Gathering Evidence

The more I teach, the more I realize just how much overlap there is between teaching and scientific skepticism.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about assessment lately. There are many different forms of assessment and reasons for doing it, but when you really look at it, assessment is just gathering evidence.

When it comes to grading, my approach is purely based on proof: “Did this student provide me with evidence that she can do X?” Depending on the evidence my students provide through my assessment, I answer my question with varying degrees of certainty and assign grades based on that certainty.

Recently, I had a student completely fail a significant graded assessment. The problem is, looking at his paper, I cannot tell if he has any understanding of the material at all. If I was to assume that this paper reflects the entirety of his knowledge on the subject, I could conclude that he does not understand it (and due to our system of grading would receive a poor grade). This seems to be a typical response from teachers. Poor performance equals poor grades.

However, that is a huge assumption to make. It is possible that he does have some understanding of the material, but could not convey his understanding in the assessment I provided. This is why my grading policy is entirely evidence-based, and the burden of proof is on the students. If this student could provide me with any compelling evidence that he does in fact meet the learning objectives I laid out, I would give him a grade which reflects his understanding. Unfortunately, he has not yet provided me with that evidence. He does, however, have until the grades are due to do so.

Previous post

On the Market IV: Paying for the Privilege

Next post

G&T students, soft skills, unwritten rules of college, rezoning battles, Namazie back on at Warwick: Required Readings, 09.27.15



Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.


  1. October 2, 2015 at 6:16 am —

    I am really glad my college forced everybody to do this class on testing and grading. I have no clue how much people will remember it, but for me it was good to really see the science behind the whole thing and especially the shortcomings.
    We can never see what our students can actually do, we can only see what they did in that instance and the grade we write doesn’t say anything about how it was achieved.
    Sadly most people still think a grade is an objective meassure of somebody’s ability handed down by god and written in stone 🙁

    • October 2, 2015 at 8:13 am —

      When I reflect back on my time in teacher school, some of the things I remember most strongly were from my year on assessment. Even at the time, I knew that the particular concepts I was engaging with regarding assessment were really the most important things I was learning at my university at all.

      I keep seeing teachers get caught up in the “test” part of tests and completely miss the real purpose of what they are supposedly doing, but the fact is that our assessments are supposed to assess the students actual abilities, not whether they can succeed on our particular methodologies. The more I think about this, the more I realize I should expand on the ideas I briefly toughed in this post. Assessment is one of the things in teaching which can have the farthest reaching implications of anything we do.

Leave a reply