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The Measurement of Learning

Infamous Grades and Letters of Rec
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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: September 18, 1999
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The Gifts of Hierarchy and Our Comfort with Labelling
The Cost of Hierarchy and Our Rage with Labelling
How to Measure Learning
The Final Evaluation of Course Learning



The Gifts of Hierarchy and Our Comfort with Labelling

Part of the Narrative of Learning Identity Series
by jeanne and Susan R. Takata
Copyright June 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

Some of the gifts of hierarchy are certainty, mercy, and forgiveness. Those require someone from above to grant us these qualities. Because the hierarchy invokes a certain irreversible quality associated with the power of the authority to decide, and consequently, to privilege, certainty and mercy require a certain passivity on our part to accept the power of sovereignty over us. I would not include forgiveness, since we have more control in our own forgiveness, though forgiveness would apply if what we seek is forgiveness of some Other.

The analysis that Anderson did of the Story of O suggests that O was trying to escape the existential angst of individual responsibility in suffering the abuse heaped upon her, in the hope that some abusive act would so demean her that her captors would no longer require her consent to the abuse. Such an attempt to avoid choice is what the existentialists described as man's angoisse. This is one plausible explanation for the non-aggressiveness of the abused, sometimes resulting in the "battered wife syndrome."

I would like to draw a parallel here to any abuse engendered by the arrogance of hierarchy, and I would like to point out that we train for passivity. The whole of behaviorism is based on the assumption that man is passive, that if you wait long enough man, like the pigeon, will do something in the direction you want, and you can reinforce that step, and man will eventually be "conditioned." Our psychology books rarely speak of the rat that refuses to run the maze. We rarely hear mention of the famous white-footed mice. If one assumes the philosophical position that man has will and is respnsible for his/her choices, then, like O, man cannot escape angoisse by consenting to that point of abasement at which consent no longer matters, and it is someone else's fault.

Nonetheless, rewards are seductive and omnipresent. And that is part of why Alfie Kohn speaks of rewards as punishment. To condition anyone to accept a reward in response to any performance is to attempt control, to remove choice, to falsely replace angoisse with control. Sartre, Gordon, would say that is not possible. You cannot escape the ultimate essential accounting of your actions. And so O's project failed dismally.

But this is the same with our authentication of a student's competence. The student, as well as the teacher, must accept the angoisse of authentication, not because we demand it, not because our standards dictate it, but because that is the nature of accepting responsibility for who and what we are, and in the academy, for the narrative of our learning identity. To refuse to accept that responsibility is not to evade it. In the end, such a project must fail.

I am particularly distressed that so many of our good students are so unaccustomed to openly discussing the quality of their work that when I write glowing recommendations for them, they sit and purr, and thank me! No, no, no. Those recommendations come from my apperceptive mass, from the midst of hundreds of students per semester, and from what I could recall of our shared experience. They have a different life space. From that perspective they should be able to, and should demand, politely, but firmly, to include the incidents and situations that mattered to them, that formed the narrative of their learning identity. One student, one, this year came with her own ideas of what her competencies were. And they did not fit in a one-to-one correspondence with those I had catalogued. But that was a statement for an application, and they know they are to write those. An accounting of their own education they have not learned to take part in.

Assessment and authentication of competence, and documentation of the narrative of learning identity are life-long self-images. We must teach our students to resume both respect and responsibility, for we cannot aid them in the evasion of that responsibility. I remain enough of an existentialist to believe that ultimately such evasion of angoisse is impossible.



The Cost of Hierarchy and Our Rage with Labelling

Part of the Narrative of Learning Identity Series
by jeanne and Susan R. Takata
Copyright June 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

With our certainty that we can trust the authentication of our competence by an Other with the hierarchical authority to judge, we grant "disciplinary" authority over us. (See Covaleskie on disciplinary power.) Such power, unlike sovereign power, which is recognized as having the potential for injustice and arbitrariness, is subtle and gives the overt and false appearance of being neutral and objective.Thus when the label does not fit, when we are uncomfortable with what the label imposes, we are restive, frustrated, and lash out at what is an uncomfortable situation. That is one of the costs at vesting disciplinary power in a non-learning auto-poietic system.

Someone labelled a C student from the first moment the instructor lays eyes on that student, or from the student's first utterance, may well be someone whose validity claim in never heard in good faith. Cost of a system in which hierarchy is allowed to become elitist and to privilege its subjectivity. That which would be judged patently unfair in a grounded system, is seen as acceptable within the hierarchy because the hierarchy is not a reflexive system, often allows "bullying," even as part of its training you in toughening you up to deal with the vicissitudes of the real world, (See Duncan Kennedy) and the ethics become relative depending on where you are in the hierarchy, rather than depending on the validity of the claim made.

Mercy, which we seek for having violated the rules of the institution, which are placed by the hierarchy, guarded by the hierarchy, and judged by that same hierarchy, is a quality for which an affirmative defense must be asserted. That is, the system doesn't offer mercy, the errant one must request it. For such an affirmative defense to be made, a validity claim must be heard in good faith. If there are unstated assumptions that certain groups are less worthy of a good faith hearing, are more likely to depend on "excuse abuse," and are less trustworty, less "serious," this will all affect the extent to which an affirmative defense is given a good faith hearing by the very people who set up the climate in which unstated and unquestioned assumptions dictated the rules of the institution. Catch 22: if you know enough to ask for an exception to the rule, you must have known enough not to violate the rule, which shows an attitude which led to the making of the rule in the first place, ignorance of the law being no excuse in the first place, so you must not be taking this institution and its rules seriously enough in the first place, which is why we take ourselves and our rules seriously.

