My Thanks To …
My thanks go to Michael Josefovicz (twitter: @ToughLoveforX) without whom this post would not have been written.
Michael tweeted “#ecosys When you have a little time, I’m curious to any thoughts about http://ilnk.me/4ba9” the link pointing to this BBC article “Danish pupils use web in exams“, which raised a question about cheating and the Internet. My grey cell then became very excited about the question “Okay, what exactly is cheating?”.
The Assessment of Understanding
By “understanding” I refer to everything from the ability to recognise something through to the ability create something by transforming other things. Educators assess learners’ levels of understanding by devising various assessments.
This then raises the question of “How important is memory in the assessee?”. I guess that all educators would answer this with “It is crucial.” to which the subsidiary question is “What is important that is remembered by the assessee?”. I will address this last question by way of analogy.
I expect the next paragraph to provoke an angry reaction from some readers.
I maintain that expecting assessees to be able to fill in random parts or the whole of the periodic table is at best a waste of time and is potentially misleading as an assessment tool. The ability to perform this task relies solely on blind memory without any need whatsoever for understanding the information codified by the periodic table. A well-trained parrot would suffice. The assessment gives no information about the assessee’s ability create chemical reactions of a given nature by choosing reagents based on the chemical properties of the elements in those reagents. Phrases such as noble gases, halides and alkali metals come to mind in that context. While anybody who works regularly with a group of elements will become very familiar with the properties of those elements, and one thinks here of scientists working on novel semi-conductor devices, the requirement to assess anybody’s ability to recall the whole of the periodic table prior to going into the workplace is quite pointless.
Prior to search engines becoming a commonplace, it could be argued that having ready access to a fund of knowledge stored inside one’s own head was an essential for being able to do a job. To look something up in a reference text could take anything from a few minutes to several days depending on whether the text was available in the library in the next room, or needed to be obtained through inter-library loan. People now have access to levels of knowledge that was inconceivable 20 years ago. Rather than having to carry thousands of facts around in one’s head, what is needed today is an understanding of the context in which the question is being asked and being able to place the answers within that context. If, as I had cause to recently, I wanted to find out about the safety of an ant-killer powder that was beyond its use-by date, I needed to understand what it degraded to, the rate of degradation, and the toxicity of the result. While a practicing toxicologist could probably have given me the answer within a matter of seconds, I knew enough about the context to ask the appropriate questions and act of the answers that I found, all this in a matter of minutes.
So when we see somebody “cheating” in an exam, what are they doing? They are taking information from another source, in this case a fellow assessee. Is it legitimate to do so? Probably not, but … accessing the Internet with the correct question and being able to use the resulting answers when responding to an exam question requires an understanding of the context. In other words: “How well is the assessee able to remember the context (and everything that goes into making a context) rather than being able to merely regurgitate facts?”.
This then has significant impact on what and how we teach, and (which may be even more of a challenge) how we devise assessments to establish the assessee’s understanding of the context.
Given that Internet research is now a part of future generations’ lives, I think it is incumbent on today’s awarding bodies to take this into account when defining “conditions of assessment” (or “examination conditions” if you prefer).