Pick a Mission, not a Major

As part of Connected Courses, Mimi Ito, Bill Penuel, and Vera Michalchik got together via google hangout to discuss the idea of assessment in connected courses.   The session is thought-provoking, and if you have the time to check it out then you should (scroll down to find it).

Highlights of the Session:

Why we need alternative assessments:

Learning in connected courses can be difficult to assess because the best connected courses are process-driven, not content-driven.  Theoretically, learning can be divided into “in the student’s head” learning and “in the world” learning; however actually isolating one from the other completely is unlikely or impossible.  Traditional assessments, such as tests, are designed to test “in the student’s head” learning with no acknowledgement of anything they can do while interacting with others, “in the world.”

Assessment of connected learning environments
should include the following components:

1. Students’ opportunity to connect/engage/participate
2.  Student outcomes
3.  Feedback loop for program improvement

Student Outcomes:

  • Designing assessment around student outcomes is an opportunity to consider what learning activities (or actions) are truly important.  Then make observations about whether or not they are doing them. 
  • Meaningful and productive participation is the core principle of connected discussion.  Are students able to take on roles/act flexibly within their group in order to accomplish learning tasks? Are students able to speak up and feel like their voice makes a difference in the group?
  • Education is only valuable for its ability to be transferred to other environments or contexts – in other words, can students use it outside the classroom?
  • Although student interest sets the beginning of the learning path, are they able to get to the next place along the path?
Long-term Followup:

So much of transformative learning will take place after a course is over, and yet there are very few assessment protocols used that allow for longterm followup.  
Talking about assessment with people who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid
  • People produce artifacts as an outgrowth of project based learning – look at the quality of what students are producing (in terms of portfolios, for example)
  • Develop systematic ways of recording and evaluating student participation 
  • Consider assessment as “documentation” rather than “measurement”
  • Documentation is meant to bring people together, to share the learning (with parents in K-12 settings, for example), and to provide fodder for reflection.  Sharing for the purpose of bringing people together and reflection.
  • Recognize that grades – and traditional forms of assessment – are about sorting kids and reinforcing traditional power hierarchies – it is very effective for that.
Then…on a Personal Note 
Then, towards the 52 minute mark, Vera Michalchik mentioned in passing that Stanford has begun to encourage students to “pick a mission, not a major.”
This struck a very personal chord because I feel like that’s what I’ve been trying to do with my doctoral studies.  I’ve jumped around a lot between disciplines and topics, and this has raised a lot of questions among the faculty who consider my bouncing around to be a lack of focus.  But by allowing my purpose, process, and message to emerge organically over time, I feel like I’m a more flexible, big picture learner.  I’m also more confident in my mission and I have a fairly nuanced understanding of what I want to accomplish.  Unlike my undergraduate experience, this time around I chose to pick a mission, not a major, and I am very glad for it.  I’m glad there are schools who are actually encouraging their students to try this approach
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