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What Do Students Think of Assessment? Not What You Might Expect

August 27, 2019

Anni Yaringa, Vocational Educator

Anni Yaringa, Vocational Educator
27th Aug 2019 — 3 min read

The educational value of student assessment can be divisive among trainers. Some believe that learning has great value without formal assessment, while others argue that assessment is a requirement for monitoring student progress; a true evaluation of student learning. But what do students think of assessment?

To better understand their point of view, I asked two different groups (30 students total) for their opinions of assessment. The students in question were young males in the first year of trade apprenticeships, fresh out of secondary school, new to the adult experiences of driving, drinking alcohol, and earning their own money. This stage of their lives is filled with distraction, which typically pushes learning and assessment to the back of their minds.

I asked whether they valued assessment, and how they thought assessment contributed to their learning journey. The answers were surprising. I can’t claim that the following is representative of other students, even those in a similar context. Rather, I summarise their responses simply to provide food for thought.

Many of them viewed assessment results as a kind of competition among themselves, but rather than a competition between all students in class, they recognised three tiers: bright, average, and strugglers. The sense of competition was confined to each tier—the strugglers didn’t feel pressured by the average and bright students, and only compared themselves to people within their own tier. If they gained a result relatively higher in their tier, they felt a sense of pride. Conversely, if they gained a result lower than average, they felt sorrow. 

In addition to this, every so often a student would arbitrarily assign themselves to a different tier based on where they felt they belonged; their status within the class was linked to some extent on their ability to outperform others, with assessment used as a way to climb the social ladder.

On the question of whether assessments motivated them to learn, the responses varied. Generally, the students said they practised questions in preparation for tests but didn’t see that as learning. They appeared motivated to learn what they perceived as valuable and useful to their work, but suffered through the revision required to pass assessments. This suggests that student testing itself is not perceived as valuable other than to meet the formal obligations of their course and apprenticeship.

This leads to the interesting insight that the students didn’t necessarily equate assessment results with how well they were learning. In general, the assessments were considered checkpoints to be navigated in order to progress through the course. The general feeling was that an assessment could be passed without truly understanding the subject matter! The extent to which they understood class discussion was thought by some to be a better gauge of their learning. When asked for clarification, I was told that passing a test was partly an indication of how good you were at tests, rather than a measure of how well you knew the material.

So do students think of assessment as a valuable way to learn? Not this particular group. They see it as a necessary barrier to overcome, in order to advance with their apprenticeship. This surprising feedback has led me to be more conscious when working with these students, with an attempt to portray classroom discussion and assessment preparation as a continuum of learning, rather than separate activities for different purposes. 

The purpose of assessment is clear for some trainers: when assessment dangers are successfully skirted, it’s considered one of the most effective ways to measure student learning. But this small cross-section of students need some convincing.

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