“…from our students’ point of view, assessment always defines the actual curriculum (Ramsden, 2003)”. We all know that this is true, and like it or not, this is the way it is.
What has the evidence said about the curriculum being driven by assessment? The three pillars of the assessment defining the curriculum view are works done in the late 60’s and early 70’s: Becker, Geer and Hughes (1968), Snyder (1971), and Miller and Parlett (1974). In Miller & Parlett’s study, 5/30 participants could be definitely put in the category of focusing on assessment (not overwhelming evidence by any standards). Snyder concluded that students are generally assessment driven, but doesn’t provide enough detailed evidence in the study to really support the statement. Becker, Geer & Hughes did find that the majority of students in their study were assessment (or grade-point) driven, but concluded that their sample was unusual, and doubted they would find the same thing with a different group of students.
Given that this research was done 40 – 50 years ago, have things changed. When the research was published the view was not that assessment drives the curriculum. However, there is good reason to believe that this has changed in the ensuing years. We know that there has been a steady rise in the number of students who’s primary reason to go to university is to get a degree that will lead to a good job with a high of 87% this past year. I don’t believe that is what children or youth originally aspire to. I think that it is the expectation that they learn in education.
Government initiatives have increased standardized testing exponentially over the years to where, in many places, the testing begins early in primary school and continues through to the end of high school with many students taking standardized tests every year. Parents think that somehow these test scores are to measure the progress of the students individually, however, research has shown that the primary use of these scores is to measure the success of the schools. Often, poorly performing schools receive funding cuts as a motivator to improve the teaching. What is the effect? The teachers work incessantly to ensure the students do well on the tests. They teach to the test. Students become accustomed to this and expect a teacher to tell them what they have to memorize in order to pass the tests. As a result, in the mind of a student, memorization becomes learning. Assessment truly drives the curriculum for both the teachers and the students.
I believe that the current lecture-centric education that students receive in higher education reinforces this view. Assessment has come to drive the curriculum, and a teacher's job is to tell the students what they need to know in order to pass the tests. Their primary motive is to pass the tests with as little effort as possible which leads to the endless cycle of lecture, cramming, and regurgitation. Socrates would be proud.
Changing a student's learning experience in the classroom can change this view. One of my students focused on the topic of curriculum driven by assessment a few years ago and came to the conclusion that assessments determined exactly what the students do in university and always would. I challenged her on this conclusion by asking about the experience she was having right at that moment. She was presenting her findings to a group of us (fellow students and myself) and doing a brilliant job of it as well. I asked her how many people had spoken that day in our class – I think the number was 35. I asked her, as well as the other students sitting in her presentation, how well the presentations had been that she (and others) had attended. The overwhelming consensus was that every single presentation had been of the highest quality and that a considerable amount of time must have been spent preparing in order to achieve that quality. I then reminded her that none of the presentations had any kind of grade attached to them and that they were peripheral to the overall assessment and outcome of their standing (grade) in the class. The group had nothing to say until one of them spoke up and said: “But this class is different and we just want to learn.”
The way I teach there are three or four talks given simultaneously and I can't evaluate them all. A colleague came to my class one day and was impressed by the quality of the presentations being given and said to me that I should be giving the students credit for the work they were doing. I said to him, "Why ruin a good thing, I want them to learn, not work for grades."
Students are still looking for learning. They want to know and understand the world. They want us (the rest of us) to treat them like adults, forgive their foibles and help them become something they can be proud of. They will work hard, and they want to contribute, but remember they do exactly what we ask and rise to the expectations, high or low, that we set for them. If we reward them for passing tests, that is what they will do. If we reward them for thinking and learning, they will do that. We decide what our students are motivated to do.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.