Assessing the Learning Process, not the Product

With a growing fixation on “data,” it’s no surprise that schools feel compelled to focus on outcomes that are measurable. Often that means assessing some product – an essay, a quiz, a project. But what happens when we emphasize instead the learning process and not the learning product? Maha Bali, a professor at the American University in Cairo, reflects on her experiences in the classroom and argues that one is really a short-term signal. The other – the learning process – is not only much more enduring, but it’s much more empowering.

Much of the most valuable learning that occurs for students is not easily visible or measurable. This does not mean we cannot evaluate students’ learning; but if we really want to get to “what matters most,” it does requires a shift in our perception of what and how to evaluate learning.

Product versus Process

I had two experiences last semester that solidified my belief in the importance of emphasizing the process of learning over the product of learning.

The first experience was my educational game design module. I teach the third and final module of an undergraduate core curriculum course on creativity and creative problem solving. I could have approached the entire module with a lot of scaffolding: teaching my students the details of how to design a game and how to make it educational. They probably would have produced wonderful games that were really well-designed, if they had followed all the instructions and rubrics I could have given them in advance.

Instead, I chose to give them minimal instructions with minimal scaffolding. I played games with them, asked them to reflect on the educational value of their favorite games, and gave them some broad guidelines on how to think about what might make an experience educational. I showed students the video of the landfillharmonic, and asked them to imagine ways of using recycled material to create their games, rather than using fancy, expensive materials. Then I let them work in groups to design a game that would educate others about a cause they personally cared about.

As they worked, I provided feedback when they asked for it. Each group needed help on different aspects of game design, and I encouraged all the groups to exchange feedback with one another on how to improve their games.

The end results were fascinating (see my blogpost). What mattered to me most were not the actual games the students created, because of course they could have been better. I realized the true value of this learning experience when I read my students’ reflections on their blogs at the end of the game design module. They said they realized that they could create something from scratch using simple resources; they talked about how they could better recognize their own creative potential; they said that the process of game design gave them confidence in their ability to do anything they put their mind to.

If I had concentrated on making sure they created “good quality” educational games, I might have seen a better product (that is, better games). Instead I emphasized the process of their learning, and as a result they developed an attitude towards their learning transferable beyond the skills of creating an educational game and into a general approach towards life and learning.

Short-term Outcomes versus Enduring Attitudes

The other example was in my teacher education class. It is the final course in a 6-course “educational technology for teachers” diploma, and the four (in service) student-teachers in it were supposed to each develop a project to implement in their schools, applying what they had learned throughout the diploma.

Upon reflection, the students realized it was logistically impossible to implement something individually at each of their schools; so they decided to collaborate on creating a website for teachers all over Egypt, passing on the most important things they had learned throughout their coursework.

Again, I provided minimal scaffolding. I helped them divide the project up into phases, but gave them space to decide on platform and content, as well as their ways of working together. I allowed them to make mistakes (particularly with the platform; I asked them to evaluate and compare then make their choice). They got frustrated at times, and their end-product was not the most beautiful website ever. But they learned several things which they shared with me on the last day of class: first, they learned that they could, in fact, create a website with very little help; and they learned that it was okay to make mistakes. When there is time (something that courses, because they are restricted by the calendar do not offer), they can correct them; they can experiment with new things.

The clearest result of the lasting value of this learning became evident to me a few months later, when one of those students emailed to tell me that she had been working on a project for work. She’d suddenly had an epiphany that she could make the project more useful to more people and avoid a lot of bureaucracy by converting it into a website for the public to benefit from. The key thing for me here is not that she thought of creating a website per se; it is that she gained enough confidence from my course to transfer the learning she did and take it to a different context, without any support from my side.

In a twitter conversation with a colleague a few months after my semester ended, I was inspired by this conclusion: the more we scaffold for our students, the more likely the end product of their learning will be good and beautiful and meet some standard we educators have in our minds. But the less we scaffold, the more autonomy we give students, and the deeper the potential for learning is for them. When you scaffold more and provide detailed rubrics, you help students meet your requirements for the course. When you scaffold less, and focus on the students’ learning process, you help your students learn something that will be useful to them beyond your course.

And that is infinitely more valuable. They may not create the best product now, but they will have learned how to keep improving on their own work for the future, without your help. And if anything, that’s the most noble goal of any teacher: to make oneself dispensable to students!

For further discussion

  • How can education leaders support the creation of school cultures that emphasize process and not product?
  • How do you assess your own learning?

Image credits: Ana

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Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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