“Things that the mind already knows” – what is an assessment? #assessment #briefing

The American artist Jasper Johns, whose retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy closed over the weekend, was fascinated with exploring the theme ‘Things that the Mind Already Knows’. He is perhaps best known for his interest in iconographic images, especially the American national flag ‘the stars and stripes’.


Here is an example. His interest in representation and interpretation is a subject that has been explored by many others, notably John Berger in his book and 1970s television programme Ways of Seeing. If I asked you about the above image you could tell me that it is the American flag, and we could leave it at that. I could tell you that it is actually a photograph in a webpage. You could tell me that it’s a photograph from an exhibition on your screen. All of these, and many other descriptions, would be factually right. Conceptually, you might tell me that it is this, that or the other. I’m sure this isn’t new to you!

The reason I am discussing this is that on Saturday morning I posted about the importance of briefing students clearly and in the afternoon I walked into this exhibition. It was apparent that Johns was preoccupied with similar matters to do with subjectivity and interpretation.

Looking at that image as a metaphor for assessment, here are three questions: what do I bring to understanding ‘the question’? What does the person next to me bring to their interpretation? How adequate is my photograph in representing what is needed?

Picking up on the last question first, are the floor, the lighting, the wall, or the title card significant? Are the other pictures in the gallery (things we have also experienced, or will come to experience) significant? The first two questions above indicate how the student (or the viewer) brings their own experience and aspirations to the question (the picture) and these must have some legitimacy. When we design an assessment, to what extent do we value the student’s own experience? Are we flexible in terms of methods, modes, contextualisation, opportunities to negation criteria or their weighting for example?

Let’s focus on the implications of all this to adequately setting a question or briefing an assessment task. As already discussed, the task and the feedback it generates can only be as good as the way the assessment is briefed. However the academic conceives the question, it is nothing until it is perceived and then experienced (i.e. we can understand assessment in terms of LeFebvre’s Spatial Triad – assessment is a space that will be navigated and could be negotiated).

However well-crafted the assessment task is, it needs to be checked and tested by others who may read it differently before it is used. Further, in terms of formative activities and coursework assignments, time must be designed into the task and exploited so that students are supported as they come into the task and as they relate it to their on experiential frameworks, past, present and future. On a practical basis this means giving the students real opportunities to check their understanding of the task through tutorials, discussions with peers, or opportunities to draft responses and to reorientate their energies. An early tutorial on a dissertation assignment for example creates a decisive moment for restating, reconsidering and reorienting oneself to the task.

The dangers of invalidating of assessment due to inadequate opportunities to explore the question are real. As an example, I remember when I did my Geography A Level at school. I undertook a summer project which was a key component of the exam. On returning to school, having had no opportunity to review the task, I was told that what I had spent the summer doing was a waste of time. I dropped out of school soon after, disillusioned, albeit with a project of which I was immensely proud but which had been misconceived. Years later I returned to education and discovered I was quite capable academically, but by then my misconception of the task had had serious consequences nevertheless. I felt cheated and, to use the parlance, dissatisfied.

So, reflecting on my earlier post about male students who tell you they are “OK” and that they understand the task you have given them, I urge you to check in with them a little later to find out that they really do see the task in the way you had conceived it. Explore the canvas and its meanings.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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