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Assessment fostering creativity and open minded thinking in higher education

EDUCATION: The aim of this article is to reflect on the purpose of assessment in higher education based on contemporary pedagogical principles and to discuss means of putting them in to practice. As students, in general, focus on the assessment as means of aligning their learning process, it is important that the educators, construct them so that students are able to develop their potentials to the maximum, and face a rapidly changing socio-economic and technological environment with confidence.

The main purpose of assessment, generally, in any course in a higher education should be to provide accurate measures of each student's ability to succeed in their future careers, and as a result, more impotently though, as a good, creative human being in a rapidly changing social, economic and technological environment. Such success is necessarily achieved through quality, higher-order learning.

In psychological terms, it is widely accepted that a person's ability to succeed in a manner mentioned above depends largely on his/her intellectual capacity, provided that he/she is fostered in a truly democratic and conducive environment. Such a notion necessarily implies that an assessment of any course in higher education must measure or reflect the intellectual abilities of students.

This is also the wide-spread social belief, incorrectly though, as it does not give the necessary consideration to the whole teaching-learning context in which the assessment or classification is done. What is inappropriate here is not the social belief, but the manner in which the assessments are conducted that does not do justice to the above belief.

In 1920s, Leta Hollingworth, a pioneer in the field of psychology, highlighted a similar point by inferring that children who possess intellectual quotients (IQs) in the range of 120-145 find, comparatively, little difficulty in the usual education culture, while those with intellectual capacities above this level struggle to survive in non-conducive environments.

Further she inferred that the struggle becomes harder for students as they deviate more towards the higher end of the intellectual capacities spectrum and leaders of a society emerge from the range of 120-145.

Webb et al inferred that what Hollingworh said can apply equally well to the current society as well, despite the fact that so much thought, research and published work have emerged in the form of literature on gifted and creative children and adults. It implies that the education system in general, or the assessment criteria, is tailormade to cater the persons that possess intellectual capacities in the above said range, which got a high proportion of population compared to the higher end of the spectrum.

However, research in the last two decades shows that population belonging to the higher-end of the intelligence spectrum is much higher than previously conjectured, and even identifies there could be a bump in the normal distribution at this end. The above situation also adheres to well-known Darwin's theory - survival of the fittest, a situation most organisations attempt to avoid by enhancing equal opportunities to both their employees and clients.

The simple task, as it may seem, of assessing students in education leads to a more complex, social situation that results in social injustice, disorder, and possibility of a chaotic and unethical environment. As a consequence, the importance of understanding the purpose of assessment and using the assessment criteria appropriately to serve the right purpose is the most important responsibility befalls on the educators. If the purpose is different from what is suggested above, then it has to be clearly stated and made public without creating confusion in the society.

Specifically, the prospective employers and scholarship providers base their judgement of how well a candidate would succeed in a task is evaluated on the assessment or grades he / she carry with him/her, to a very large extent.

It is equally important to understand, as Webb et al brought out, the implications of misdiagnosing the reactions of gifted and creative persons to inappropriate educational environments, including assessment criteria that create anti-intellectual social situations. Such misdiagnosis, or wrong interpretations, of reactions leading to such situations does enormous damage to a democratic society at large.

Role and responsibilities of assessment

The role of assessment, as an educator, includes invoking reliability, validity and fairness as a whole. Reliability in marking addresses the fact that when the same marking is done at a different occasion, it yields the same outcome. In a broader sense, if marking is done by a different maker using the same principles and guidelines, or more standard accepted principles in higher education, it should produce, ideally, the same outcome.

The above outcome could be identical to an accepted level only if the two markers share a common and widely accepted understanding of what the process of learning is. For example, to bring out an extreme scenario, if one marker focuses on deep learning while the other focus on surface learning, the outcome would, most likely, be different. That is to say, as more recognised in higher education, the extent to which a particular standard is achieved by a student is evaluated. Adhering to such standards results in being fair to all the students being marked, thus improving the validity of the marked assessment.

