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Teachers at the university level (at least what I've seen in the US) are responsible for both

  1. teaching students the material for a course, and

  2. assessing the students' understanding of the course material.

This seems to encourage the creation of exams that assess whether or not students can solve very specific kinds of problems rather than assess a broad understanding of a course's content[1]. Because of this it doesn't seem too unreasonable to have different people in charge or assessing students than are in charge of teaching them.

Are there any institutions that have a broad policy like this, where the grading and assessment is more centralized and out of the hands of individual instructors? By broad, I mean more than just having common finals for large classes with multiple instructors. Maybe even broad to the extreme of having a separate department for designing and grading assessments?

Have there been any studies into the whether or not this is a good idea? Have education researchers thought about this idea or written about the pros and cons of this before?


[1]: To provide a specific example of what inspired this question, I just proctored and graded an intro to calculus midterm (as a teaching assistant). This was one of the problems:

Use the squeeze theorem to evaluate the limit $$\lim\limits_{x\to \infty} \frac{\cos(x-2)+3}{2x}\;.$$

Many of the solutions to this problem were identical to what the primary instructor had written up in their grading key. So these students could remember the procedure the professor would go through when answering an example problem like this in lecture, and would themselves write out these steps like a recipe. But this didn't indicate to me that they really knew what the squeeze theorem meant.

The idea then is that having separate people teaching the material and grading the students would avoid situations like this. The teacher would have to teach calculus much more broadly to prepare students for a wider range of questions/problems that they don't have direct control over.

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    $\begingroup$ This seems off topic for matheducators.SE, might be better for academia.SE. It's an interesting question, but I don't see anything here that's specific to math. $\endgroup$ – Ben Crowell Nov 1 '16 at 3:50
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    $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell yeah, you're right. I've edited the post to include an example that inspired this question and to relate it to mathematics. But yeah, the question still isn't specifically about mathematics education. $\endgroup$ – Mike Pierce Nov 1 '16 at 4:32
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    $\begingroup$ While I think the question certainly could have the broad scope to belong in academia.SE, I think mathematics specifically is different from other academic areas in terms of assessment, and I believe that one can reasonably answer this question differently for mathematics than for other disciplines. $\endgroup$ – Michael Joyce Nov 1 '16 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ In my district, and now at my college, there are two distinct roles. We have a district curriculum and assessment coordinator, and a faculty member in charge of assessment analysis, respectively. Teachers are also encouraged to assess understanding so as to know when to re-teach, slow down, speed up, enhance, or apply the content currently being learned. If teachers only taught, how would they assess pace and depth issues? Are you envisioning a co-teacher in charge of assessment, or data or instructional coaches that routinely assess the tests for teachers? Please clarify ... $\endgroup$ – oemb1905 Jan 6 '18 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ At universities, I would think that it would make in fact much more sense for the teacher responsible for math 102 to design the test of math 101. $\endgroup$ – Benoît Kloeckner Jan 10 '18 at 10:21
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A question that occurs with a project like this (broader than one department, as you put it) would be: Who is qualified to make those assessments? Probably not any other department at a particular college, certainly -- the one department is, by definition, where all the experts in that subject work.

To some degree this actually is done in places, in the context of increasing corporatization of the university. For example: A college or state might outsource required tests to a company like Pearson or the College Board. Or a college might pay for a one-time development of an online course, say (either by resident faculty or an outside party), and then from that point on students learn from those packaged materials and present faculty only give grading and feedback on assignments (or vice-versa). This is particularly done at for-profit schools.

One problem with this is that it takes away faculty governance, control, and academic freedom. Outside agencies might be even less interested in upholding strong standards in the discipline than professional faculty; indeed, in some contexts the primary goal is strictly higher graduation numbers. The result of that might end up like, e.g., NYC public schools (which currently boast about a 90% graduation rate, and the majority of those students need grammar-school level remediation when they reach college).

Gary Rhoades, "We are all contingent", AFT on Campus, Summer 2014:

Reduced faculty control is particularly clear in traditional distance education, massive open online courses, and decisions to outsource segments of the general education curriculum to Pearson or other third-parties, often for-profit providers. In each of these cases, academic managers have developed structures and created mechanisms to bypass effective faculty decision-making related to the curriculum. Exceptions can be found, and collective bargaining agreements can build in protections against this. But the pattern is a strong one, and the growth of these high-tech infusions is linked to the furthering of contingency in academe. The model of high-tech employment is a just-in-time, just-in-the-classroom, just-at-the-manager’s-will type of employment.

Furthermore, the work of the instructor becomes less rewarding and more stressful in that type of environment. UNH Department of English website, "Stress, Control, and the Deprofessionalizing of Teaching", October 2009:

It is a Faustian bargain. When teachers lose control of decisionmaking—when they prepare students for tests they have no role in designing (and often no belief in), when they must abandon units they love because there is no longer time, when they must follow the plans designed by others, when they are locked in systems of instruction and evaluation they don’t create or even choose—they will not be relieved of stress. Their jobs are not made easier, they are made harder and more stressful. While some find a way to resist, others acquiesce, though they feel, as one teacher put it, that “the joy is being drained out of teaching.”

