Wednesday, 12 August 2015

A Permanent Solution to the dilemma in assessment of learner performance

A Permanent Solution

This piece discusses what happens at the end of learning over a given period of time in mass education through schools and colleges run by government or private trusts or organisations.

Award of numbers (say, out of 100) or grades (letters A, B, C, D) as indicators of learner performance levels as pass or fail or distinction in annual exams conducted by schools for promotion to higher class and end-of-year/semester exams conducted by external examining bodies for award of qualifications such as certificates, diplomas and degrees and also as the first qualifying step to deciding study scholarships, to pursuits in higher education and job getting has been in vogue for centuries as the evaluation tool. Equally importantly, such award builds or destroys self-confidence, erodes self-esteem and self-belief of individual learners.

The implications of such evaluation are self evident. Subject knowledge is gained not for acquisition and permanent retention of knowledge for lifelong use but for securing high marks or grades which form the basis for any kind of progress—scholarships, admission to higher education institutions, job getting. As a result, learners typically fail to make important connection between concepts within and across the subject areas they’re studying and they forget quickly and easily the knowledge they’ve acquired. This is definitely true of students in India and may be true in the case of students elsewhere in the world. Besides, Low marks or low grades have their own consequences: disappointment, frustration, undue mental stress that students experience when they go unrecognised and this may even lead to unwanted social behaviours.

One improvement to this has been to evaluate learner performance through internal assessment as formal (as mandatory by bodies governing education at different levels) or informal (teacher’s efforts to make a comprehensive assessment) means. The formal one has had its critics and the informal one is rather subjective.

An alternative indicator could be descriptive evaluation. In a forum in Linkedin an excellent teacher asks:
      Is it not enough to simply graduate from a programme with a certificate,
      diploma, or degree that states a learner's competencies in an intuitive and
      understandable way (e.g. with descriptors) instead of opaque, abstract numbers
      and letters?
But it’s not just viable in a scenario where thousands or hundreds of thousands have to be evaluated.

I go one step further—a really long jump, it may be felt, but worth considering and implementing.

Two things are evident. Our evaluation system doesn’t ensure retention of knowledge. Two, we’ve taken it upon ourselves what should be the responsibility of learners, namely learning. In other words, we education providers are the guilty party.

How do we get learners to take responsibility of learning on their shoulder?

Learners go through the learning process—listening to teachers and reading related literature including the textbooks as they complete syllabuses for a given period of years, receive course completion certificates at different levels (school, college), compete for jobs and higher education courses, exhibit the knowledge level they’ve acquired, get selected and move further or get stagnant. Now they’ll realise that the fault lies with them and they haven’t learnt enough. They will stay stagnant if they don’t make the effort. Now they are the authors of their own success or failure. 

(Of course, governments will have to educate the parents, students, teachers, employers and higher institutions what’s in store for them.)

Two things happen as a result. Employing agencies and higher education institutions will have a huge task of evaluating hundreds of thousands of learners. They shouldn’t complain because now they can select really knowledgeable candidates. Once this system is introduced, it will take some time for how the system now works to sink in in the minds of students and their parents. But then they’ll soon settle down to this inevitable environment and get down to the business of learning. And now the burden of learning will be on the right shoulders.

Of course, this is not to say award of marks or grades is to be done away with. Grades or marks are to be used solely for the purpose of award of scholarships. But they should not decide the future of learners, they should not affect them emotionally; now it’s learners who will decide their future by learning or not learning, by retaining knowledge gained or not retaining knowledge gained.