Assessing Student Understanding

Much of this week’s readings center on evaluation. How do we evaluate what students are learning and taking away from the course? Is it through demonstration? Classroom participation? A combination of both? Something else?

The article that resonates with me is Tim Blackmore’s “Play Your Cards Right: A Narrative of First-Year Students’ Reader-Responses,” published in 2002 in The Journal of General Education. In the article, he stresses the importance of cultivating critical thinking skills while nurturing a productive balance of power between the instructor and the students. But, with hundreds of students in his Media Studies classes each semester, most of whom are first-year students who are already struggling to adjust to college life, it’s no small task. So, he began using weekly “idea cards” to gauge how students are comprehending text.

“Every Friday, as part of their total grade, the students hand in what I call idea cards. These are three- by five-inch index cards with one written idea, comment, question, or concern about a course issue.”

He then picks a couple dozen cards that reads two dozen of the cards to help get discussions going. The idea cards help the instructor set the “metanarrative” while letting the students control the discussion; this, in turn, helps create a more even balance of power in the classroom, allowing it to become, when necessary, student-led.

The most significant benefit of letting students choose their discussion topics is that they will often be more relevant and interesting to the students than topics of the instructor’s choosing and, therefore, much more likely to incite a lively discussion or debate. And, he added, it’s a method of assessing students’ understanding of the topics at hand:

“If the students generate their own topics based on texts of their choosing, if I can give the topics a few moments of time, if the students write out their thoughts about those topics in a limited (ideally focused) way, if I can assess those thoughts in a few hours each week, and if I can then discuss some of the cards with the class as a whole, then I am at least making some start at offering assessment.”

In general, Blackmore wants students to be the source of the knowledge, not just the recipient (which ties back to Blau’s Literature Workshop and our discussions last week, where we stressed the importance of creating critical thinkers who are not simply vessels into which the instructor pours his or her knowledge and ideas). He understands that students are thrust into the university community with little or no support and expected to learn and do well, which is a major change for the students that he often he sees that reflected in their writings. It is important to be democratic and ensure that all students’ voices are being heard while still maintaining some authority over the classroom.

Yet, despite Blackmore’s every effort to engage all students, he acknowledges that the system isn’t perfect, especially in large institutions where “factory learning” in classes of 150 or more students is the norm. He ends his article with a sobering observation that highlights the need for educational reform at the university level:

No matter what I saw in the cards, though, no matter how much in this essay I have made a narrative of performance, of competence, to show that the students, a few of the 450 I taught last year, made their way to academic inquiry, still there remain the untouched, the worried, the panicky, the ones I did not reach, the ones who read the newspaper during class, the ones who handed in one card of a possible dozen, and on that one card wrote: What material will be on the exam?


2 thoughts on “Assessing Student Understanding

  1. I absolutely agree that it is a chilling indictment on the state of education, or the value placed on education, that some students are either disinterested or that they are overly focused on assessment and grading. To a certain extent, I think this requires not simply a different approach at universities (although this is needed), but of a rethinking of the entire approach to education. If students have been trained throughout all their school career to base the value of themselves and their learning on tests, we are training them to be overly focused on the outcomes rather than on the process. Ideally, critical thinking and learning skills should be integrated throughout the curriculum at lower levels.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked the idea of students writing one question to bring to class each time. We did this in one of Professor Fox’s classes and it was a great way to start discussions. In an undergraduate class, this would be a nice way to start that is less involved, especially if the class is large. I would follow up in a next level class with blogs like this, which I enjoy and feel are a nice way of bringing our reflections on readings into a more focused discussion.


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