“…tests and grades are anathema to andragogy, which assumes adults are capable of self-evaluating their own learning.” (as cited in Merriam & Bierema, 2014 p. 57/58)
So last year I decided that it was time that I learned how to swim. I mean, I could doggie paddle myself from one end of the pool to the other, but it would take forever and I’d be exhausted. I wanted to be able to swim front crawl, and I wanted to do it well. I signed up for a set of adult lessons at the local community centre, and off I went.
Now, the quote above suggests to me that I should have been able to self-evaluate my learning, during and at the end of my 8 weeks of lessons. And I suppose on some level I could; I knew that I could do the front crawl and that I had definitely learned a lot. And while I think that self evaluation of learning happens in the real world, when we test our changed behaviours or ideas and see how they work out, I really did need my instructor to tell me what I was and wasn’t getting. I was moving forward, and at a rate that was much improved, but each little evaluation and adjustment that my instructor provided helped me to learn more and get even better.
Perhaps that’s a role that I didn’t realize an instructor or a course designer could play; we can show people a potential for learning that is beyond what they may have realized on their own. In the pool, and in lakes and oceans since, I have been able to swim. The world tells me that I have learned enough, but the evaluation (via a grade) provided to me in my classes told me that I could learn even more.
I suppose that inherent in that idea is why grades and tests can be detrimental to the learning process, because if they are poorly aligned with the learning outcomes they can actually cause students to learn less than they should. But isn’t it then the job of the instructor to ensure that these tests are evaluating what they should, instead of just deciding that all tests are bad?
I don’t currently use tests, grades, or really any form of evaluation in the workshops I facilitate. They are voluntarily attended job search workshops, and I think that evaluations of participants’ learning hasn’t even really discussed, as there was no traditional reason for it. However, as I consider more critically the value of tests and grades, I can see the use for them even in this type of setting.
If a participant attends a resume workshop with me, right now his only option for learning evaluation is self-evaluation, and the feedback he will get as he uses his new resume to apply for jobs. However, the real world of job search is so complex and multilayered that it would be nearly impossible for him to get timely feedback through his job search, and the personal nature of job search materials can make it extremely difficult to self-evaluate objectively. I think that this is an excellent example of a situation in which a well-designed test could assess learning and assigning a grade, of sorts, could alert a participant to her own need for further instruction or support. Plenty of students come into workshops with resumes that they believe are ‘good enough’, but in the world of job search and many other real life settings, good enough probably won’t cut it.
I think that I have avoided using testing or grades in the past sometimes because I am afraid to make the students in my classroom feel ‘bad’. I have used the argument that they are adults, they choose to be there and they will choose what they get out of their time in the workshop; I realize now that I may have been doing them a disservice. While I will argue that adults are capable of self-assessment, I will also happily argue that adults can struggle mightily to be objective when it comes to their own abilities or skills. Sometimes they will need an objective, outside party that can provide them with feedback on their learning before they get the opportunity to use it in the real world.
I know that I will need to work on changing the way that I deliver workshops, to hold my students’ learning to a higher standard and not be nervous to tell them when they need more support. They deserve to be provided with expectations that will encourage them to reach beyond what they are doing now, and I believe that this will enhance their capacity for learning, not stifle it.
Merriam, S. B. & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.