Assessment is an integral part of the teaching-learning process. During the pandemic period, teachers are desperately looking for online methods to accurately assess a learner’s knowledge, ability and skill.
There are diverse issues to be addressed, such as how to proctor an online exam; how to avoid copying so that grades are allotted in a fair fashion; and how to get descriptive/step wise answers through online exams.
Several measures -- from simple online questionnaire forms to browser-locking artificial intelligence-based software -- have been adopted to address these issues. However, the question is, should we re-create all the existing offline assessment methods to a virtual platform or introspect a little and evolve more meaningful approaches?
Are you aware that you are assessing ‘transfer of learning’?
Generally, most of the online/offline classes are taught through a lecture format. When information is provided through a lecture, the presumption is that students can receive the information, and process it sooner or later by interacting with the teacher/peers or working out the assignments/tutorial problem sets, so that they will be ready for an assessment.
However, the number of assignments or tutorial classes are very low compared to the number of lecture classes. Further, in the current scenario, peer learning is nearly zero in any online platform. More importantly, there are no opportunities for teachers to provide feedback on a learner’s performance during practice sessions/ laboratory classes due to the shutdown. Taken together, this leads to a situation called cognition overloading for an average learner. Such situations were present even during the pre-pandemic times, but it has become significantly huge since online learning started.
Here is the crux. Educational research has clearly shown that the learner’s ability to use the provided information to near or far situations cannot be generated automatically. The skill required for this purpose is called ‘transfer of learning’, and the learner’s performance in assessment depends on how much preparedness the learner has on ‘transfer of learning’.
What is transfer of learning?
The process of using the content in a different context is referred to as ‘transfer’. The context can be ‘near’ or ‘far’ from the context in which the learner learnt the content. There are several theories about ‘transfer of learning’, but essentially ‘transfer’ is a skill which enables learners to use the ‘raw data’ they gathered from a teacher/book to a situation which is relatively unfamiliar. In an assessment, this is the fundamental skill required. If the assessment questions directly address what is taught in class, it is a ‘near transfer’ case, and if the assessment context is largely unfamiliar, the situation is referred to as a ‘far transfer’. The surprising fact is that teachers do not focus on improving either ‘near transfer’ or ‘far transfer’ skills of learners during a course work, but demand these skills during assessment. How unfair!
How can transfer skills be generated?
Average learners need a large number of practice sessions/ learning iterations, followed by feedback from an expert (teacher), to generate ‘transfer skill’. In online/offline classes, if the learners are not specifically trained on ‘transfer skill’, they are likely not to perform high in assessments, however valuable may be the information provided through the lecture class!
Ideally, teachers should generate transfer skills during the course work through making learners practice what is to be learnt followed by feedback from the teacher, before expecting all of them to perform high in assessment. In simple language, equal or a greater number of practice classes should be there in the curriculum compared to lecture classes, where teachers can test learners’ skills and provide valuable feedback to improve transfer skill.
How do we do the online assessment differently?
A majority of courses are designed with an over-ambitious syllabus to be covered during even a normal period, let alone in the new-normal. Why do we need such a vast syllabus for each course? After all, education is not about the breadth of learning, but how deeply each topic is learnt! If the learners are trained in their cognitive abilities for deep learning, along with transfer skills, they can learn any topic as and when it is required.
If we keep this idea in mind, instead of simply covering the content of a vast syllabus, teachers can assimilate two or three skill sets from the syllabus and use more time to prepare the learner’s ‘transfer skills’ and assess their progress during the course. Equally important is to avoid the lengthy exams that are used in the offline mode. Instead, short but frequent tests can be conducted which can be proctored.
It can be a viva to a selected group of students on every alternate day, and/or a proctoring test for 10 minutes every week. The advantage of the short and frequent tests is that teachers get time to provide feedback on these tests. The feedback improves the transfer skills of learners and prepares them better for the next level of assessment.
There is a prevailing argument that tests/exams will increase the stress level of learners and hence all exams/tests should be cancelled! Fear of exams is essentially the fear of failure in the exam! If the learners are aware of the skills to be tested, receive appropriate feedback on their performance (no bullying!), and are also told that every test/exam is not graded/marked, learners seldom experience the unnecessary tension and pressure associated with assessment.
In summary, two things are important: (a) choose two to three major skills from the syllabus, and (b) design and execute a number of frequent, but short, assessment-feedback sessions, with focus on promoting individual learners ‘transfer’ skills. Different types of assessment methods suitable to the changing scenario should be thought of and continued in future, if it serves the purpose. Abandoning assessment practices during a new normal is abnormal! Remember, providing content rich online lectures ensures teaching, but only assessment and feedback can ensure learning!
(Edamana Prasad is a professor in the department of Chemistry, IIT Madras, and former head of the Teaching Learning Centre at the institute)