Notice that the maintenance and definition of authenticity of competence by teachers and supervisors in positions of disciplinary power is not unlike the maintenance, definition, and enforcement of criminal law by those in positions of enforcement authority. Notice that withe the national emphasis on academic integrity (of students) that we have moved into a disciplinary mode in which faculty discipline and punish. O, Foucault.

More on this later. But the general idea is that the institution seems to remain oblivious (a non-learning sub-system) to the extent to which it privileges its perceptions over those of its students. In forgiveness, the institution assumes a moral superiority to the student, whom it presumes it may forgive. When institutions presume moral superiority over individuals, one wonders how we can avoid Hal of the movie 2000.



How to Measure Learning

Draft for Text on the Identity Narrative of Learning
by jeanne curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright, June 1999

Forms to Guide Us was the first piece of this draft. In that draft we relied on our own sense of what our students had shown us as evidence of their learning. But those few measures, though helpful, don't begin to adequately measure anyone's learning. They are perhaps indicators along the way to students who have not yet developed such indicators for themselves.

Learning, because it takes place in the midst of everything else going on, is not neat, linear, simple even to understand, never mind to measure. Let's take a simplistic example. Vocabulary. Most K-12 teachers give vocabulary tests, or used to in my day. There are hundreds of vocabulary books. Ten words a day, and you shall be the master of the written universe. Hah! I don't think I ever got past the second chapter. I particularly liked "I always look up the word Egregious," but I didn't go through it. Not then. Not ever. I just taught my students the word "egregious."

Studying vocabulary doesn't work for me. And I believed every one of those persuasive arguments about how important a large vocabulary is. I just couldn't find the motivation to learn with what was offered. But then in law school I discovered that I didn't have to learn vocabulary their way. A German friend and I were so desperate we carried pocket dictionaries about. Unfortunately, almost none of the words they used were ever in the dictionary. But she was learning English, and I was fascinated. Since I had this dictionary always with me, I put a little check mark beside each word I looked up. As I had suspected, I was looking up some of the same words, like "egregious," time after time after time. And soon, I learned that about the 17th check mark, I didn't have to look it up anymore. The word was mine! I had discovered a measure of my own latent learning. Now when there were eight check marks by a word, I could tell that that word was 8/17 mine. No more affect. No more guilt. I knew now that every time I looked the word up, it went a little deeper into my apperceptive mass. That's a measure of learning. Not one your teacher is likely to use on a test, but one that will give you much greater assurance that you ARE learning, and WHAT you are learning, compared to you, and you alone.

Once I've discovered such techniques, I can share them with you, and maybe they'll work for you. Only you can be the judge of that. But if you manage to articulate such measures, you will be much more convincing when you claim that a test has incorrectly measured what you have really learned.

The matter is one we discussed in another piece in this series. We will link to it later. Nag us. That is, that students often know they have learned "something," know that they "studied," but don't have a good measure of that "something" even for themselves. That was my problem with vocabulary. Once I found a way to measure it that fit with my needs for vocabulary, I was comfortable letting the learning take its natural course. And with that comfort came the ability to explain to you what that measure was. Before that all I could do was take vocabulary tests, which never seemed to make me feel any more confident even when my test scores were good.

That's because having someone give you a ranking of Fair, Good, Excellent, having someone tell you how well you tested on their instrument is conclusionary. It doesn't give you the kind of feedback that 8/17 of the way to owning that word gave me once I understood it. Many students complain that the comments on their papers don't help them. They are conclusionary. Something like "not college writing" doesn't help a lot, when you're trying to figure out whether you're 3/17 or 6/17 or 15/17 of the way there, wherever there is. Conclusionary. No evidence to support the conclusion, and none that will help you figure out even if you're on the right track, never mind how far along that track you are.

In law, we teach that adversarial argument must balance statement of the facts, which, of course, includes an interpretive perspective, and statement of the law, which includes an interpretive perspective to the way the law should be interpreted. Law, facts, law, facts. Learning should be treated in the same way. Learning: I have gained confidence. (conclusion) Facts (how I know that): can read faster now, understand some concept better and can state it succinctly now, fear less intimidated by it (affect is a valid component of learning).

Learning is difficult to prove in an adversarial climate, for there are so many immeasurables. All of status characteristic theory supports that people perform as we expect them to perform, and that we experience negative affect (meaning that we are annoyed) if they do not perform as we expect, even if their performance is better than we expected. (Katz, Bi-racial Groups, Cohen, Elizabeth, at Stanford) This means you may be stating your validity claim of learning to someone whose expectations you are going to violate. That's adversarial. And you will be more convincing if you give solid factual detail to support your claim.

This means that your job in a class is to think hard about what you are learning so that you will be able to communicate that learning effectively. It helps if you do this in a collaborative environment. Sometimes what works for others will work for you. But not always.

This is who you are. How open to learnng you are and choose to remain. This is your identity. That part that defines your learning, but nonetheless and importantly a part of your identity. To the extent that you accept the passive measures of the Other you have attempted to deny your own responsibility for defining that learning identity. Such denial is a project that must fail, for it is your identity and no Other can define its essence. Only you.

The easiest way I know to find measures that work is to tell the story of your learning. If you tell was what happens to you, how it feels, in sufficient and focussed detail, sometimes we can help you conceptualize the measures. That is what we call the in depth piece of good faith listening. When you listen to a validity claim in good faith you try to help the Other communicate that claim in terms that the community can relate to.



The Final Evaluation of Course Learning

Draft for Text on the Identity Narrative of Learning
by jeanne curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright, November 1999

Our exercise on the final evaluation of learning was written in the summer, before this semester of classes. We have all learned much in the course of the semester. This section has been added to aid you in planning the interaction necessary to complete your course grade.

First, in listening in good faith to one another, which does take time, we have broken down the elements we believe go into the final grade for the course: