Rethinking Assessment Eric Mazur myEd Blog

Rethinking Assessment with Eric Mazur @EduTech 2015

Some (tweetable and challenging) highlights from Eric Mazur @EduTech 2015:

  1. “Using low cognition methods of learning like flash card memorisation leads to information retention of only 35% after 1 week.
  2. “Even with the best of intentions, a student’s learning habits are driven by bad assessment
  3. “99% of approaches to assessment is focused on the regurgitation of memorised information and cookbook procedures. Instead of developing 21st century skills, most assessment is mostly focused on ranking, sorting, labelling, ass-covering, etc…
  4. “In many ways, exams and current assessment are the silent killers for education innovation.”
  5. Instead of teaching students to become risk averse, we need to teach our students how to learn to enable them to be parachuted into the chaos of the real world and create value from nothing.

Before we begin this deep dive with Eric Mazur into Assessment, let’s first ask the essential question, why assess at all? How many reasons can you think of?

So, what’s the point of assessment?

Eric proposes 7 main reasons for why we assess our students today, to:

  1. Rate the students in terms of their peers
  2. Rate the teacher in the eyes of the department
  3. Motivate students to keep up with work
  4. Provide feedback on a student’s own learning to see where to improve
  5. Provide feedback to the instructors on where students are at
  6. Provide instructional accountability
  7. Improve the teaching and learning

What’s interesting, is that If you look at the above list, the verbs contradict somewhat. We have ‘rate’ students but ‘improve teaching and learning’.

exam hall

The Problems of Assessment

Firstly, test are inauthentic and aimed at grading knowledge and much of it factual.

Secondly, even assessment that claims to test problem solving skills do not really do so and encourages in-authentic problem solving.

Why? Well, if we take a classic textbook problem it will pose a problem and ask the student to come up with the outcome.

However, if you think about a real world everyday problem you have to solve, you always usually know the outcome you want to obtain, you have some objective.

The desired outcome is known. The question is – how do you get there?

Let me give you 2 examples:

  1. You’re the CEO of a company, you’ve created a product, the desired outcome is to make the product a success. The question is, how do you get there?
  2. You’re an investment banker in charge of a large fund, desired outcome is more money, the question is – how?

Most problems in life follow that pattern, the pattern that the desired outcome is known, the path to get there is unknown. However, most assessment questions we give students ask students to use known procedures to find unknown answers.

You can see in the below image, textbook questions pose the problem, the procedure is learnt (or memorised) and the outcome is unknown. In real world problems, the solution is unknown and the outcome is known.

Eric Mazur myEd Rethinking Assessment

But Whats A Real Assessment Problem?

A real problem tests all the way to the top of the blooms taxonomy pyramid (pictured below).

Eric Mazur Blooms Taxonomy Pyramid

Take for example Eric’s real life example of problem solving:

“Years ago I was painting my living room on a Saturday morning, I ran out of paint, I went to the shops to buy some paint. There’s a parking lot underneath, there’s 20 spots on one side and 20 spots on the other side. If there was no space, I would go around until somebody freed up the spot. For some reason that morning I turned off the engine, waited and thought how long am I going to have to wait? And I thought can I estimate how long it’ll take? After making some assumptions, developing and applying a model I came up with the answer of 3 minutes. Sure enough after 3 minutes it came!”

Turning the above into a classic assessment question requires students to:

  1. Make Assumptions
  2. Create a model
  3. Apply that model

The hardest thing for many of our students is actually making correct assumptions. If a question like the above were posed in a HSC, VCE or SAT exam without a long list of assumptions, they’ll probably complain to the teacher.

But making and knowing how to make correct assumptions is one of the most useful skills no matter what kind of job our students are going to take! The reason why we and our students are so terrified about making them is because we never get to train those muscles that help us make assumptions.  

Our current form of assessment is putting our students out of a job


I think it’s safe to say that unless you can transfer what you’ve learned from one context to another, you haven’t really learned anything.

Computers are really good at procedural jobs. With assembly line jobs going the way of robots so will according to Eric’s predictions, computers will eliminate any job that requires information retrieval or procedural problem solving.

Therefore we should focus on real problem solving!

But we have a problem, real problem solving is erratic by nature; you try one solution out, it doesn’t work, you try another, it doesn’t work.

The road to any creative innovation is littered by failures. And unfortunately because of the way we educate students, they have become afraid of making mistakes.

Our assessment is incompatible with real problem solving because it penalises students for making mistakes. They become risk averse instead of being encouraged to make mistakes. Instead of teaching students to become risk averse, we need to teach our students the skills and learning habits that enable them to in the real world be dropped into chaos and create value from nothing for real people.

Current assessments drive destructive learning behaviour

Assessment has been a high stakes affair, culminating in the final exam. Students study for the exams. Teachers encourage students to study for exams.

What do these high stakes examinations encourage? The answer is cramming…and as we all know; cramming only stores information in short term memory and inevitably means no retention OR authentic information transfer.

Eric explains that in many ways, exams and current assessment are the silent killers for education innovation.

No matter how innovative to teacher, it’s the assessment that drives student behaviour. Instead of studying for exams they really need to be studying for learning, an assessment should be used as an opportunity for improving the learning.

This is where feedback is absolutely crucial. On one hand we have grades, which provide a measure of standing relative to others, on the other hand assessment provides an opportunity for feedback on what has been learnt.

So how can we improve it?

Create myEd

4 Simple ideas in which we’ll be going into more detail in the coming weeks:

  1. Mimic real life
  2. Team based learning
  3. Focus on feedback, not ranking
  4. Focus on skills, not content
  5. Resolve the coach/judge conflict.

Let us know in the comments below your thoughts and how you think we can solve the problems of traditional assessment! If you’d like to watch a great lecture by Eric Mazur on this check it out below: