Student Assessment in the History Classroom: Who's in Control?
James Roth, November 2005
Is student assessment a primary component of our teaching practice or is it simply an accountability requirement imposed from outside? The answer is probably both. As Peggy Maki once argued in a workshop for faculty and administrators preparing for regional accreditation (when she was director of assessment for the American Association of Higher Education), assessment was not so much about accountability as it was about creating a collaborative campus climate for serious scholarship and discourse about the improvement of teaching and learning. Yet, over the years as I have worked with a number of colleges and universities, and specifically with departments of history, on assessment plans, I have often found an initial reluctance to view assessment in the context of teaching.
It's not so much the fear of external oversight as it is the prospect of unnecessary work that makes faculty suspicious. I am frequently asked, "How much additional work will assessment require?" My response is usually to point to the things that teachers already do. If they grade individual students on their degree of success in their courses, assessment replaces that function. The time they spend writing out rubrics or explicit criteria that describe expected student performance levels in their courses replaces much of the time spent hearing student complaints over the perceived arbitrariness of particular grades and justifying their decisions.
I don't mean to diminish the insights and progress achieved by those engaged in the theory and practice of student assessment by suggesting that all faculty are already engaged in the practice of assessment. Assessment runs the gamut from the most personal grading and advising relationships between the teacher and the individual student to institutional assessment where overall patterns of student learning inform planning for institutional improvement. Between these poles, individual faculty may engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning to revise their courses for the future and departments may examine student development across the major to make decisions about the most reasonable sequence of courses for achieving the desired outcomes of a program.1 But regardless of where assessment leads, it always begins with the evaluation of the individual student, and that is our job as teachers. Unless we see ourselves engaging in assessment for the sake of the learning of the students sitting in front of us, the entire enterprise goes nowhere. And, as a corollary, unless students see assessment as something that can add to their learning, they aren't as likely to take assessment seriously. There needs to be a shift in perception of assessment from something that comes from the outside to something that is basic to instructors' and students' ways of thinking about learning.
When I say I am assessing students, I mean that I am evaluating their achievement in relation to the standards I published in my syllabus as requirements for earning credit in the course. For example, in a sophomore-level course on the French Revolution, one of my required learning outcomes is for students to be able to articulate the discursive processes by which civil and political rights come to be established as normative in a society ("analyze and explain the processes by which fundamental knowledge or ‘truths' of a society are created"). When students present oral and written reports analyzing legislative debates and other events in relation to Lynn Hunt's argument that the meaning of the rights of man was not settled by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, I am assessing the quality of their work in relation to this student learning outcome.2 Assessment is the process whereby I gather evidence and fulfill my contractual obligation to judge students' performances in the course.
What I have found very interesting is that many of my students express a similar sense of ownership over assessment. They say that they are "assessing for" a particular learning outcome instead of saying that they are "being assessed." For them assessments are performances where they craft examples of what it means for them to think and communicate in a historically minded way and then present those examples to me for my evaluation and my recommendations for improvement. Assessment affords them the opportunity to take abstract principles of historical thinking that I am trying to teach them, such as suspending judgment according to one's own values in order to imagine the mind-set of a person from the past with a very different orientation to life, and practice this way of thinking in a very concrete way. The very act of performing in an assessment situation becomes an opportunity for further and deeper learning.
Now, let's take these two ideas—assessment as an integral dimension of teaching/evaluating students and assessment as performances by students—and put them together in relation to our experience as teachers of history. Where do we typically create assignments that allow students to perform in the role of historians? Historians don't usually fill in the blanks or give short answers, except when we are watching Jeopardy. Nowadays, we rarely respond to essay questions posed by others like Rousseau did for the Academy of Dijon in 1750. But we do conceptualize problems and research them and we do evaluate the writings of other historians through critical reviews and bibliographical essays. And we do ask our students to engage in similar tasks in advanced-level historiography and research courses. In a very real way, then, performance assessment is already a part of our pedagogical repertoire.
Once we recognize the kinship between student performance assessment and our own pedagogy, it makes more sense for us to be curious about how some of our cousins have applied assessment methodology to that pedagogy. One of the fundamental principles of assessment that I want to explore here is the importance of establishing explicit criteria for effective performance, both as a guide for students and as standards for our evaluation of their work.
When I engage history department faculty from other campuses in the task of specifying learning outcomes they think their majors ought to achieve, the ability to conduct historical research is one that is frequently mentioned. Professional historians know what that means, but how many of our students can readily grasp the complexity of the term? My own undergraduate experience confirms this sense of bewilderment. I was not at all sure what to do as I moved from a lecture hall where I took copious notes to a much smaller room with a table where I had to present and defend a research hypothesis. By taking the time to establish criteria for an effective assessment performance, we are demystifying a complex construct such as research. Such assessment criteria are very different from lists of requirements such as "at least 15 pages, double spaced," or "a minimum bibliography of 10 items," and instead provide a way for the student to visualize the process of doing the discipline. Criteria that I would suggest for the preliminary literature-search phases of research might include "identifying points of conflict between different interpretations," "inferring assumptions underlying other historians' interpretations of the problem," and "applying different assumptions to the same subject matter and generating alternate questions and possible conclusions." Even though I might well mention all of these things in the classroom as I talk about my own research process or map out the structure of a monograph we are closely reading as an example of good research practice, I have found that explicitly laying them out as criteria in a formal assessment process helps students to be more conscious of their own role in making history.
At the other end of the assessment process, when the work itself is ready for review, student self assessment reinforces this consciousness that history students and other historians are responsible for their choices as they create history. Instead of using self assessment to survey students on how well they thought they did or what impressed them most about a course or their program of study, I ask them to reflect on the criteria they used to create their assessment performances. If one criterion for effective historical thinking is, for example, to evaluate the quality of the reasoning behind other historians' interpretations, then the self assessment will ask how students made their decisions to use (or to avoid) particular historians to support their own interpretations.
I hope that the prospect of refining our work as teachers of history by looking at the theory and practice of performance assessment has some additional appeal as a result of my suggestion that we are already connected to assessment.3 But even more than this, I hope that most of you have anticipated my final questions. What do we do when we are teaching students who have not yet reached the level of sophistication of some of our advanced-standing majors? After all, the vast majority of our total undergraduate history course enrollments are not history majors at all. Is performance assessment inappropriate for those students? My answer is no. I have engaged students in formal performance assessment in every history course I have taught for the past 29 years. I have found that it is vital to break down the work of "doing the discipline" into developmental stages.4 Even students who are not ready philosophically to sort out competing knowledge claims can selectively arrange "facts" at hand to create explanatory narratives. Or they can speak to a simulated general public audience about contextual thinking, explaining why it might be a mistake to read our own values into another time or place. What is important here is that students early on begin to see themselves engaged in the tasks of a historian. Performance assessment encourages them to play that active role instead of thinking of themselves as bystanders at someone else's intellectual game.
—James Roth, who received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, has taught history at Alverno College since 1976. He is the coeditor of Disciplines as Frameworks for Student Learning: Teaching the Practice of the Disciplines (2005).
3. As a starting point, see Peggy Maki, Assessing for Learning (Sterling, Va.: Stylus Publishing, 2004), or as a case study of one institution's assessment practice, see the Alverno College Faculty, Student Assessment-as-Learning at Alverno College (Milwaukee: Alverno College Institute, 1994).
4. Lendol Calder, "Looking for Learning in the History Survey," Perspectives 40:3 (March 2002), 43–45, provides excellent examples of how beginning students can be encouraged to develop cognitive habits of the historian.