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Thursday, July 15, 2010

I just know...

I am currently reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink. In that book, Gladwell discusses the phenomenon of how we know something immediately that might take a lengthy time to discern by reason, and, indeed, reason may never arrive at at all. He call this thin slicing. Thin slicing is how we frequently assess our students and how well they are learning a subject. We look at the class, we talk with them either en masse or as individuals, and we just know how well they are doing.

And, if you have been teaching as long as I have, you know you can still frequently be wrong.

So, in addition, we also employ classroom assessment techniques of a more formal nature like giving exams, etc. As we have to give a written report (i.e. a grade) to the registrar at the end of each semester on the achievements of our students, having a paper trail to back up our assessments is a wise thing to do as our students might have a differing opinion. Indeed, most of the time the grade is constituted of the grades of assignments on which the student received feedback as an opportunity to improve his performance. The wise student looks at his grade, looks at his assignment, and then acts in a way to improve his performance.

This provides a nice model of what we are doing ourselves in what is called the process of assessment. We are teaching ourselves to teach. When we obtained our final degrees, we were set loose in the world with the expectation that we would be independent learners. Assessment should provide us a tool for that. We grade ourselves (honestly!) on how well we have performed a task and apply the data, which is always constituted of more than just the final grade, in order to improve our performance.

Thin slicing has its place in assessment, and, indeed, our "gut" might be our final arbiter, but it has the same shortcomings there as it does in the classroom. Having a simple, natural system for assessment in place is vital in improving our student's educational experience.

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