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Assessment for learning – the Angry Birds model: exploring disciplinary boundaries.

Assessment for Learning is used to describe any approach to assessment which aims to take the learning forward rather than just assessing the learning that has already happened (Assessment of Learning).

The term can be used interchangeably with formative assessment, but in my experience it is often used to describe assessment in which the student is given a task which gives them a wider degree of freedom and opportunity to be creative, demonstrating their understanding of the subject through an autonomous piece of work, the undergraduate dissertation being perhaps the clearest example.

Designing these assessment tasks is similar perhaps to the popular computer/phone game Angry Birds Space in which the aim is to launch the bird across space into the atmosphere of a planet, in which it will circulate and destroy buildings etc to earn points. In this analogy the atmosphere of the planet is a metaphor for the academic disciplinary space. The assessment task is the vehicle to launch the student into autonomous work within that space, demonstrating their ability to operate within it.

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As well as being a nice metaphor for assessment for learning this highlights two problems that the process may raise for the educator and the student.

The first problem is when the student either fails to understand the nature of the task, thinking that they can treat the assessment as a more traditional assessment, or failing to appreciate the level of the academic performance required by the task, therefore failing to make it to the planet, falling feebly into space. They never enter the disciplinary space in the first place, so can’t earn points by demonstrating their engagement with the subject. It can be argued that this is merely the assessment task identifying the student who has failed to engage with the educational experience, which may be the case, but whereas in a traditional assessment they would get a low mark, here they may get a very much lower mark because in effect they never effectively start the assessment, they never reach the planet’s atmosphere at all.

The other problem is when the student takes off into outer space, not failing to reach the atmosphere but shooting right past it. They fail to appreciate the nature of the disciplinary boundary and produce a piece of work so innovative it is possible to evaluate, or they use theories and approaches from other disciplines. This raises an issue for the assessor – how far do I go out of my discipline to understand a student who may be brilliantly exploring new uncharted territory, or who may not understand what they are doing but are following a whim. Applying quantum mechanics/chaos theory/phenomenology or whatever to this problem may be an absolute stroke of genius but it is difficult for me to tell so how am I expected to assess that?

These issues can be avoided by clear assessment design, clarity of instruction and scaffolding for the students, but I think should be considered when designing innovative assessment.

David Andrew
April 17th 2016