We know that many traditional assessment approaches, such as true/false and multiple-choice questions, prove ineffective in measuring depth and breadth of knowledge. A short answer assessment format is better but still reveals little about depth of understanding, ability to make connections, and ability to grasp concepts. For many of us, the written essay has been the preferred choice for understanding student comprehension. However, recent and emerging advances in artificial intelligence alarmingly call all of this and other assessment strategies into question.
Today, if students need to access historical facts, they can consult Siri or Alexa. If they need an answer to a math question or access to a formula, Siri, Alexa, and other sources quickly provide it. The same is true for many other fact-based assessment strategies.
Now the stakes have been raised with the release of an essay-writing technology that responds to a prompt by searching the internet, organizing information, and writing a multi-paragraph narrative on the topic. Developed by OpenAI, Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 3, also referred to as GPT-3, has access to 540 billion words and operates using 175 billion parameters. And these resources mark only the beginning. Driven by artificial intelligence, similar technologies continue to be developed and made available, naturally tempting students to use them whenever they can.
So, how can we understand what students have learned when true/false, multiple choice, short answer, and now even essays can no longer be relied upon to provide credible information about what students know? The good news is that there remain many useful assessment strategies from which we can choose. In fact, these strategies have been around for as long as or longer than the approaches technology currently renders less useful. Here are six strategies that can give us information going well beyond whether students know basic facts to reveal understandings of context, connections, and consequences.
First, students can participate in dialogue on a target topic. Prompts, queries, and probes invite students to reveal what they’ve learned in the context of a conversation. Dialogue also gives students opportunities to share information learned beyond core objectives—information that tends to be overlooked in a more traditional assessment format.
Second, we might arrange for students to partake in debate on a concept or perspective related to their learning. Debates give students opportunities to synthesize and share what they’ve learned while also considering how others might view the same content. Further, debate encourages students to delve deeper into a topic, improving their opportunities to prevail in a competitive context.
Third, students can demonstrate a learned skill or concept. Demonstrations give students opportunities to share their learning with an audience, thus making the learning and assessment more authentic. The process of preparing a demonstration helps students integrate and sequence their learning in ways that deepen understanding and increase retention.
Fourth, we can ask students to take a position on something they’ve learned and prepare to defend their perspective. This approach encourages students to move beyond facts to consider the value, significance, and consequences of what they learned. Like debate, this activity helps students learn structures of argument.
Fifth, students can produce a diagram explaining their learning and how it relates to other concepts and applications. Diagramming relationships among people, events, concepts, and consequences helps students display learning while placing it in context.
Sixth, students can perform a dissection of an event, piece of writing, or oral presentation to demonstrate understanding of individual parts, their relationships to the whole, and their implications. While we might think of dissection as an activity performed in a biology class, the same concept applies in a variety of settings with an array of content.
Artificial intelligence presents many implications for how we teach and assess learning. Obviously, we’ll have to continually evolve and modify our strategies and techniques. There also remain times, conditions, and roles for the use of traditional assessment strategies, including essays. We must remember that learning occurs with the individual student and the meaning they assign to it. Our assessment strategies must reflect this reality.