Assessment for Humans

As we shifted to remote teaching this spring, we have (hopefully) been reminded to think about humanizing online learning, which Michelle Pacansky-Brock has conceptualized as encompassing not only facilitation (creating a lively, approachable presence that cultivates empathy and awareness) but also course design.

Okay, I thought, I’m human. I can humanize. Yeah, well, I’m also a somewhat private person, so it’s a work in progress. I’ve been guided by colleagues like Kim Vose, who writes powerfully about learning to be vulnerable in front of students, and Rachael Jordan, whose Facebook Live interview showcases targeted strategies for humanized communication.  And I’ve been guided by social scientists like J. Luke Wood, whose Black Minds Matter advocates for ways to incorporate love, compassion and dignity into education, particularly for Black males.  I was struck by his use of a quote from Asa Hilliard: “I have never encountered any children in any group who are not geniuses. There is no mystery on how to teach them. The first thing you do is treat them like human beings and the second thing you do is love them.” This takes me back to Nel Noddings’s work on caring and its relationship to trust. As Nodding puts it, “as we listen to our students, we gain their trust and, in an on-going relation of care and trust, it is more likely that students will accept what we try to teach.”

Yet this blog is about assessment, not humanizing, caring, or trust. See what I did there? I made those binary opposites, when they’re actually part and parcel of the same thing. Because humanizing necessitates awareness of what students know. J. Luke Wood puts it so well: “When educators love Black minds…they will worry about whether or not they understand the material…They will be consumed with knowing whether they are providing the learner with exactly what they need to be successful.” I have a lot still to learn from Wood and others, but one takeaway so far is this: Formative assessment is a key method for humanistic educators to teach humans rather than subjects. And the more we do this, as Noddings points out, the more “we are inspired to increase our own competence.”

Because humanizing necessitates awareness of what students know.

I’m on board, “consumed with knowing,” even. This approach has become second-nature during my face-to-face classes: I ask students to write, to discuss in small groups, to give non-verbal signals, to submit a ticket out or do a ticket in after break. I’m nosy by design, eavesdropping on small group conversations, reading over people’s shoulders, probing with follow-up questions. The resulting in-the-moment data helps to calibrate planned activities, rethink the timing of assignments, and adjust course materials. And I’ve taught long enough and often enough that I feel very comfortable doing this in face-to-face and even in synchronous online environments. Side note: Please bestow a knighthood on whoever invented the chat and breakout room features in Zoom.

But, I still wrestle with this question: How do you collect in-the-moment, essential formative assessment data when the moments are asynchronous?

Some thoughts:

Lower-stakes assessments really showcase student thinking. VoiceThread is perfect at this, plus you can hear actual human voices and sometimes see them on video. The good old Canvas discussion board can work, if you can pose questions that encourage students to be authentic. Google docs, forms and slides can collect and show student thoughts and foster collaboration at the same time. Hypothesis, a Canvas plugin, reveals student thinking via annotations directly on documents (for more on this and other ways to assess student reading, check out my older blog, Academic Reading: Not Sexy, But Essential). Low-stakes quizzes with an open-ended response question are fabulous ways to gauge student understandings; alternatively, assign a few points for a graded survey. Canvas offers an ungraded survey option, too, perfect for mid-semester check-ins to assess student response to course pacing and workload. In fact, Canvas has all sorts of useful analytics about student usage—see Megan Alstot’s terrific blog, Taking Stock.

Beyond low-stakes tasks, I’m also thinking differently about how I assess everything else online. I’ve started treating every grading session as an opportunity to learn about the assignment and my course design at the same time. All it takes is a notepad next to you as you grade—use it to capture that in-the-moment internal narrative that starts rolling once you have graded a virtual handful and start to see patterns. For example, I just finished assessing a VoiceThread for my summer Children’s Literature course. My notes: Next time, clarify the value of challenging young readers and Show students more examples of the kinds of textual features to look for in picture books and ways those features can affect the reading experience. Every course is a work in progress.

I’ve started treating every grading session as an opportunity to learn about the assignment and my course design at the same time.

Finally, I’m remembering the merits of course design. I need to create opportunities to assess, give feedback, and adjust as the semester unfolds, seeding informal, formative assignments as practice for the formal, higher point summative tasks. To make the grading easier, I’ll assess low-stakes assignments with the “complete/incomplete” option in Canvas, while still using my note-taking strategy to record patterns that float to the surface.

Finally, I will make this plan intentional for students in the “Start Here/Do This” page each week. Taking J. Luke Wood to heart, I’m hoping that this strategy will help me to “consider barriers that may emerge in [students’] paths and proactively consider strategies for thwarting those barriers.” 

I’m being Captain Obvious here, but it bears repeating: teaching is hard. During a remote semester, it’s even harder, and more isolating. Yet with student thinking flowing in by design, I’m also reminded that I’m not alone. My students help teach me how to teach them. And that is a very human endeavor.

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