There's actually a particular phrasing in the literature for this decontextualized-division-of-labor, but at the moment it's escaping me. Perhaps someone else can chime in with that wording.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for answering my question. I do agree that moving the role of assessment outside control of the faculty of the department is a bad idea. You wouldn't happen to know of any institutions that keep faculty in charge of assessment but outsource the actual teaching, say to other faculty or lecturers, or to grad students, or to private companies, would you? $\endgroup$ – Mike Pierce Nov 1 '16 at 4:52
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    $\begingroup$ There is just one point missing, online for-profit, zero-faculty control, teaching does more than just drain the joy out of teaching. It drains the teachers out of the "university". Long term, we live in this educational dystopian future where there are a few experts out there and the rest of us peons just follow the book. We're not teachers, we're customer service representatives who happen to have academic credentials. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Jan 5 '18 at 22:19
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1 AP

An easy example is AP Calculus (or chemistry or etc. if I can be allowed the sneaky broadening to general academia). This is an example where the teacher is trying to prepare students for the test but doesn't know what will be on it, nor design it themselves. Of course instructors will have to do their own tests for the school grades.

My experience at a (pretty good) public school in the 80s was that calc (and chem and etc.) teachers tried to teach for general excellent insight and understanding into the topic. Even to the extent of a little coverage outside the requirements, as class was capable of it. (well...in chem/bio etc. not in calc.)

But all the subjects, even calc, I had the impression teachers were trying to teach a basic course content, regardless of the student sitting for the exam. Only in week or two before the test was there a little practice on old tests to see the format and get used to style of them (which differed from normal tests during school year.) However, the textbooks (Thomas Finney Calc, M, S, and S Chem were designed for AP usage (said so in preface), maybe with a few clearly asterisked extra topic chapters.)

Lately, I get the impression, from "expert teacher" blogs in calc and chem, (with growth of AP and such) that there is a bit more gaming the system, teaching very strictly to the curriculum and eschewing topics that "aren't on the test". [Even in some cases to the detriment of the student versus a college course. Has been some reduction of AP coverage versus standard state school coverage...less diffyQs and rotation volumes in calc, less algebraic chemistry problems...even though college courses still cover this. IOW, AP moved before rather than following college. I have tried urging teachers to teach what they think a normal college class should be (not saying Cal Tech, but Perdue, maybe). But the gaming aspect has gotten strong with teachers and even students.

2 Multi-section classes

My experience at military academy (still true today) is that they don't really do lecture hall classes. Even for subjects like chem, calc, physics, navigation, EE etc. that all 1000 kids in a year group take (that many colleges would choose to do in large lecture halls). So you get a bunch of profs teaching many 30 kid classes (like high school). But the overall content is prescribed AND the tests are common to the overall group. (done by some committee or master teacher or such.) The point of all this exposition is that teaching is very much divorced from assessment. And you can feel it and it comes across (teachers even saying they haven't seen the test when pushed for hints).


P.s. However, all that said, I think there is an assumption in the question that divorcing assessment from testing will lead to more thoughtful questions. I disagree with this as it is possible to combine the roles and have tests that are thoughtful. Or to divorce them and have more mechanical questions. This isn't just a theoretical point...I really think these are very independent variables, not much correlated. I think it is a course design issue, not a who designs tests issue.

P.s.s. I don't completely agree either with the implicit praise for concept questions versus learning how to do typical manipulative problems. This can be argued rather than assumed. Just because you are super sharp on definitions and answering tricky concept questions does not mean you will succeed at several step integrations (calc) or stoichiometry problems (chem). These are important skills for future use (thus worthy of learning) and one needs to practice solving these problems and be tested on them to develop the skill. I'm sure there is a balance (some concepts, some tricks and skills). But I would just be wary of assuming the balance needs to shift to more concept. It sounds fancier especially from a teacher point of view but may not be optimal objective, particularly for math service courses.

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  • $\begingroup$ Dan's answer is interesting as it explicitly makes the interests of the eductOR a subject (as opposed to interests of students or society). Now there are many times when interests may be aligned, but they do not always have to be. I mean travel agents were really nice people but the business model changed for good reasons. $\endgroup$ – guest Jan 6 '18 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ I do understand how it would be less fun not to be in charge of your kingdom as much (even how that less fun could impact teacher retention/cruiting). But there can be compensating positive factors in having centrally planned curriculum and assessment. I'm not even arguing which factors win out (it will differ by situation and there can be optimums at different ends of the spectrum). But I would just say it is a big topic and just pointing out the negative impact on the teacher doesn't settle (for students, colleges, society) what is optimum. $\endgroup$ – guest Jan 6 '18 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ When teachers are demoralized it corrupts education from within. The morale of teachers is far more important than is commonly admitted in literature or by certain administrations be they at the highschool or university level. If you want people to do the best work for you it is important to inspire them and give them reason to believe you believe in them. I have a really hard time seeing how centralized testing fits into raising or maintaining the morale of faculty. Of course, if education is just a business, then either way the students graduate so happy teacher, sad teacher, who cares? $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Jan 8 '18 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ Central testing is not done for the purpose of driving teacher happiness but for better education outcomes and assurance. This is a multifactorial problem. We can list advantages and disadvantages of central testing. It is at least theoretically possible that advantages may outweight disadvantages. And in some situations it will practically. Or do you think colleges should accept individual teacher AP grades? Really? [Only citing one factor is like thinking of a multivariable function w only in terms of x, rather than versus y, z, etc.] $\endgroup$ – guest Jan 8 '18 at 12:16
  • $\begingroup$ What do I think? I think each course should have an entrance exam which is divorced from AP credit, highschool GPA or even university credit. OR, I think professors should be given latitude to accept all to sink or swim. Personally, I much prefer the sink or swim model since it embraces the idea that individual freedom is worthwhile. But, if I am to live in an educational nannystate then let's be smart about it. I'd like to see gateway tests for courses if our "success rate" or "DWF rate" is to set the metric by which we judge our success as teachers. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Jan 8 '18 at 20:48

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