Assessing Life

03 Apr 2016

In the Software/Data Carpentry Instructor Training, we talk about summative and formative assessment, two different strategies for assessing student learning. As it sounds, summative assessment is a summary of what someone knows. Typically fairly high stakes and roughly binary (pass/fail), a final exam or project, a midterm, or a major paper could all be considered summative assessments.

Formative assessment, on the other hand, is meant to form both students and teachers throughout the course. It does assess what students have learned, but with the goal of deepening that learning. Where summative assessment represents the “end” of a learning experience, formative assessment looks forward to the next step.

I’ve recently realized that I’ve lived a lot of my life with a mindset of summative assessment, even (maybe especially?) after leaving school. It’s true that we all have to face “summative assessments” in adult life - a performance review to determine whether or not we’re promoted, a crisis at work or home, a PhD defense…the list could go on. But I’ve gotten myself into trouble by viewing all of life’s “assessments” as summative, where the pieces of my adult life are not only being evaluated, but evaluated in a “final exam” sort of way: one time only, no second chances or retakes, and no shades of grey - only total success or total failure.

This is, unsurprisingly to anyone with test anxiety (or a bit of common sense), not a great way to live. I’ll admit that it’s especially hard to “fail” at life tasks if, like me, you were always pretty good at taking tests in school.

Well, what are the alternatives? One is to realize that so-called “failure” is not the end of the world. However, for an entrenched perfectionist, that’s really hard! I know that my difficulty in accepting my own failures, can sometimes itself become another place where I feel I’ve failed. That’s also not a great cycle.

That’s where the idea of formative assessment becomes helpful to me. If I can reframe evaluation from “final judgment, pass/fail” to “ongoing, strengths/improvements”, I will be a lot more sane. Realistic too. The lens of formative assessment - seeing moments of evaluation as chances to grow and learn - acknowledges the truth that as a normal person, I’m not going to be great at everything right away. It’ll take time and feedback to get to where I want to be.

Professionally, I’ve gotten a lot better at this. Personally, not always so much. But in the spirit of ongoing growth, that’s okay too. :) If I can convey these ideas to students with any conviction, both through my teaching practice and as
a lived example, I like to think I’ll have accomplished something as a teacher.

reflections » personal, teaching, perfectionism, mental health,

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