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Adult Education

Assignments and Grades

'In the end we want people who are going to be able to do things in the world, and it seems to me that that's the kind of thing we ought to be teaching for and assessing for.'
Howard Gardner

It is important to question our assumptions about the accuracy of tests as a measure of learning and to consider alternative forms of assessment. It is also important to consider the results of our choice of assignments and testing methods. These choices have implications for both what will be retained and how the choices will affect further learning. The following offers some quick insights and points to keep in mind when designing assignments and assessments.

Tests and Assignments: Design and Content

Methods of Assessment

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Tests and Assignments: Design and Content

The Meaning of Grades
Research on the meaning of grades offers some powerful insights. (P.27-37, Goulden et al.) When students' attitudes toward grades are compared with those of the instructor, both agree that the major purpose is to provide feedback about learning and achievement. However, the agreement ends there. Students and faculty have different perceptions of the impact of grades.

First, students believe grades play an important and sometimes vital role in determining their future and faculty see very little correlation. Clearly faculty and students have different perceptions of the importance of a particular grade.

Next, when comparing grading process, students see grades as a scientific process based on how hard they worked. They also believe that arguing with the instructor can change the grade. Faculty see grades as flexible and personal with little correlation to effort. They resist the notion that grades can be negotiated (though many report changing grades after confrontation by students.) It is not surprising that students have misconceptions about the scientific application of grading criteria given the precise formulas for grade determination reported on most syllabi.

A final place where the research shows a difference in student and faculty perception of grades is in validity. While both faculty and students question the validity of grades, faculty believe grades accurately reflect mastery of course content and quality of student performance but don't reflect learning. Students believe grades reflect learning but don't believe faculty can accurately test or judge it.

Effect of Assessment
Research shows that reentry women who have been out education for a number of years can be adversely affected by initial negative feedback which is not countered by other forms of assessment. (P.136-137, Cross) These learners tend to devalue their knowledge and accomplishments. An initial test (or pretest) which allows these learners to realize and exhibit the knowledge they have already acquired is preferable to one which points out their deficiencies.

Word Problems and Context
Adulthood is a time of intellectual and cognitive growth. This growth is based on the adult experiences of dealing with concrete problems in work, at home, and in the community. The growth in these areas is based on concrete problems, the content of a problem, and the context in which a problem is set. (p.2-3, Tennant et al.). Thus, test questions which are abstract can appear to be different from the contextual problems adults are used to encountering. To aid in retrieval of pertinent information and to increase connections to experiences, test questions for adult learners should have a realistic context and be based on concrete problems.

Changes in Intelligence
Fluid intelligence is a learner's basic information-processing capacity. It includes complex reasoning and memory. Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, includes verbal comprehension and numerical reasoning (such as choosing a particular problem-solving strategy.) It reflects the skills we acquire from living and includes skills with numbers, language, and inductive reasoning. ((P.89, Apps) As adults age, their fluid intelligence decreases and crystallized intelligence increases (P.15, Tennant et al.). Traditional educational methods emphasize quick acquisition of knowledge and short-term memorization which capitalizes on the fluid intelligence of the young. Thus tests of this ability are biased toward young adults. For adults in the middle years, grading emphasis should be placed on responsibility and application of experience. In the older years, perspective should be emphasized. (P162 - 166, Cross). For older adults, the greatest problems with memory occur with meaningless learning, complex learning, and the learning of new things that require reassessment of old learning. Thus, assignments and tests which capitalize on strengths of all ages should be included when teaching diverse age groups. It is important to test integration, interpretation, and application of knowledge in addition to memorization of facts.

Reaction Time
Reaction time increases in adults as they age. Thus, an older adult can be disadvantaged by a timed test. In classes with older adults, tests and assignments should be considered which deemphasize speed and quickness and emphasize responsibility and accuracy. (P163, Cross)


Methods of Assessment

Constructivist Assessment
Constructivists suggest assessment using portfolios in which the students choose the work they feel reflects their learning over time. Another method suggested by constructivists is a performance event in which individuals or groups demonstrate their knowledge by exhibiting it.

Learning Contract
Learning Contracts can help learners structure their learning and control both the pace and process. One process for developing a contract is the following (P.18-19, Knowles):

  1. The learner, in collaboration with the instructor, translates each diagnosed need into a learning objective that describes the terminal behavior or direction for improvement.
  2. The instructor assists the learner in identifying the most effective resources and strategies for each objective.
  3. The learner specifies the evidence that will be provided to prove each objective has been met.
  4. The learner specifies how the evidence will be judged or validated.

