Another dilemma!

Assessment. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb ‘assess’ means to ‘evaluate or estimate’. It goes on to define self-assessment as ‘assessment of oneself or one’s performance in relation to an objective standard’.

In a collaborative assessment task, most teachers and students know that the work of each individual will not be equal. To compensate for that we add some ‘individual’ task. This strategy seems to be in response to ability of some students to do little, knowing others will do the work for them.

Why do hard working students accept this and what can teachers do to combat it?

Perhaps both the teacher and the student is caught in the ‘prisoners dilemma’ scenario, both in different concentric circles. One in the classroom, one in the school system.

The prisoners dilemma is described as the following according to Wikipedia.

“Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (“defects”) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?”

Some students are used to facing this dilemma in assessment. They simply accept that they will have to allow other students to not participate, and to do the work regardless. Often they will receive good marks, despite their peers.

However at the same time, they do not gain the experience or rewards of shared-experience and shared-learning. They have closed the doors to negotiated participation. It is simply easier to do it alone. This is a learned condition that is reflected in online collaborative discourses.

These students usually offer little reflection about the input of others or how others have influenced their initial thinking on some topic. They may describe the collaboration as a basic recount, but doesn’t demonstrate any engagement with their peers.

Their writing reflects on the events and instructions – rarely on the achievements of group interaction.

At the same time, their peers will write about what the group is doing, how it is hopeful  of achieving the project goals – but rarely describes how that is being achieved or evidences any artifact to support that they are working as individuals towards the group goal.

Their writing is polarized. One talks about the ‘task’ and evidences their individual learning and ignores the others. The other is passive and observes and narrates the actions of the others.

Work is shared – at the end of the assessment period with their peers. It’s a group assignment, so they need to fulfill the bargain. But neither work effectively as a group during the process.

The Student Dilemma

Working online highlights this dilemma – when projects are designed specifically to resolve this core problem in pedagogical approaches to ‘group work’.

The ‘marks’ from the assessment may more accurately reflect effort, participation, communication and collaboration.

Content in these assessments is the ‘glue’ binds the project.

Evidence so far that I’ve seen, feedback from students and teachers, points to improvements – but only among active participants – this applies to students and teacher participation.

This is in performance in comprehension, application and retention of content – The majority of students, especially those in the ‘middle order’ have a much greater ‘scaffold’ to use as a framework for learning and visibly benefit from being part of it – so participate at levels not seen in the traditional classroom.

Unfortunately, the passive student often scores badly in summative assessment. They simply did not participate in the formative activities.

Previously they might score well in group projects, riding on the coat tails of others, but now the body of ‘digital’ evidence in formative assessment, I think, is less of an ‘estimation’ of performance and more of an ‘evaluation’.

The School Dilemma

But this poses a curriculum and school dilemma – especially if you introduce group tasks specifically designed to solve the student dilemma.

Some students will ‘appear’ to be doing worse – as their grades are perhaps more reflective of their performance. I would suggest that they are doing as they have always been doing – but online approaches are removing ‘estimation’ form assessment. Teacher has massively more ‘evidence’ of learning to use.

In senior students, this will mean that un-reformed curriculum ‘tasks’ may appear to achieve ‘better’ grades as the assessment is far more open to being an ‘estimate’ than a reflections of the individual.

Online communities use ‘time and date’ as their point of reference, so despite a teacher arguing that this strategy provides insightful formative ‘always on’ assessment opportunities for teachers, and supporting peer-learning networks for students – the school is ultimately measured by summative A to E reporting.

No one will do ‘too’ badly in this model. We have to create mixed ability groups, to ensure equity. Some of these students have relied (or willing to gamble) on this to bolster individual assessment grades. Overall – it will pan out in their favour.

Playing the ‘prisoners dilemma’ game that no matter what the other player does, one player will always gain a greater payoff by playing defect.

The systemic dilemma

So on paper, the introduction of assessment tasks that use online technologies, as form of formative assessment may lead to overall ‘school’ grades appearing to dip – as students learn to adjust to the changes.

Are we willing to accept this ‘dip’?

Reform in assessment needs to happen holistically and teachers begin to truly understand how fluent technology use can change learning and assessment. It may be something we would like to work towards, but I wonder if this ‘shift’ in learning and assessment poses questions for the curriculum and the wider system that they are not ready to answer – yet

Does judging school performance by summative assessment hold back collaborative online learners?