One of the great ironies about teaching is that sometimes it is awfully hard to see the wood for the trees. Teaching is one of those jobs where you can so easily get caught up in the details of every day, and the big picture often gets neglected. This happens a great deal when it comes to assessment. English teachers are especially vulnerable to this charge.
In every school I’ve ever taught in you can always spot the English teachers. they have their heads buried in a pile of marking, and they look harried and under pressure. I know because I am an English teacher. It was somewhere in my fourth or fifth year of teaching that I suddenly realised that I was doing it all wrong. I was working my guts out, and the kids were taking it easy. They only had to write one essay. I had to mark 200! And when I gave them back their scripts, they seldom even glanced at anything other than the mark, if there was one. All my carefully thought out comments went largely unread!
At about the same time, too, I realised that I was not only working too hard for what I was being paid, but that I was also thinking about it all wrong too. By marking all those essays I was assessing product rather than process. And yet, whenever I was in the staff room, I was sounding off about how important it was to teach process rather than product. As we all know, the assessment tail wags the teaching dog. By religiously assessing all those essays I was sending my students a clear message: how you do it is not really important, it’s the result that counts. As one who wanted to challenge that notion, I needed to radically alter my teaching practice.
I decided that what I really needed to do was assess process rather than product. There were two main strategies I adopted in trying to achieve this. Firstly, I started using limited criteria for grading essays. I would only assess whether there was a correctly formatted bibliography, for example, or only assess whether anecdote had been used or not. In this way I hoped to reward students for doing whatever the teaching point of the lesson had been, instead of endlessly rewarding only their ability to produce a final draft of quality.
I also changed what I did in class. I got myself a little stool and used it when moving around the room to sit in front of the student. In this way I could not see what they had written at all. This prevented me from the temptation of answering their questions about what they had written, and forced me to focus questions on how they had gone about writing.
I have been thinking about the whole question of assessing process rather than product again, but this time thinking about how digital technologies might enable this. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a workshop given by Dr Richard Kimbell when he was in South Africa recently. He spoke about the e-scape project he was working on, which uses software to facilitate the uploading of student work and reflection to form an online portfolio of the design process, and can be used to assess process. Students will, for example, at regular intervals take a photograph of what they are doing, or record reflections and upload those.
The software is proprietary. From the website I can see that an e-scape Moodle plugin is contemplated! At my school, the Technology teacher, Dr Sonja Vandeleur and I are very interested in using technology to assess process rather than product, and she has developed a work around solution using her Moodle page. Because Moodle can accommodate any format of file, she gets her students to upload designs and short videos filmed from a camera phone or netbook computer. These can then be assessed at leisure later, and give insight into students’ thinking around the design process.
Technically the process has been somewhat fraught. Our IT Department had to learn to cope with a range of problems caused by students using their own devices, but these are issues that needed to be addressed in any case, and we are a far richer school for having gone through those processes.
The assessment process is also cumbersome, and it is not easy to get a sense of the whole flow of any process using Moodle Assessment modules, but this is an important experiment in design assessment, and I think will be an important step in how we make sense of how to use technology to add significant value to teaching.