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Assessing rational thinking (How should I do it ?)

8 Aug

As we move towards the beginning of another academic year, and the department in which I work starts to contemplate a rewrite of our undergraduate programme, my mind has moved to thinking about how rational thinking can be assessed. I’ve written elsewhere about developing a rational thinking curriculum/syllabus, and the obvious corollary of this is the necessity for a measure to determine whether my teaching is being successful in delivering my curriculum/syllabus.

As I teach as part of an undergraduate degree programme, I am limited by the degree awarding regulations (and in the past by the traditions of university assessment). I current use a combination of essay, presentation and multiple-choice questions to assess my course. I’ve always worried about the use of an essay for my course. UK universities have traditionally used essays as their main form of assessment but my concern has always been how easy it is, when marking, to be swayed by the quality of English rather than the content of the essay itself. I should say that I’m not advocating removing essays from university assessment. Clearly graduates ought to be able to write well, my concern is more that in my particular case I may not be assessing exactly what I want to be assessing.

Some of my colleagues use debates as a form of assessment, but again these rather worry me. Rhetorical skills seem to be completely add odds with rational thinking. I don’t want my students to be skilled in finding good ways to argue the wrong side of an argument. I want them to be able to evaluate the evidence so they know which side of the argument is right !

I don’t have any obvious answers to these questions, but I do now have an incentive to think about them. The degree programme that I teach on will be rewritten over the next year, So by this time next year I need to have settled on what my assessment will look like for the coming years.

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