The Myth of Objective Assessment of Learning

If you are an educator or working in higher education, you most likely heard the phrase “objective assessment of learning” at some point in your career. What is an objective assessment of learning? During an objective assessment of learning, the demonstration of the successful learning does not change from one person to the other and subjectivity of the assessor during the assessment does not exist. This means objective assessments include multiple-choice exams as well as comprehension assessments which question learners’ understanding of facts (absolute truths). Therefore, subjective assessment is the assessment in which there may be multiple ways to demonstrate successful learning in which it may differ from learner to learner. The assessor’s subjectivity such as the opinions or interpretations may significantly influence the assessment result for an individual learner. Subjective assessments perhaps focus more on relative truth instead of absolute truth. Most of the time, subjective assessments utilize grading rubrics.

Objective assessments are more common in “hard” sciences such as mathematics, physics, medical science while subjective assessments are more common in social sciences. I believe the term “objective” implies superiority over “subjective” assessments which I will argue and disagree in this article. I will argue that there is no such a thing objectivity and in fact, the term objective or subjective is not even useful to have meaningful conversations on the assessments of learning.

In order to consider an assessment objective, objectivity should exist from the beginning. Well, the question to “objective assessment” believers, is who identifies what goes into objective assessments and based on what kind of objective processes? The answer is either an individual or a group of individuals decide based on their subjective judgment or “subject matter expertise”. “Subject matter expertise may vary from one expert to another. Perhaps, objective assessments apply the same subjectivity of the assessor to all learners. Perhaps what we should focus on is not objectivity but consistency and fairness in assessments. Perhaps, objective assessments can be considered more consistent and fair to the student than subjective assessments. If that’s the case, fairness should also include fair assessment of the student learning. This means the objective assessment should focus on what is actually developed in the course. Just focusing on the format of the assessment (i.e. multiple-choice or comprehension exercises) may not result with fair assessments. Haven’t we had too difficult, too easy or completely irrelevant objective assessments during our learning adventure? The only characteristic that I may try to defend about “objective assessments” is consistency. However, this may also not be true if the questions of the objective assessment change every semester. What about the absolute truths such as facts that we assess with objective assessments? Well, how many planets do we have or what is the shortest distance between two dots if we consider multiple dimensions including time? Perhaps, as we continue to gain more scientific knowledge some facts will continue to change. This will be a more positivist vs. post-positivist philosophical conversation which is beyond the goal of this article. However, my point is not that we do not have scientific facts. However, they are facts until they are falsified through scientific observation and experimentation.

What about subjective assessments? Well, the term “subjective” is also as useless as “objective” when it comes down to assessment. As I argued so far that every assessment is subjective, we can stop using the word objective or subjective for assessments. I believe the question we need to ask is if the assessment assesses what it is supposed to assess. Is the assessment process fair and consistent? If your rubric has vague and open to interpretation words, you will not be able to accomplish fairness or consistency. This is the reason rubrics play a critical role for the quality assessments which focuses on the assessment of higher level cognitive skills.

In summary, every assessment includes certain levels of subjectivity. This subjectivity does not reflect the lack of the quality of the assessment. There are other factors which need to be considered. Objective assessment of student learning is a myth that it is impossible to establish true objectivity as long as they are created and performed directly or indirectly by human beings. Even with artificial intelligence systems or adapted learning environments, there will still be some subjectivity which is ok. Please let me know what you think in your comments below. Thank for reading!

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