Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Assessment and Blind Dates

Jeff Pettit’s Fear

The fear of assessment feels like the fear of a blind date. It seems like some person I don’t know will sit down, take a brief glimpse of who they think I am and then criticize me for something I do or something I say or something I don't do or something I don't say, or just out-right fails to see how great I am, despite my flaws.

Currently, for the most part, assessment is like the morning look in the mirror: working alone, fixing what can be fixed, briefly regretting the imperfections, … self-critiquing before heading out the door. I agree with Phil Seder's post from Nov 2 that this kind of self-critique is largely how most individual teachers improve, and the only improvement most teachers have time for. I don't agree with him that assessment should be abandoned to the status quo of teachers-as-islands and Peter Seaman's post from Nov 8 is a clear outline that there is a better way.

Assessment is not brief; it is recursive. Assessment is not a glimpse, but a continually improving probe into any area to which it is applied. It is not done by someone I don't know; here at PCC it is done by you and by me.

Assessment is also several separate things. It is Instructors assessing students to maximize their learning; I’m not going to talk about that much. It is also assessing Instructors to maximize their instruction; this is the look in the mirror. I’m going to talk about that a little. Most importantly, at least at this point in time for PCC overall, it is assessing courses, programs and everything departmental in the learning process. This is what I want to talk about, because this is what we fear.

We at PCC are in a unique position and I am relieved and glad for it. We have been told to assess PCC (courses, programs, departments, etc.) effectively, so we must. This is a new atmosphere from decades past, and some are saying, “No I won’t, because I’m afraid when you look at courses, you might take a peek at me and find fault in me and fire me.” This resistance to assessment is tilting at windmills, which are turning by the winds of change. But when viewed without fear, assessment is not a mandate to change, but an opportunity to improve. And by improve, I mean improve everything from curriculum, to textbook choice, to course outcomes, to instructor and student support. As other educational institutions drive improvement from the hierarchy above, or from private assessment companies, or in the case of No Child Left Behind, from the government, we at PCC get to trust the job of assessment to ourselves.

If we are to assess, this is the least frightening scenario. But it is, for most people, frightening nonetheless. Of all the good people at PCC with whom I’ve discussed assessment, none of them seems afraid of assessing themselves, or assessing others, or assessing courses, or departments, or administrators. But nearly all hold some fear of others assessing them! This fear spills over into a fear of assessment overall. When we imagine others looking at us (or even near us) in order to make improvements it would be difficult not to be afraid. Accepting criticism from others (whether it reflects on our own short-comings or the short-comings of our department) requires trust, vulnerability and openness. So the real question is this: do you trust your colleagues? Should you trust them? If you trust them completely, there should be no fear. If you don’t trust them, the problem is either your difficulty in trusting people, or their difficulty in trustworthiness. Maybe both. If you have trouble trusting people, stop it. But if our colleagues are not trustworthy, what then? I don’t know. Perhaps faith.

Or perhaps we can remove them from the process. The strangers and the untrustworthy are not asking what we are doing in our classes. We are simply tasked with assessing and improving our overall method of improvement. We are not being asked to prove we are good at our jobs.

This leads me to my following vision for assessment: Empirical relevant data is regularly and anonymously gathered from all Instructors teaching a set of particular courses. Student performance is pooled and posted internally. Neither student names nor instructor names are recorded nor is data organized or connected by class. However, (and this is where I am talking about individual Instructors improving themselves) Instructors can privately compare their students’ data to the over-all data if they record it before submitting (perhaps the assessment is even used by most Instructors as part of the students’ class assessment). Instructors can use this information to improve individually. More importantly, on the department level, based on the overall data, improvements and support are offered to improve courses overall. But the key is data, accurate data. Data data data. And accurate data can only come when we are free of fear – when everyone participates, when no one tries to gloss over imperfections as if they are on a blind date, when we all work together to improve PCC. This scenario can work because currently all that is being asked for externally is a workable method (and continually improving method) of gathering data, not the data itself. No one other than I would need to see how well my students are doing; no one outside the department would need see how well the department is doing. Privacy, in fact, will increase the accuracy of the data, increase participation, and reduce (eliminate?) fear! As long as the method of generating accurate and meaningful data is continually improved, the machine is alive and evolving and limitless.

True to my discipline, I will close with a mathematical proof.


  1. Course improvements are implemented by Instructors.
  2. Each instructor can improve.
  3. Each Instructor is either able to improve or is not able to improve and either desires to improve or does not desire to improve.

  4. Now, let T be a member from the set of all teachers who are able to improve and desire to improve (that's probably everybody). Because T needs to improve, T is imperfect. If T relies solely on T's-self for improvement, T's improvement is limited due to imperfection.

Therefore, T should not rely solely on T for improvement; otherwise improvement will be finitely limited.

Likewise, unless T's mentor is a demigod (which would contradict “2)” which is given), if T relies solely on advice from other teachers (T1, T2, … , Tn) for improvement, the limit of improvement might be larger, but still finitely limited due to individual imperfection (proven above).

Since T cannot improve based solely on other T’s, any course, degree or department created by a set of T’s is limited and will eventually reach it’s limited potential.

However, recursive assessment of courses is unbounded and therefore provides the possibility of infinite data, which must, by definition, be infinitely useful.

Therefore, in order to achieve limitless improvement: all teachers in the set of teachers that wish to improve themselves, their courses, their departments and PCC overall should set-up an accurate and continually improving system applied in such a way that no one is afraid of it. The continually improving system that everyone creates should gather data about how well students are learning, and base improvement on that data. In doing so we will not only continually and limitlessly improve, but also help others to overcome fear! Now everything is better and everyone is happier!


Jeff Pettit is a math instructor here at PCC. He was an active (and fun!) participant in the Assessment class in Fall 2010 (The class is offered through the Learning Assessment Council -- watch for announcements of future classes.) He agreed to write a blog, and reveal to us some of his thinking process about assessment....

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