Journals are useful in the teaching of adults. They can provide tangible evidence of mental processes. They are tools for critical reflection. However, they must be used effectively. Guiding questions which motivate reflection should be used and privacy (where appropriate) honored (P.2-5, Kerka) .

Some of the different types of journals that might be used for assessment are: (P.1-2, Kerka)

A good portfolio reflects a wide range of assessment opportunities. This web document as it originally appeared was itself part of a portfolio for an adult education class. However, some of the issues which should be considered when incorporating such a document into a portfolio are: Reflective Writing
Through reflective writing, writers can step back from the immediate subject, experience a shift in perspectives, and generate and examine options. Not everyone has the self-esteem or the socialization necessary to disclose him/herself in a journal. Many poor and working-class people of all races have been socialized to keep personal viewpoints personal. (P.2, hooks) Other students do not have the skills necessary for journal writing which is reflective and goes beyond pure recital of events.

Thus, the first step in making journal writing truly reflective is to use it in a nonthreatening way and begin to build the necessary skills. Two techniques that facilitate the writing of nonthreatening, reflective journals are freewriting and list making. (P.14-15, Walden) When freewriting, students might be asked to write on a topic (without attention to grammar, spelling, mechanics) for five minutes. At the end of that time, they would be asked to read their work and reflect on it. This process has the added advantage that self-assessment can aid in developing awareness of the learner's centrality to the learning process. (P.25-27, Taylor) When listmaking, a student might be asked to list people, words, sentences, or themes related to a specific topic. It is less threatening than freewriting but can still generate thought on a subject.

The next step in building and broadening journal-writing is to increase the richness of the entries. A method for doing so is to ask the writer to describe in one minute period in detail. HREF="Walden">(P.1, Walden) This exercise helps writers develop observation and detail-describing abilities.

Finally, students are ready to work on constructing knowledge. Now that they have some skill in sharing their thoughts and describing their observations, they can be asked to reflect on deeper understandings. (P.17-18, Walden) They can be asked to take a viewpoint and describe in detail the support for their viewpoint. At this point, journals can be used to allow students to exhibit their understanding and interaction with the topics of a course. Their journals can become instruments for reflection.

Note: The ERIC Clearinghous on Assessment and Evaluation has additional resources for those considering changes.

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Last edited: 5/16/98
Send comments and suggestions to Roberta S. Lacefield
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Apps, Jerold W., The Adult Learner on Campus. Follet Publishing Co., Chicago, 1981.
Though some of the material may be dated, this book contains many useful examples of exemplary practices.

Cross, Patricia, Adults as Learners. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1981.
This book is a relative 'oldie' but nonetheless a goodie.

Gardner, Howard, Reinventing Our Schools: A Conversation with Howard Gardner on Assessment. Copyright 1995, AIT. Video Clip.
Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has forced us to re-examine our assumptions about 'smart'.

Goulden, Nancy Rost and Charles J. G. Griffin, Comparison of University Faculty and Student Beliefs about the Meaning of Grades. Journal of Research and Development in Education: Vol. 31, No. 1, Fall 1997.
Research on the difference between student and faculty perception of grades is presented.

hooks, bell, Talking Back, Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. South End Press, Boston, MA, 1989.
This reflective and thoughtful book tells the story of one woman's exploration of feminism and race.

Kerka, Sandra, Journal Writing and Adult Learning.ERIC:, 1996.
This short article discusses the types of and benefits from journals.

Knowles, Malcolm,Andragogy in Action,
Malcolm Knowles is considered by many to be the father of adult education theory and practice.

Taylor, Kathleen, Sitting Beside Herself: Self-Assessment and Women's Adult Development. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education: No. 65, Spring 1995.
The author discusses the advantages to the learner of engaging in self-assessment.

Tennant, Mark and Philip Pogson, Learning and Change in the Adult Years: A Developmental Perspective (Chapters 1-3). Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco,
These chapters look at IQ along with the nature of and changes in intelligence through life. They also look at the idea of practical vs. academic knowledge.

Walden, Phyllis, Journal Writing: A Tool for Women Developing as Knowers. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education: No. 65, Spring 1995.
This article presents numerous ideas for effective journal writing.

Walker, Deborah and Linda Lambert, The Constructivist Leader: Chapter 1 - Learning and Leading Theory.
Constructivism and the relationship between learner and leader is discussed in this chapter.

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