There are two methods of assessments that occur during the teaching & learning process which defines the relationship between a teacher and a student. These methods are called Formative Assessment, and Summative Assessment. In Formative Assessment, a teacher provides the student with learning material in the form of a lecture, reading, quiz, or assignment. The student is assessed in their progress by way of a low stakes assessment such as a quiz for little to no marks, so that pressure is off of the student to do well just for the sake of getting a high mark and potentially failing the course in an all-or-nothing examination. Such a method of teaching is, in my opinion, not conducive to learning, and in fact it can become a hindrance to progress.
A self-guided learning endeavor, such as a personal learning plan to teach oneself coin magic, cooking, or riding a unicycle, certainly involves low stakes assessments. As somebody sets out to teach themselves a skill, they self monitor their own progress and hopefully adjust their technique in order to maintain that progress. Somebody provides feedback to themselves in this case. It would seem that personal learning plans naturally utilize the formative assessment model. The stakes are only as low or high as the pressure one puts on oneself to do well or not.
However, it would seem that I did not employ the model well enough over the course of the past 5 weeks. My skills in coin magic have not progressed to the point that I would like them to. I feel that physical manipulation skills such as this require more dedication than I was able to muster. It would be interesting to see how my skills would have progressed under the guidance of a master magician who monitored my progress and provided me with tasks or “assignments” to complete in addition to demonstrations. It’s possible that self guided learning, while resembling formative assessment in a formal learning setting is no replacement for the teacher-student style of learning.
Summative Assessment is the kind of learning that is quite prevalent in many large classroom or lecture hall settings. With hundreds of students, it’s difficult for a teacher to provide individual students with meaningful feedback. Therefore, the student is expected to learn all of the material and, at a testing milestone, be able to perform up to a specific standard. This is the hallmark of many university experiences and, in my opinion, creates an atmosphere of tension and stress that does not lend itself to learning effectively. In my experience, concepts are learned and quickly forgotten under this model. Indeed, it would seem that all-or-nothing high stakes testing only tests a students ability to memorize quickly, but it leaves something to be desired: a strong foundation of learning built upon practice testing, spaced repetition, and interleaved practice. Practice testing can be observed in the formative testing model. Spaced repetition is inherently supplementary to a good formative model, since the continuous loop of practice testing (self or teacher assessment) and adjustment of studying habits based on student progress provides a natural interval of learning, focused studying, then a low stakes quiz, would result in better long term retention.
However, high stakes testing does have it’s place, especially when it comes to university degrees where the credential should have weight and reputation. It would seem that a healthy mixture of the two methods (formative and summative) are the best way to teach and learn. Summative assessments shouldn’t be done unless a good teaching style is employed under the formative method. I have had experiences during my time learning computer science with specific professors who seemed to pride themselves in failing at least half the class, and even made utterances to that effect. My learning experience in this case was to study as hard as possible, under a lot of stress (and admittedly angrily), just to prove that I could pass such a course. Since that course, I have forgotten many of the concepts. By contrast, my best learning experiences of even more complex topics (compared to the course just described), have been where teachers utilized a combination of the formative and summative models. I remember many of the concepts from those best courses years later. The worst ones were taken within the past year and I believe I have retained less than 25%.
In my experience with both horrible classes and great classes, the best professors had weekly low stakes tests, small achievable assignments multiple times a week, and were available for feedback and/or tutorials during office hours. In addition, I found that professors such as these made learning even complex material a lot less scary because they were sympathetic with how difficult the material was, and even acknowledged that they wanted to prepare us for mandatory final exams as much as they could. By contrast the worst professors made the learning environment tense, competitive, and elite. That is, only the best should be doing this degree and the rest of you should just do something else. Granted, not everyone completing any degree will continue down that career path, but anyone who endeavors to learn complex material over a four year period should be enabled to do so, not faced with artificial seemingly malevolent roadblocks.