Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Moving from “or” to “and” in assessment: Letting go of dichotomies (again)

In preparation for an upcoming Teaching Commons workshop about ePortfolios and assessment that I’m co-facilitating at DePaul (shamelessplug), I came across an old friend:  the dichotomy. I was researching ways to talk with faculty and staff from different disciplines about how portfolios encourage a holistic assessment of learning and learner rather than an analytic assessment of skills, aptitude, standards, etc. I came across this lovely list of dichotomous assessment concepts discussed by a researcher at University of Glasgow (McAlpine, 2002):
Formative or Summative
Formal or Informal
Final or Continuous
Process or Product
Convergent or Divergent

I had a flashback to one of my undergrad philosophy classes where I remember having an overwhelmingly satisfied feeling when thinking about how nicely dichotomies organize the world and how easy it is to drop a dichotomy into a research paper to critically analyze how things “are.” Examples of dichotomies are good or evil, Democrat or Republican, city-dweller or suburbanite, etc.. According to the definition of “dichotomy,” you cannot be both at the same time (jointly exhaustive, mutually exclusive); thus, the “or” is a necessary conjunction between the two items in a dichotomy. As a young person who liked formulas and pushed for absolute truths, I was so glad to find this heuristic for organizing things in life. Easy. Just insert “or” between two things and pick a side, right? (That often seems to be the competitive American way, after all.)

And then I got older, learned more about the world (and the evils of dichotomous thinking), and began teaching writing.

I teach SNL’s Academic Writing course with a text titled They Say, I Say, yet another convenient dichotomy that introduces students to the art of argument in the academic arena. Yet I have found that students quickly realize that arguments, claims, and ownership of ideas aren’t cut and dry: “Is anything I have to say really my own? Aren’t there dozens of people who probably have the exact same ideas? Please explain. I don’t want to plagiarize!” (I usually follow this question with a discussion of intellectual property and “entering the academic conversation,” and close it with a more abstract - and fun - discussion of collective consciousness.)

When I provide feedback on students’ first drafts, I provide formative feedback so they can improve as they proceed in the course. I then provide what educators call summative feedback at certain checkpoints, such as the end of the course, so students know at a higher level (and usually for the purposes of program assessment and meeting standards), how well they did at accomplishing the course's learning outcomes. However, I have always had a hard time with the summative-or-formative dichotomy: isn’t summative feedback also formative since it has the potential for forming student’s future plans, decisions, and directions based on the outcomes we set? Why do we have to pick sides with our terminology? Who are McAlpine’s dichotomies actually serving? For whom are they doing a disservice?

When talking through this research with my co-facilitator, Michael Moore, and the workshop organizer, Joe Olivier, yesterday in one of the buildings I used to frequent as an undergrad, I shared my finding, one where I reverted temporarily to that “easy” way of thinking. I suggested that talking with workshop participants about portfolio assessment would be clear if we referenced McAlpine’s dichotomies. However, I knew those dichotomies weren’t quite fitting with the affordances and opportunities of portfolio development. Luckily, Michael and Joe came to my rescue with a suggestion, simple yet profound, to replace “or” with “and” in our discussion of those dichotomies. And, in a Back to the Future mind/body/time warp experience, that overwhelmingly satisfied feeling from my undergrad philosophy class returned. However, instead of the feeling rising due to the easiness of “or”, it rose due to the easiness – and richness - of “and”. I realized again how powerful (and harmful) dichotomies can be, and how easy it is to revert to that way of thinking. But I also realized, thanks to Michael and Joe, how important, yet quite easy, it is to move away from that exclusive "or" way of thinking to more inclusive thinking, learning, and teaching with that little word: "and".


dichotomy, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Additions Series. 1997. OED Online. Oxford University Press.13 May 2013 <>. 
McAlpine, M. (2002). Principles of assessment. CAA Centre, University of Luton.

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