The issues of validity and fairness arise more when two or more makers are involved. The perceived level of standards across the markers requires being equivalent to achieve fairness and validity. As a measure of validating the perceived level of marking among a number of markers, sample remarking by different makers of already marked assessments can be done. Following sample remarking, appropriate adjustments or moderations can be inflicted. The implications of such measures of improving reliability, validity and fairness are increase of confidence in students about marking.

Applying scales and standards

A very common grading scheme, such as HD, D, C, P and F, used to grade students based on their ability to conform to higher-order learning. To elaborate, using Blooms taxonomy, students who showed abilities to analyse, synthesise and apply their knowledge gained a higher grade depending on the extent to which they demonstrated doing that.

Put differently, a student who mainly showed of possessing knowledge, with very less indication of abilities to apply, analyse or synthesise, got relatively lower grade, possibly a P. All students generally show abilities to perform obtaining knowledge, comprehending, applying, analysing and synthesising to varying degrees of combinations.

The grades were awarded based on to what fraction a student was able to demonstrate performing at each of level described above. This necessarily means that the evaluation was based on the quality, such as ability to analyse and synthesise getting better rewards. The culture that existed for many years in education, in which the ones who had access to more information emerged winners, is getting obsolete.

Such a culture has a historical reason where accessing information was comparatively a hard task. However, despite the fact that accessing information has become increasingly easy, the above culture of assessing students' ability to access and reproduce them at a examination has not changed. This is more evident by the growth of the Internet as means of providing easy access to information.

Key issues of marking, grading and giving feedback

It is necessary to differentiate that, sometimes, what students have conceptualised as the learning process may not be what is expected in higher-order learning. As a result, it could be the approach, or the attitude, of the student towards learning that needs to be changed for better performance, rather than categorising it as an inherent incapability of students.

When setting up the assessment, different learning styles of students need to be given consideration. For example, students who tend to write slowly and think in an elaborate manner, as is the case with visual-spatial learners, need to get attention.

Time for each question must be allocated taking into account that some students need extensive thinking time on the problem, planning time for the answer and writing time.

All mini assessment components of an evaluation process must be targeted at the highest levels of Blooms classification, thus aggregation of marks of each of these components correctly reflected the students capacity in higher-order learning.

This approach contrasts from assessing students at different levels of Blooms taxonomy and aggregating them together. Such an approach has a serious drawback that those students who are good at applying, analysing and synthesising knowledge, do not emerge with a higher grade, as they do not necessarily do well on the tasks that evaluate other-end of the taxonomy.

The underlying principle here is that when students can achieve highly when focussed at the higher-order end of spectrum of Bloom's taxonomy, they need not be tested at the other end of the spectrum. Also, based on the quality of the answers they provide for questions / problems targeted at higher-order end, a certain percentage can be awarded.

All of which can then be aggregated to correctly assess on how well students engage in higher-order learning. On the other hand, if the questions were targeted at the lower-end of the spectrum, as research on gifted and creative education shows, the students belonging to this category will struggle with them though they can do well on the questions /problems that are targeted at the other end of the spectrum. In addition if aggregation of marks for questions based on two ends of the spectrum is done, the validity of the assessment or the grade diminishes.

The final mark of an assignment is decided on the aggregate of all sub components evaluated to the extent to which higher-order learning has been practised. That is to say, when all the assessment components are focused on higher-order end of the Bloom's taxonomy, how far a student's answer departed from this end of the spectrum, is evaluated in order to decide the mark. The importance of providing feedback to students on assessments is highly regarded in higher education today.

The feedback that will be given to a student who produced a poor assignment, based on the aforementioned principles, is to emphasis on the higher-order end of the Bloom's classification. That is he/ she will be encouraged to practise more and more higher-order learning focusing on application, analysis and synthesis of knowledge.

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