The value of competing against yourself
Ipsative assessment is the practice of determining a student’s progress based on their earlier work. Many assignments and rubrics are designed to measure student work in the normative assessment mode; that is, against a static set of criteria — often necessarily so. But it’s worth it to take the time to examine why and how we use the assessment methods we do, and to consider the value of allowing students’ own progress to be the benchmark against which successive performance is measured.1
Ipsative assessment reflects a “personal best” sense of progress that we see commonly in athletics, such as working to improves one’s time in a 5K run. And students assessed on academic work in this way experience “pride in their work,” and it “[helps] them take a longer term view of learning,” one study suggests.2 Dr. Gwyneth Hughes suggests that it may sound utopian, but “could be used to identify students who are on an upward trajectory and are willing to learn.” Hughes suggests a few ways in which an instructor can offer ipsative feedback:
1 Look at both the student’s earlier work and her current work.
2 Ask student to identify what she considers to be her own areas of weakness in specific assignments and then reflect on if/how she may have improved in subsequent work.
3 Decide how the student has progressed and suggest the next steps the student takes.
Hughes suggests that ipsative feedback be kept separate from the conventional grading system already in place for the course.1 Detractors of ipsative assessment suggest that evaluations based on this method are invalid to future instructors, or to any person or body that will be looking at the student’s overall academic performance. And even if ipsative assessment is used to augment traditional grading, as it seems Hughes is suggesting, the amount of additional work that would generate might be enough to put any instructor off of the possibility of using both (or more) methods of assessment.
Ultimately, there’s something to be said for, even in part, asking students to compete against themselves, and not each other. This could be a hard tack for a lot of high-performing students who thrive because of the competition of the “instant gratification” of traditional assessment methods — but again, if used in conjunction with traditional grading methods, the shake-up could prove as useful to students as to instructors.
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(1) Hughes, G. (2014, December 9). Want to help students improve their work? Mark them on their progress. The Guardian.
(2) Brown, S., & Knight, P. (1998). Assessing learners in higher education. Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. London, UK: Routledge.