When I was taking classes towards my undergraduate major, I was forced into education courses which, for the most part, were utterly useless. They taught us high ideals, unrealistic conceptual frameworks, “student-friendly” assignments, and how to use technology that is most unavailable to most high schools. Thus, the concept of backward design is not new to me, nor should it be new to anyone. In short, backward design is creating assessments and assignments by defining the goals of the course from the outset, before any other thought is given towards textbooks, etc. Ultimately, the real problem with assessment is the formulation of stated course goals and objectives.
First, the only two forms of assessment I’ve seen used in survey courses are exams (multiple choice and short answer/essay) and essays. Of course, there seems to be agreement that part of our “calling” is to produce better writers. While I, in spirit, agree with that sentiment, we have become part-time English professors. I find myself marking grammar, spelling and punctuation errors more than reading for content. Though these errors need to be corrected, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve become outdated in that sense. Sure, better writers mean better students and “citizens,” but is it really producing students who are better educated in the field of history?
I am not suggesting getting rid of the essay, but rather, we should try to get students to write better “arguments” using more “analysis” rather than summarizing and perfecting their grammar. Even so, there is a huge problem with that as well: How do you ask the right questions to guide the students to producing more analytical writing? Instead of taking off points for bad grammar (though it should be stressed that it still needs to be readable), we should be focusing our efforts at producing argumentative students.
As for assessing content knowledge, again it is more important to have students learn rather than regurgitate information. Instead of asking students to write all you know about “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” we should ask more specific questions, such as: How was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen a turning point in the French Revolution? It is not asking when was it written, nor is it asking who wrote it. Still, there are issues with this method, as all are aware.
Even though I have opinions on this matter, assessment is not a strong part of my limited capacities, and it is something I must work to improve. Also, I have difficulty defining my objectives for the course. I am not an innovator, but I certainly would appreciate someone who has a brand new method of assessment that works for the history survey course. In the end, I will add my own variations of familiar forms of assessment until I or someone else discovers a way to quantify “learning.”