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Where is the Student Voice in Assessment?

Even the putative ultimate authority in U.S. culture, the medical doctor, has learned to occasionally listen to the patient. The patient, surprisingly, has evidence to contribute toward diagnosis--who would have guessed?

But this vital insight has yet to influence most of those who would assess educational “outcomes” (yikes, what a terrible term!).

Higher education now has the technology functionality to accept varying kinds of evidence toward authentic assessment because digital technologies can accept multiple inputs and aggregate them: We can all talk at the same time and still make sense. Secondly, students are the ultimate experts on their own learning (albeit not always capable of expressing or even fully understanding their expertise, just like the average doctor patient). And, third, student comments about their own learning may reveal more about their changes than any other kind of external assessment.

In sum, we can include student voices, such inclusion will add a vital data point to our assessment, and this data point may be more telling than any other.

But, hold on, I can hear murmurs among the readers, so here’s an aside about trusting students: From comments I’ve heard over the years when talking about technology on different campuses, it seems that the opening of education (cf Opening Up Education, Iiyoshi and Kumar, MIT press, 2008) creates nervousness in the minds of many faculty. Some faculty members fear that open education--more voices, more resources, more learning venues, etc.--means more chances for plagiarism and purloined answers. Leaving aside the obvious response of “just change your assignment structures and your testing structures to take into account the realities of today,” there still remains this uneasy feeling of distrust of students among faculty. So, once again, remember the experience of those other doctors-come-lately: We can learn surprising things if we listen.

How do we elicit student comments about their own learning? Many faculty members do this already, of course, but let’s consider a more formalized and broad-based genre, used across higher education, designed to get the best student reflections on their own work. If we are to include student voices in assessment, we need to find a universally understandable and interpretable form or genre (a rhetorical term for a specific written discourse form, like a “cover letter” or a “proposal”). With digital technologies, we can propagate this genre across higher education in the U.S. and perhaps in other countries as well.

The genre, let’s call it “student reflections,” could be in writing (probably the most common medium) or in sound (an audio clip of 3 minutes or so) or in video. Fortunately, digital technologies support and handle multimedia files. I haven’t used the word portfolio yet because for many of you that evokes associations that aren’t always positive, but portfolio technologies ideally will be designed to support student reflections, and student reflections on reflections.

Here’s the advantage of students reflecting on their own work: When young learners look back even a couple of months at work they were doing then, they may well see a big change. Seeing this change can be an epiphany for an undergraduate student: “Wow, I can’t believe I wrote that!” one student told me at week 9 in a writing course.

Reflecting at the end of a course on a whole semester’s worth of reflections allows the student doing the meta-reflection to synthesize and interpret the meaning of her or his learning over the past term or semester. If this process is repeated over a whole degree program and is capstoned (synthesized in some fashion), we end up with a new evidence-feed to triangulate with the other traditional evidence about progress and learning for an individual student.

Too much of portfolio deployment and use in the U.S. has been about cohorts of students so the institutions could prepare reports on how well the institution is doing. This tilt toward the institution has postponed the full support that assessment for learning--students assessing their own work to learn how to change--should receive. This tilt has also influenced the market so that ePortfolio applications have favored the cohort over the individual.

For students, portfolio-for-the-matrix has left them estranged from their own work and the student-centered technology that was supposed to be has lagged behind accreditation management technology. Partly the problem was the assumption that one portfolio platform for a whole institution was adequate.

If there is only one ePortfolio platform on campus, it is bound to become an institutional ePortfolio. In response to this obvious problem, some vendors have introduced customizable ePortfolios or modularized ePortfolios--clearly a good step forward. Some vendors provide multiple ePortfolio applications as another approach.

Having more portfolio options with the new breed of ePortfolio application opens the door to the “front porch” of ePortfolio applications to offer more seats and more conversation while the data churns in the background. With more seats and more conversation, let’s let the students talk.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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