The Texas Two-Step (indirect and informal assessment)

Two posts ago, I started talking about the Society of Teaching of Psychology’s outline on what constitutes a great teacher, as I applied these attributes to teachers of applied statistics.

I pick up with Assessment Procedures. In addition to teaching applied statistics, I also work as a psychometrician, thus I design, validate, implement and report on results from measures of human behaviors. Not surprising, I’ve also given countless presentation on the topic of Assessment. It is the only topic I have ever been heckled while given a presentation. In fact, I have been called names, mocked, and ignored … as assessment on many college campuses is a four letter word.

I suppose there are good reasons for that, as the way assessment is implemented on many college campuses is enough to make this psychometrician cringe! One of the biggest problems with assessment is that of behavioral drift, that is, when people start to behave in a manner that really doesn’t yield anything positive, but at least looks good via the measure — there is an artificial movement of behavior due to it being measured. Of course on other campuses, there are drawers filled with data, all singing an important tune that no one ever can hear, as they are stored in the drawer. We can’t forget the political might with which some testing companies befriend those in power that result in [the lucrative field of] testing being put above all else, including true student learning. I’ve even seen people use data for their own personal agenda (implementing measures that haven’t even been validated that were designed for the purpose of harming an individual’s professional reputation.) Yes, I can say assessment HAS been misused on countless college campuses. But when you see a family member helped by morphine when it is properly used, does it really matter how badly it’s being misused at that moment?

There is a time for assessment and great teachers know it. I ask you to turn back, to a simpler day (before a Texan occupied the White House), back when great teachers knew that assessing their work was critical. Otherwise, how would they ever know what their students were learning and if they were effective at teaching?

Assessment comes in two types: Indirect and Direct measures. Each of these can be further broken down to formal and informal. Indirect measures are capturing something that isn’t directly the skill of interest, but could be a sign that the skill is either emerging or is fully developed. Some indirect forms of assessment include   (1) having students evaluate their implicit view of intelligence (2) Having students identify their study behaviors and (3) Verifying in various ways that students are completing their homework or completing calculations in class.

Of these, each can be informal, that is just a general sense of what is going on (e.g., maybe a show of the hands, or a class discussion, evaluating the look in a student’s eye, or making sure they have a calculator on their desk and they are using a pencil). Others can be more formal, like checking off every time a student complete homework, having students complete a study survey or a measure of implicit views of intelligence, or walking up and down the aisle of the classroom checking off who is completing in class assignments and who is not.

Direct measures often come in the from of tests or homework assignments where students are asked to actually apply statistics to answer questions. Again, these measures can be direct, like a test or graded homework, or indirect, like the ability of students to answer questions of the previous night’s homework or looking for signs of understanding in the students’ face.

While writing these posts on Great Teachers, I’ve been thinking about one of the greatest teachers I have ever seen. If she is still alive, she would be 86. She was my department chair when I was a new elementary school teacher and was taking graduate classes in developmental psychology at night (before I returned to grad school full time). Though she never conducted research in cognitive development, I never knew a person to know more about cognitive development than Joy, the woman from West Texas. It was Joy who taught me about indirect measures. She told me … if you are doing your job, a test grade should never take you by surprise. She said you should be able to look in a student’s eyes and see if they understand what is going on. If you don’t see the sparkle, figure out a way to re-teach the material, and make sure to try it a different way. She told me that teaching was like a Texas two-step, where the teacher isn’t the dancer in the lead, but the dancer who is following … and she has to be able to read what is going on with the student, and adjust. Yes, Joy believed that great teachers are masters of informal assessment. Thus, when the test comes, they already know what concepts each student has mastered. The formal test became information for the student more than for the teacher.

Sure, grades are critical, and thus formal assessment is needed … but I agree with Joy, that sweet woman from West Texas … and even though she never uttered the words informal and indirect measures of learning … they are the forms of assessment that should take place a hundred times in a class period, as the teacher helps the students master the material.

The next topic I will write about shortly will be on Student Learning Outcomes.  As always, I welcome comments and discussions … what do you think makes a great teacher?



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2 responses to “The Texas Two-Step (indirect and informal assessment)

  1. Pingback: Evaluating the Teacher | Statistical Sage Blog

  2. Pingback: Bain’s (2004) Approach to What Makes a Great Statistics Professor | Statistical Sage Blog

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