Assessment Strategies as Formative Evaluation

Article excerpt

Abstract

Writing is often misused as an assessment tool. This paper suggests faculty use evaluation strategies based in liberatory pedagogy as part of student-centered classrooms, so that assessment can be moved away from summative evaluation to serve a more formative role in the writing process. Strategies are given to help faculty use formative techniques to improve student writing and thinking skills.

Background

Using writing as an interdisciplinary method of learning and assessing has long been the focus of Writing Across the Curriculum programs. Once exposed to the general philosophies, faculty often find WAC methods logical and compelling ways to enhance student learning in their respective disciplines. Inevitably, the focus turns to assessment, and many faculty are stymied, looking for appropriate ways to evaluate student writing projects. As one study indicates, most writing assessment takes the form of written comments that often serve the rhetorical purpose of justifying the letter grade (Connors and Lunsford). We have all been programmed to think of standard assessment practices as summative evaluations that measure how well instruction has taken place. If we subjectively read student's written projects, write comments, and mark surface-level errors, then we are performing the traditional methods of summative assessment. The problem with this method is that it is part of a top-down, teacher-centered process that does not serve to help students become better writers and better thinkers, nor does it allow students to use their writing as a learning tool.

Moving Away From Standard Assessment

Unfortunately, we cannot do away with grading altogether. We are part of an institutional matrix that requires evaluating student achievement and assigning grades. Since we cannot step out of that role completely, we must alter our perceptions of the process and our reactions to it. At odds with the summative form of evaluation is the current pedagogical constructivist theory which "emphasizes problem solving, critical-thinking skills, engagement, and cooperation" and advocates the process of learning as more important than any of the products we create (Wolcott and Legg 9, italics in original). Brian Huot suggests that such a shift in pedagogy argues for a "new, shared discourse for understanding assessment as a positive force [...]" (165). Finding that shared discourse, however, is often difficult because we have not been trained to assess a process. Most of our training and understanding of assessment stems from a background where assessment functions as a final evaluation. However, in a new framework of learning which values the learning process, we are challenged to "develop valid performance assessments that capture these processes, and at the same time, allow generalizations to be drawn about students' understanding of a broad subject area" (Wolcott and Legg 9). Thus, assessment should be thought of in two ways: as formative evaluation that allows for improved instruction while learning is still taking place, and as performance assessment that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge through the actual performance of their abilities (Wolcott and Legg 4-5).

Additionally, assessment must take into consideration the recursive nature of the writing process and expound on the philosophy of writing to learn strategies. If we want to improve assessment, we must do it by shifting the philosophy of our grading. We do not want to get our students used to having somebody "fix" their papers or find their errors. We want students to be able to revise their writing based on comments that we make that would prompt revision, rather than justifying the grade we place. In essence, it becomes the difference between "grading" a set of papers and "responding" to a set of papers (Bean 242). More than semantic choices, these are actually two competing philosophies. The first, an editing-orientation, would produce a marked paper with errors identified. …