Assessment in an outcomes based curriculum

I attended a seminar / short course on campus yesterday, presented by Prof. Chrissie Boughey from Rhodes University. She spoke about the role of assessment in curriculum development and the link between teaching and assessing. Here are the notes I took.

Assessment is the most important factor in improving learning because we get back what we test. Therefore assessment is acknowledged as a driver of the quality of learning.

Currently, most assessment tasks encourage the reproduction of content, whereas we should rather be looking for the production of new knowledge (the analyse, evaluate and create parts of Bloom’s top level cognitive processes).

Practical exercise: Pick a course / module / subject you currently teach (Professional Ethics for Physiotherapists), think about how you assess it (Assignment, Test, Self-study, Guided reflection, Written exam) and finally, what you think you’re assessing (Critical thinking / Analysis around ethical dilemmas in healthcare, Application of theory to clinical practice). I went on to identify the following problems with assessment in the current module:

  • I have difficulty assigning a quantitative grade to what is generally a qualitative concept
  • There is little scope in the current assessment structure for a creative approach

This led to a discussion about formal university structures that determine things like, how subjects will be assessed, as well as the regimes of teaching and learning (“we do it this way because this is the way it’s always been done”). Do they remove your autonomy? It made me wonder what our university official assessment policy is.

Construct validity: Are we using assessment to asses something other than what we say we’re assessing? If so, what are we actually assessing?

There was also a question about whether or not we could / should asses only what’s been formally covered in class. How do you / should you asses knowledge that is self-taught? We could for example, measure the process of learning, rather than the product. I made a point that in certain areas of what I teach, I no longer assign a grade to an individual peice of work and rather give a mark for the progress that the student has made, based on feedback and group discussion in that area.

Outcomes based assessment / criterion referenced assessment

  1. Uses the principle of ALIGNMENT (aligning learning outcomes, passing criteria, assessment)
  2. Is assessing what students should be able to do
  3. “Design down” is possible when you have standardised exit level outcomes (we do, prescribed by the HPCSA)
  4. The actual criteria are able to be observed and are not a guess at a mental process, “this is what I need to see in order to know that the student can do it”
  5. Choosing the assessment tasks answers the question “How will I provide opportunities for students to demonstrate what I need to see?” When this is the starting point, it knocks everything else out of alignment
  6. You need space for students / teachers to engage with the course content and to negotiate meaning or understanding of the course requirements, “Where can they demonstrate competence?”

Criteria are negotiable and form the basis of assessment. They should be public, which makes educators accountable.

When designing outcomes, the process should be fluid and dynamic.

Had an interesting conversation about the priviliged place of writing in assessment. What about other expressions of competence? Since speech is the primary form of communication (we learn to speak before we learn to write), we find it easier to convey ideas through conversation, as it includes other cues that we use to construct meaning. Writing is a more difficult form because we lack visual (and other) cues. Drafting is one way that constructing meaning through writing could be made easier. The other point I thought was interesting was that academic writing is communal (drafting, editors, reviewers all provide a feedback mechanism that isn’t as fluid as speech, but is helpful nonetheless), but we often don’t allow students to write communally.

Outcomes based assessment focusses on providing students with multiple opportunities to practice what they need to do, and the provision of feedback on that practice (formative). Eventually, students must demonstrate achievement (summative).

We should only assign marks when we evaluate performace against the course outcomes.

Finally, in thinking about the written exam as a form of assessment, we identified these characteristics:

  • It is isolated and individual
  • There is a time constraint
  • There is pressure to pass or fail

None of these characteristics are present in general physiotherapy practice. We can always ask a colleage / go to the literature for assistance. There is no constraint to have the patient fully rehabilitated by any set time, and there are no pass or fail criteria.

If assessment is a method we use to determine competence to perform a given task, and the way we asses isn’t related to the task physio students will one day perform, are we assessing them appropriately?

Note: the practical outcomes of this session will include the following:

  • Changing the final assessment of the Ethics module from a written exam to a portfolio presentation
  • Rewriting the learning outcomes of the module descriptors at this year’s planning meeting
  • Evaluating the criteria I use to mark my assignments to better reflect the module outcomes