You Get What You Measure: Assessing Personalized Learning

Access and Inclusion February 08, 2016

This article is part of a series on personalized learning (part 3 of 6).

“What you measure is what you get”, Kaplan and Norton wrote in their seminal article about the Balanced Scorecard for Harvard Business Review in 1992. In designing personalized education, we risk starting from the wrong end, by focusing on the technologies to use, instructional content or strategies to choose from. One should apply backward design principles by starting with learning outcomes and instruments to measure mastery of these outcomes. Teachers, students and parents will not cooperate in personalized learning unless personalization also takes place in assessment. Such personalization can happen at various degrees, from allowing greater flexibility in prescribed instruments to student-defined methods of assessment. In my own university, I have found a whole spectrum of innovations that may help explain where changes can be made. I am going to describe three cases to help stimulate discussion or experimentation.

Tap into personalized strengths for teamwork. Personalized learning should not be construed simply as individual students going solo. Group work can incorporate personalized elements. I recently attended a mobile app development showcase session for Dr. Raymond Pettit’s class “Introduction to Information, Technology and Computing”. One of the assignment for this class is a group project to develop mobile apps. Students work in teams, but they also make best use of their own strengths, backgrounds and interests. For instance, one student is an author of a graphic novel, and the team developed a mobile game based on this novel. Another student works for a coffee shop and constantly have guests who do not know which coffee to order, and her team developed an app to help selecting coffee. In another group, a music student created original music for the app that his team developed. As I walked through these project booths, it became quite obvious to me that personalized learning does not have to be individual work. With thoughtful design, planning and facilitation, group assignments can be as personalized as they are collaborative.
Choose to excel. One danger of assessment is that students are prescribed the same assessments but allowed to settle for various degrees of imperfection represented by such letter grades as B, C, D or F, or points between 0 and 100.  The rest of the world does not work like this.  One would not expect to purchase an 80% functional car, or a C-level phone. Educators should seek the best student products. Dr. Suzie Macaluso changed the traditional model by allowing students to have flexibility in the type of work they do, but not the quality for such work.  She teaches an “Introduction to Sociology” class in which she lists a menu of assessment activities including participation, “sociology in everyday life” projects, movie reflection and a mini literature review.  Students have to complete certain generic tasks (such as concept coach modules) for this introductory class, while having the flexibility to choose other assignments to work on. Except quizzes, all assignments receive only a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grade. Students in her class have the flexibility to define how they prove their mastery, but they do not have the option to turn in sloppy work, except when they are willing to fail.
Go “free-range”. My colleagues Jennifer Shewmaker, Scott Self and I have been promoting something called free-range assignments. In his work with special needs students, Mr. Self advocates using universal design principles to allow students to present their mastery of content in ways they feel most competent in. Dr. Shewmaker, a psychology professor, found that teaching psychology as a general education course to students from multiple majors entails some diversity in assignment. She experiments with giving students choices in the format of their presentation, instead of using paper as the only way to present their understanding of Bioecological theory for human development. Dr. Shewmaker’s students hand in a variety of work, including books, posters, videos, albums, digital stories, a developmental clock, and even an interpretative dance.  She has done this kind of free-range assignment for three years, and it has received great feedback from students while allowing her to accurately assess whether students really master what she has taught. Going free-range permits students to find relevance and confidence in their work. 


I hope these cases illustrate innovations educators can create. Such experimentation is possible chiefly due to the presence of relative academic freedom that allows educators to think out of the box without administrators or parents getting them into trouble. 

On a macro-level, especially in K12 settings, hurdles are legion for such experimentation.  China’s decades of educational reform is a typical case in point. Similar to what Henry Ford said about cars (“A customer can have a car painted any color he wants as long as it’s black”) , there is actually much educational freedom in instructional methods. Teachers can teach pretty much the way they want and parents allow their children to study the way they want, as long as it helps them to succeed in Gaokao, the much-feared college entrance examination taking place every June for millions of high school graduates. The ruthless “Gaokao” is artistically nicknamed the “conductor’s baton” for China’s education. It orchestrates all educational activities from kindergarten through high school. Much of Gaokao is standardized testing to help skim the top of the pool of students. As long as such high-stake tests are the batons, one cannot expect educational reforms in other areas to be very successful. So are we ready to experiment, on a large scale, on incorporating greater flexibility in assessment?  If that’s the case, the rest of educational processes will follow suit.