A couple of weeks ago, I helped host the Jisc Change Agents Network meetup, where we welcomed over 170 delegates. It was a very busy and intense day – from setting up in the morning to making sure the entire venue was returned to its correct configuration for the following day’s teaching.

stairwell-690870_1280When I got home and slumped on the sofa, feet aching and ever-so-slightly dehydrated, I opened up my Fitbit app to bask in the glory of my step-based achievement. To my horror, my Flex battery had run out halfway through the day. The potential 25,000+ steps was ripped from me, leaving just a paltry 8,000. All that effort, and what did I have to show for it?

I complained to my wife about my bad luck. It just wasn’t fair. She gave me that look (no, not that one, that one), and said one of the wisest things I’ve heard: “you did the steps, that’s the most important thing”.

She also told me to shut up and stop complaining, but I hear that one all the time.

It is an increasingly frequent occurrence in my spousal communications, but I thought, “you’re right” – but not about the steps.

I am taking part in the Global Corporate Challenge, those steps would have been invaluable to our team, I am also trying to lose weight and get fit for my first 100-mile bike ride in July. Those ‘lost’ steps had some importance, but actually doing the steps was far more important.

So, where am I going with this?

The short answer: learning and assessment.

I immediately thought of conversations I’ve had with my students, and lots of other students I talk to. There is an underlying feeling that we should teach what’s on the test, then test they know what we’ve taught. I see module evaluation comments complain that “they taught us about X, but then the exam focussed on Y”. The causal link between what’s covered and the assessment is, in its simplest form, at the heart of Constructive Alignment (Set outcomes > do activities related to outcomes > assess against outcomes > repeat). Constructive alignment is what I do, and something I wholeheartedly agree with. But there is a difference.

This post is not about negative attitudes to learning of students, but it is about how we frame (summative) assessment within a wider discussion about learning. The rhetoric is that you go to university to learn some stuff, do essays and exams, get a degree, which will get you a good job with lots of money, and happiness. The endgame is the money (or the happiness).

My proposal

I propose that the purpose of education is learning. Nothing else. Everything we do is for the love of learning.

Businesses may have clear expectations of what they want in a graduate. A culture of learning helps develop the skills that employers want (communication, analysis, team-work, resilience, independence), but the motivation should be the learning itself.

is this learning?I have been guilty of teaching ‘to the test’. I used to teach science to GCSE and A-Level students, and at times was encouraged by department heads to be pragmatic with both mine and my students’ time. It never felt right. I was letting my students down. Looking through exam papers, spotting the patterns in questions, covering the expected exam topics in more detail. Even practising exam ‘technique’ like it was a game.

But learning isn’t a game, and an assessment isn’t something to be beaten. Instead of insuring they got the best grade possible, I should have been instilling a love of learning. The grade they received would then be the right one, not necessarily the best one.

Assessment is meant to provide evidence that you know something about the topic at hand. Achieving 100% in an exam doesn’t mean you know everything about a subject; it means you know all the answers to those questions.

Learning is both the destination and the journey. Assessment is just a check of the map along the way – something to make sure we’re on the right track.

So when a student asks why we are studying something that is “not on the test”, you can reply with “you did the learning, that’s the most important thing”.

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