Peer Review, Spring 2007

Vol. 9, 
No. 2
Peer Review

Love of Learning--and Assessment

I am a musician and a music educator, and that fact drives how I think and feel about education. Practice, self-assessment, public performance, and passion shaped my teaching and my students' learning during my K–12 and college teaching careers.

I mention passion because I believe that inattention to affect underlies many of the teaching and learning challenges higher education faces. It is obvious that students must devote concentrated time and effort to their studies to have a reasonable expectation of success. What is less obvious is the level of responsibility teachers should assume in creating conditions ripe for learning. When students are motivated, when expectations and affect are positive, better learning results. Consistent regard for affect prior to, during, and after teaching should be part of our planning. It is telling that one of the widely used assessments now helping to improve higher education--the National Survey of Student Engagement--is a measure of student engagement, not cognition.

Of all the aspirations we can hold for students, perhaps the highest is "love of learning." This dynamic integration of passion and cognition is, often, what leads faculty and administrators to their careers. Eliminate either passion or cognition from the classroom, and you compromise learning. Faculty may know all six levels of Bloom's taxonomy of the cognitive domain. Few, however, plan their teaching considering the affective domain (receiving, responding, valuing, organization, and characterization by a value). Just as we are often encouraged to plan for higher levels of cognition (i.e., synthesis, evaluation), we should strive for higher affect--at least up to valuing.

Assessment holds special promise to influence how students learn and feel about learning. Far too often, students don't know what they are doing--they cannot judge the quality of their own work because they have not been taught how to judge success. Musicians say "practice makes perfect," but if you practice badly, you only get really good at making mistakes. We must be taught how to practice or we become discouraged and stop trying.

Assessments can provide the guidance that students need to improve the quality of their work and how they feel about learning. Teaching students to self-assess, using the same criteria an expert uses, engages students at the evaluation level of cognition. Developing the ability to judge quality and thus learn more independently is an empowering, emotional experience that increases the learner's motivation. Positive assessment leads to positive valuing.

Pedagogy is another factor that we can control to improve learning. Educational practices such as learning communities, service learning, internships, and undergraduate research (among others) have been identified as effective and engaging. By requiring students to analyze and assess information while solving problems, these practices tend to motivate students. Not all assignments or projects will be profoundly moving experiences, but faculty can increase the likelihood of exciting students about learning by making strategic pedagogical choices.

Over the last decade, questions about how well students are learning have resulted in persistent calls for assessment and accountability. Regardless of which national measures are used over the next decade, local assessment will still be needed for a variety of purposes, the most important of which is to improve student learning. Given that assessment is already a common practice among faculty (e.g., grading using specific criteria), it is not unreasonable to suggest teaching students to use those same criteria, thus transforming assessment of learning into assessment for learning.

We know enough about how people learn to do much better in planning instruction, fostering learning, and gathering evidence of achievement. If one's personal experiences with tests have been less than optimal, it may seem counterintuitive to assert that assessments can bring enjoyment to learning and keep students coming back for more. But achievement and love of learning in all disciplines emerge from the ability to work at the highest levels of cognition to address genuine problems and assess how well one is doing in solving them. After all, my trumpet lessons in college--with many rounds of teacher assessment and self-assessment--were nearly always the most enjoyable part of my week.

Ross Miller is the director of programs in the Office of Education and Quality Initiatives at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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