Course Resource Kit

Theoretical Foundations

When we choose an assessment method for our students, be it a test, reflection paper, or presentation or performance, we make specific assumptions about the fundamental nature of knowledge. To assess students on instructional content, we must believe that knowledge acquisition is something that can happen based on the presentation and engagement with material, that learning is connected to instruction (pedagogy), and that students vary in their ability to take in, understand, and then demonstrate their learning. Our assumptions are grounded in personal theories “about how people learn, what they know, and how knowledge and understanding progress over time” (National Research Council [NRC], 2001, p.20). In order to assess our students then, we have to believe that a principle of learning is that once someone has learned something, they can recall what that thing is and then demonstrate it in a particular way.  These theories of cognition are shaped by our own learning, our theories of the nature of knowledge and what it is to know (epistemology) and the shape of information and how concepts and ideas are connected to each other (ontology). 

In engaging in the practice of assessing student learning we must also believe or assume that there are specific tasks or activities that are most effective at eliciting the knowledge that students have learned. These tasks are frequently domain-independent, meaning that a test or a presentation is a reliable way of assessing whether or not students have learned material, and that modality can be used in a variety of different learning contexts (i.e. a student could demonstrate knowledge on a test of accounting as well as on a test of philosophy).

To interpret the information that students provide in or on an assessment, we must believe as instructors that a cognitive transformation has taken place for the students over the period of instruction (learning), and that once the student presents information back to the instructor in a prescribed form,  that we have the tools and expertise to be able to determine the extent to which the student ‘knowledge’ indicates what they have successfully learned, or how their cognitions have successfully been changed or enhanced.  As the assessor, our role is to interpret the knowledge shown by students in these various tasks and activities and make a judgement. The knowledge of the teacher allows them to “draw meaningful inferences about what students know and can do” (NRC, 2001, p.20).  Being a skilled interpreter of the knowledge is as important as being a skilled instructor of the content, though those two roles may be held independently. 

For more, check out:

Knight, S., Buckingham Shum, S., & Littleton, K. (2014). Epistemology, assessment, pedagogy: Where learning meets analytics in the middle space. Journal of Learning Analytics, 1(2) pp. 23–47.

National Research Council. (2001). Knowing what students know: The science and design of educational assessment. National Academies Press.