfully pursued by the student, the student’s level of knowledge now represents greater than what the previously attained 60% grade indicates for specific outcomes.

Where subsequent evaluation instruments allow for the student to then demonstrate their areas of improvement and increased acquisition of required performance outcomes provides for a true assessment of the student’s level of understanding at present rather than their level in the past. This is where a larger weight for assessments later in the course, or for heavily weighted terminal comprehensive exams may support the student’s ability to appropriately gain a grade that will more accurately represent their current level of knowledge consistent with course performance outcomes at the end of the course.

I would suggest that the goal of evaluation and assessment within a course at the terminal point of exiting the course, is that the student’s grade should represent their level of performance outcome acquisition at the point of graduation from the course, rather than what their performance level was early in the course.

While you can’t save every student, a teacher’s responsibility must be to make every effort to have each serious and dedicated student exit their course with increased knowledge and/or skills that are required for success within the program of study and eventual real-world performance.

We should really see evaluation instruments as tools for learning, and not as weapons used to demoralize students without a chance for recovery. Evaluations that are written to cover mutually exclusive segments of course material holding similar weights, (ie: 4 tests @ 25% each spaced throughout the course) penalize actual learning by the student through assessment. If the process of evaluation is seen by the professor as a tool for learning, why not then allow for assessment subsequent to mediocre or failed test results to demonstrate that actual learning has been achieved through prior evaluations? Isn’t that the real role of the educator, to facilitate actual learning?

When some evaluators are asked why they don’t allow a student to rewrite, or recover a bad grade through additional assessment, some respond with the answer of... “they had their chance with that material”. I find that response somewhat frustrating as it doesn’t support actual student learning and allow for advanced pedagogical techniques.

I know that time spent by professors marking papers and grading exams is a time consuming and onerous undertaking, especially when the numbers in a specific class are high. I am not advocating for re-writes on every failed exam, but for the use of evaluation as a learning tool early on in a course of study, within the course, and leading to a comprehensive final assessment. The individual’s learning throughout the course may then be demonstrated and a final representative grade may more accurately be assigned that reflects the student’s current level of proficiency with course outcomes.

Admittedly, there are instances within critical evaluations where mistakes and sub-standard student performance, such as clinical settings in applied health programming, the student must perform to required standards for important safety reasons. Less rigorous attention to vital performance standards in these situations could result in undesirable outcomes for all stakeholders. Obviously, discretion is needed in these situations.

In general, using evaluation as a tool for learning, academic assessments should strive to optimally move the student’s level of performance throughout the course with a grade that more accurately represents their level of relevant proficiency at the end of the course of study.

Something to think about.

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