The Levitating Wiener Standard of Formative Assessment

Formative assessment, or informative assessment, as I like to call it, is the kind of evaluation you use when it’s more important to provide someone with information on how to improve than it is to put a number next to a name. Formative assessment might or might not include a grade, but it will include thoughtful and actionable feedback. Formative assessment of teachers is no less important than formative assessment of learners- both are needed for the magic to happen.

I struggle with how to get truly useful formative feedback from my students. There are different instruments for evaluating teaching, including SEEQ (the Students’ Evaluation of Educational Quality), but the problem with the instruments I’ve used is that they don’t provide specific enough information. Sure, there is a place where students can write comments to supplement the boxes they’ve checked off elsewhere on the form, but those spaces are often left blank, and when they’re not blank, they don’t necessarily say anything actionable.

I’ve concluded that I need to design my own questionnaires. But when I get down to the business of writing questions, it feels like an impossible task to design a survey that will get at exactly what I want to know. I do have a pretty high standard, however: the levitating wiener.

The mentalist and magician Jose Ahonen performs a magic trick where he presents a levitating wiener to dogs. You can watch the videos How Dogs React to Levitating Wiener (parts 1 and 2) below. These are fascinating videos… have a look.

The dogs in the videos have one of three reactions:

  1. It’s a wiener! Gimme that wiener! These dogs react as one might expect, focusing on the existence of the wiener rather than on the fact that it is levitating.
  1. How the heck are you doing that? These dogs ignore the wiener and focus on the palms of Jose’s hands instead. It’s as though they’ve decided that it doesn’t make sense for a wiener to be levitating, and he must be doing it by holding strings. In other words, these dogs are trying to figure out how he’s doing the trick, and they all seem to have the same hypothesis. (Incidentally, it’s probably the first hypothesis most humans would come up with.)
  1. This is wrong… it’s just so wrong. These dogs watch for a moment and then get the heck out of there. Like the dogs in group 2 they also don’t think wieners should levitate, but they are too appalled by the violation of normality to formulate a hypothesis and investigate.

To my mind, most of the teaching assessment instruments are more like having the dogs fill out the questionnaire below than watching them interact with a levitating wiener.

Formative assessment for levitating wieners (loosely based on the SEEQ questionnarie)

Formative assessment for levitators of wieners

If the participants checked “agree” or “strongly agree” for “Weiners should not levitate,” it could mean something different for each dog. A dog from group 1 might object to having to snatch the wiener out of the air as opposed to having it handed to him. A dog from group 2 might think the question is asking about whether wieners are subject to gravity. A dog from group 3 might be expressing a grave concern about witchcraft. If the dogs wrote comments (we’re assuming literate doggies here), their comments might clarify the reasons behind their responses. Or they might just say there should be more wieners next time.

Now contrast the questionnaire with the experiment shown in the videos. Because of the experimental design, I learned things that I wouldn’t even have thought to ask about- I just assumed all dogs would react like group 1. I learned things the dogs themselves might never have written in their questionnaires. A dog from group 2 might not have noted his interest in the engineering problems surrounding hovering hot dogs in the “Additional comments” section. It might not have occurred to a dog from group 3 to mention that he was frightened by floating frankfurters. Maybe neither dog knew these things about himself until he encountered a levitating wiener for the first time.

A formative assessment tool that is up to the levitating wiener standard would tell me things I didn’t even consider asking about. It would tell me things that students might not even realize about their experience until they were asked.  Aside from hiring a magician, any suggestions?

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