On Evaluation

(and sorry for being so very, very late with this…)

My kids, aged 14 and 12, often discuss their grades. Actually, in Norssi alakoulu, no numbers are used, instead, the evaluation is given as verbal feedback. In yläkoulu, however, the kids are evaluated numerically – finally, as my kids feel! It seems to be very important to have grades, somehow more adult maybe. Be as it may, the fact is that also the students in alakoulu often transform their verbal evaluation into numbers.

Not only youngsters, but also professional pedagogy people seem to appreciate numeral grading, which never seizes to baffle me. I belong to a group planning and giving a nationwide blended learning course (partly face to face, mostly in Moodle) in feminist pedagogy. In the group, my senior colleague, actually someone who in some sense really brought feminist pedagogy to Finland in 1990s, has recently participated in a university pedagogy course (YPE), a course for the personnel at the University of Helsinki. As a part of the course, there was a group work (test) that was evaluated with numbers (5: excellent; 4; very good etc.). My colleague, with her group, got a 5, and she has been bragging about it ever since. And, when asking, she says that it was not that their work was appreciated, but exactly the number 5 that mad her happy, and it would not have been the same, if the feedback was “only” verbal.

Having myself been a really “good girl” all the way from ala-aste to university and aiming at the best grades always I do see her point. This notwithstanding, after being forced to give grades to university students as an assistant, and later, a lecturer, and especially along the several pedagogy courses I have taken, I have started to feel very uncomfortable with grading. I know how arbitrary numbers really are. I have realized that learning cannot be measured from outside, and that every effort is more or less doomed to fail.

This of course has to do with my epistemological position. I suppose I have internalised the post-modern or post-structuralist – a social-constructivist – idea of knowledge as not something “truthful” and “pure”, but instead as a process, and as co-created. I do not think it is even possible for a teacher to “feed” the students with existing knowledge. As a teacher or a supervisor in university context, I understand my role as a guide or as someone who is taking part in the process of co-creating knowledge. I may at best be able to give advice, to be consulted, about how to create knowledge, but I cannot simply hand any coherent package of knowledge to anybody. It is for them (us) to produce. Knowing is a process.

So, when giving grades to students, what should I evaluate? Especially in an EMI context: what is it that I am supposed to measure? The content, not the language skills, I suppose, but can I separate these two (especially after confessing myself in my first blog that I feel really stupid with my limited English language skills as I cannot properly explain anything a bit more complicated than the basic everyday mundane stuff in English).

After expressing my doubts, I have to admit that grades may be valuable in motivating students. To take another example of my life: perhaps it has been too easy to leave the assignments undone during this TACE course just because I have known from the beginning that I will not be given a grade. This may be true on the one hand, but on the other hand, it has been a relief that the teachers of this course have been flexible and patient with all the delays related to my performance. It is probably because you know and share the experience of not having enough time for all the tasks one is expected to do.

And since the contemporary university institution is based on utilizing the employees and giving almost nothing (such as positions, tenure) in return, even if the course was graded, I would have perhaps thought that a moderate OK number will be enough. The constant hurry and pressure has really swiped away the girl that always aimed at having 10 as her grade. Today, it is simply impossible, if one is about to sleep at night.

The thoughts above were brought about by Atjonen’s (2007) thoughts on ethics in assessment. It is truly important to ask the following questions related to assessment:

  • what is assessed
  • why (is the aim to motivate, give feedback, or correct mistakes)
  • who does the assessment (the teacher, the student herself, peers)
  • how is  the evaluation done
  • when is it done: it might not be pedagogically wise to give the evaluation only after the course when it is too late to change anything; some evaluation during the course, for example in the middle of it, might be in order to emphasise the processual nature of learning.

It is also crucial to pose the question of what could ethical assessment be. Would it take into account the differences in the classroom? The variety of teaching and learning methods, the variety of personalities and their compatibility? How could it be made sure that the evaluation is fair and based on justice instead of biased observation or rewarding the students to be similar with the evaluator (which is called cultural cloning)? Do we actually assess language skills instead of progress? Do we allow sufficient emphasis on different backgrounds? Can we guarantee that different does not equal wrong?

All in all, the basic question that everybody – no matter whether assessing or being assessed – should ask, is: are we doing the assessment of learning OR assessment for learning? If it is the former, how could we change it into the latter?

Leave a Reply