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Did I pass? Removing the black cloud of assessment in adult education


Jumping between academic management and learning material development, Iris Smith just enjoys both, the direct work with adult educators and the challenges that the development of adult learning material bring. The Adult Learning Hub is delighted to have her as our guest contributor for this week's blog article. Despite her early passion for and dedication to education, Iris has admitted to failing a number of exams herself, both in university and even later in life. But, through these failings, she has experienced some of her greatest learning. In this article she shares important reflections and three practical strategies that can be adopted by all adult educators, regardless of the context they operate in.

Think of the last time you were assessed. This might have been during your driving test or the end-of-course exam of your beginner Italian class.

Unless you are one of those people who enjoy the challenges of taking an exam or being tested, those that have nerves made of steal and get exited about showing off what they have prepared, you might feel rather nervous before, during and even after.

The inherent pressure of demonstrating what we know in one specific point in time posts a big obstacle in performing to the best of our abilities.

A student might have demonstrated that they are able to use a particular skill or apply learned knowledge accurately several times before an exam only to then do it inaccurately in this one moment, when all of a sudden it seems to matter more, than during a practice stage with the trainer or facilitator.

So many external factors feed into the issue of test anxiety in adults. From our experience with exams in high school or university, to our daily dispositions - imagine being assessed just after having a one hour budgeting meeting with your team. The perceived level of difficulty of the content at hand, test anxiety tends to usually lead to worry, lower confidence and ability to remember information.

So how can adult educators and practitioners lower test anxiety and enable their students to demonstrate acquired skills and knowledge in the most confident way?

1. It shouldn't all hang in the final assessment. 

Many adult learners believe that the results of mid-term exams, end-of-course tests or other summative tests are the only source of information for the instructor to judge the outcome of the learning progress, and make decisions on future actions (e.g. if a student can proceed to the next level course). This should not be the case.

A final grade should consist of all course elements that prove that learning happened, and students need to know what these elements are, so they can take responsibility for their learning from day one.

I usually count participation, self-study efforts and quality of homework assignments, formative assessments like portfolio work or peer editing, as well as the final test into the final grade, with the final exam never weighing more than 20% of all course achievements.

I also meet each of my course participants once every two months or so, to check in on how they perceive their progress and remediate some weaknesses I observe. These regular reflection sessions help my adult learners see the continuity of their learning and take away the looming pressure of a final exam.

2.  Let them apply what they've learned

In the age of instant knowledge, students should be allowed to use resources like Google, dictionaries or infographics, during an assessment.

Better even, make your exam a series of hands-on problem-solving tasks where students are asked to use these resources as well as their peers as a source of knowledge.

Tasks such as information-gap activities or delivering presentations allow students to apply what they've learned in a more authentic way. 

They can prove that they have become autonomous learners who are able to use acquired knowledge in real life settings.

3. When, what and how

Be transparent about the logistics of your assessment and don't let the test and quiz dates hang over your courses like a black cloud.

Include your adult learners in the process of deciding when to schedule tests and ask them to put those dates on their work calendars, so they can invest an appropriate amount of time on preparing and studying.

Give them as much information as you can on the test paper itself. How many tasks are their? How many tasks are objectively graded (e.g. multiple choice with one correct answer) and how many open questions or productive tasks like writing an essay are their? How much time will be spent on listening or watching a video?

Taking a test is a skill in its own right and some of us are better at it than others. As an instructor, try to add explicit instruction for test taking strategies into your course.

The overall point is, if you are able to change your adult learners' perspectives from the beginning of your course and guide them to become autonomous learners who appreciate regular feedback and reflection on their learning progress through regularly evaluating the hard work they do, the final test won't cause fear. It will merely be one assessment block in many that inform them what they have learned.

Do you have a voice in the world of adult learning, like Iris? We'd love to hear from you and feature your insights in an article. Email us here to get in touch!

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