How should we assess lifelong learning?
Finding a way to assess lifelong learning and offer credit and accountability to individuals is challenging. How can you continue to reward ongoing learning throughout life?
Fundamental arguments challenge if assessment and lifelong learning are desirable bedfellows. The attitude underpinning lifelong learning is indeed intrinsic motivation. However, doing something for the sake of doing it is a lofty ideal; we all need a little encouragement in marking our progress. And if we want lifelong learning to become an attitude held by the majority, there are benefits to offering rewards along the way – as we continue to validate the commitment being shown.
Making the assessment of lifelong learning productive and just is a challenge. Lifelong learning is not about being better than the next person but being better than the person you were yesterday.
Let’s unpick the challenge and explore a potential solution.
The challenge of assessment
Assessment seems like a simple business on the surface. Assessors set some questions, they mark the questions right or wrong, the person being tested passes or fails. Simple right?
Let’s start by considering what you are assessing when you set your questions. How can you cover the entirety of everything that a person needs to know to be an expert? You can keep the questions secret, so the respondent is forced to be confident in everything covered but then how they feel on that one day impacts massively on performance.
Then, if the individual is asked to write a response, part of what you are testing is literacy. The capacity to read and write is a talent often separate from what is being assessed, so there is an unjust barrier to success. If you want the person to regurgitate facts, then you are testing memory. There are biological factors that can improve or impair memory outside of the area being assessed.
Knowing about something is also different to being able to use that knowledge. Assessing the application of learning is challenging, as then the questions asked require you to inspire the use of skill in the response. What is the skill, and what does it look like when effectively applied?
Also, surely the knowledge you are testing is quickly out of date. Testing a skill, which skills are going to continue to be useful throughout life?
That is not even all.
When do you then decide something is a right or wrong answer? Or do you want a scale of solutions with different marks attached? Then, what constitutes competence or a baseline of ability that says that person is qualified?
There is also the business of recruiting the right sort of people to make this judgement, often a subjective assessment packaged as objective.
Still not all.
How do you then make this fair for all people taking your assessment?
How can you continue to assess people in a way that is meaningful and isn’t designed solely as a means of sifting and sorting us into ranks?
A snapshot of possibilities
There is a menu of assessment options educationalists can select from when designing a learning outcome. There is either summative assessment or formative assessment. Summative assessment is usually a test at the end of the learning. Alternatively, you can use formative assessment, which is ongoing throughout the course until you reach a specified standard.
The assessor can choose a written examination sat on a specific day to a set time. Alternatively, they can select a practical test taken in front of an examiner in an appointment window. There is also the option for coursework or the collation of portfolios that can audit the knowledge, behaviours, and skills to a set baseline.
An assessment can be assessed by a teacher or guide, whose professional integrity is trusted to supersede any loyalty to the student or personal gain from succeeding with a student. Then, there is the option of being assessed by a stranger who isn’t given access to a name but equally has no context for learning that is taking place.
Shaping Entelechy’s assessment policy for lifelong learning
When we sat down to decide on how to offer reward and accountability to Entelechy learners, these were the dilemmas and choices we felt we had inherited.
We had the added complication of assessing the development of character, which is inherently personal and individual. We had also designed a learning journey that can be created entirely by the learner. They can choose the paths, the content, the actions they undertake while learning.
What will we assess?
Our answer to this question of what we assess was based on our description of our pedagogy. It is a learning journey with multiple paths that encourages exploration and experimentation.
We are therefore assessing the journey.
An individual shows up in Place A to begin learning. They undertake the learning and come out at Place B. Therefore, getting from one place to another, the learner has progressed and deserves a reward.
When it came to the details of what we assessed, we applied some common sense to the problem. If it is a journey we want to evaluate and learning helps us travel this path, then we should celebrate the learning behaviours. If we do not apply what is constituted as vital learning behaviours, we will not progress.
If we are assessing lifelong learning, it makes sense to assess the actual learning. Then, whatever character quality our learner chooses to evolve can be set against the same criteria.
Imagine if you asked learners to demonstrate that they know where they are now and where they want to go. In other words, you expect the learner to understand the context for learning and have a vision for progress.
Then, on a simple level, after undergoing some study, the learner comes away with takeaways – or things they will apply to make them better – then they have indeed learned.
However, if we want to add some rigour to this, we want the learner to show this by giving us examples of practical applications. They also need to acknowledge how these takeaways fit in with others who are considered experts here. You want them to demonstrate all this with evidence applied in action and experience gathered while undertaking the learning journey.
Ultimately, you want the learner to have come to some transformational insight. You want to hear about the aha moment that made them realise how they could show up better in the future.
If they show all this, they have come in at Point A, travelled to Point B, and evolved to be a better person. Within the Entelechy philosophy, our learners deserve a reward.
How do we do this?
Having established what we wanted to reward, we then set about designing a means of assessing this. We wanted accountability and a sense of seriousness. Of course, we could encourage the learner to self-declare completion of the journey, but any certificate we issued would lack credibility. If we are going to make lifelong learning a valuable undertaking, we needed to give more weight to the reward than this.
Therefore, we wanted our learners to be put to the test and to be judged by assessors. The problem? Our criterion is highly subjective. There are no objective markers on what constitutes a successful learning journey, and any outcome will draw from a personal perspective. There is a lot of room for it to feel random and unfair.
When seeking truth in research, we often look at a problem from three different perspectives. It is known as triangulation and is based on the methods used by navigators of old. Find three points and draw a line between them; find the centre of the triangle, and this is your position on a map.
Let’s apply this to assessment.
As an individual, I decide I have made a journey in learning. I know I have moved forward, and I show up better today than I did yesterday. I put myself forward for assessment with this belief. I answer four questions designed to help me demonstrate the learning I have undertaken, and by pressing submit, I become one perspective out of three in deciding I have journeyed forward.
I then choose two assessors who know me and who will assess me independently from each other. With some training from Entelechy, these assessors read my answers and select “Yes” or “Not Yet”. They are deciding, at this moment, if I have learned anything from my exploration of character.
Whether the assessor says “Yes” or “Not Yet”, they offer insightful feedback that guides the learner further in their travels than they were before. The assessment becomes a step in the pursuit of ongoing lifelong learning.
If the answer is “Not Yet”, the learner responds to the feedback, deepens their transformation, and then resubmits.
Assessment is the reward, not the driver
The learner can learn with Entelechy without ever submitting to assessment. Benefit from the structure of learning we promote is not premised on achieving a badge or certificate.
By offering a route to assessment, we provide an opportunity for guidance, validation, and reward. The badge you receive on passing a learning journey can be shared on your CV or social media. The advice you are given from your assessors can coach you onto the subsequent journey you will take. Most importantly, you will receive a marker that validates your efforts and encourages further endeavour. Further endeavour on your personal journey is what lifelong learning is fundamentally about.