Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Discusion of Agency in Assessment and a Classroom Idea for Educators: "Text Discussion Demo"

In an article by Libby Garland and Kevin Kolkmeyer in the March 2011 issue (38.3) of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, the authors discuss their collaboration as part of Kingsborough Community College's Opening Doors Learning Communities Program.

The article, "A Culture of Conversation: Faculty Talk as Meaningful Assessment of Learning Communities," is a critique of assessment measures that are mainly quantitatively driven since they argue that exclusively data-focused assessments "fail to capture both important successes and failures and to model the kind of reflective, subjective assessment from a professorial perspective that we believe is vital for larger institutional decision making" (231).

In fact, as Garland and Kolkmeyer relate at the conclusion of their article, how their college touts the learning communities program does not take into account that professors have something to do with learning: "Naturally, we care about those things all the studies [of retention, of success, of graduation rates, et al.] track. But we see two related dangers in allowing such quantitative data to 'drive the bus,' as it were. First, much that desperately needs to be discussed, if we want to know how or why classes succeed or fail, gets lost. What we see and know and do, as professors, does not get factored in. We find it telling, for example, that the MDRC study of Kingsborough's learning communities explicitly says that the study's positive results in no way have anything to do with what professors teach. Rather, they say the data have only to do with the program's structure (Scrivener et al.)" (241)

For professors, that point has to be disconcerting if not enraging.

Their work connects to Christopher Gallagher's theoretical article in February issue (62.3) of College Composition and Communication. In "Being There: (Re)Making the Assessment Scene," Gallagher "propose[s] a rewriting of the assessment scene that asserts faculty and student agency and leadership for writing assessment" (450). For readers interested in writing assessment, whether a university professor or someone who plans to teach at the K-12 level, his article is a must read.

But in a more practical (and hopeful) vein, in Garland and Kolkmeyer's article, they concisely describe an activity they have used to model the type of discussion they want in their classrooms.

They call it a "text discussion demo." Early in the semester they show the type of wide-ranging and text-specific discussions they expect in their classes. They describe the activity in this way: "In other words, the two of us sat in front of class and talked with each other about a short article the whole class had read. We hashed out what the text was getting at; we pointed to specific places in the text that we found central and explained why; we made connections to class discussions; we posed questions about ideas we found dubious or interesting. Afterward we discussed our discussion with the students, asking them to talk about what they observed and how it was like or unlike other kinds of conversations they have had" (237).

If you're planning courses for the fall and you value strong discussion, the text discussion demo might be something that can work.