James Holt lives in Manchester, UK and is Senior Lecturer in Religious Education* at the University of Chester. This involves training teachers to teach Religious Education in schools, as well as aspects of education for teachers training to teach in a secondary (11-18) school. James is also Chair of Examiners for GCSE Religious Studies for a major awarding organisation in the UK. He is the author of Religious Education in the Secondary School. An introduction to teaching, learning and the World Religions (Routledge, 2015). He is a trustee of the RE Council of England and Wales, his PhD (Liverpool, 2011) constructed a Mormon theology of religions and explored the resultant implications for inter-faith dialogue. James currently serves as Bishop and early morning seminary teacher in his home ward. His current research interests focus around a Christ-centered pedagogy of teaching, assessment, and all aspects of inter-faith engagement.
*Religious Education means something different in the UK than in the USA. All school children in England should have an RE class weekly that explores the beliefs and teachings of the different world religions. In state schools this is not confessional and is to help children understand the lived reality of those who have religious and non-religious beliefs. This will hopefully lead to more informed and respectful members of communities and society.
Seminary Assessments and Americacentrism
A couple of things coalesced this week to make me return to some thoughts I had a couple of years ago that haven’t really gone away. The first ‘thing’ was as I was scrolling through Facebook I came across a post from the Maxwell Institute highlighting what one of the themes being explored in their Summer Seminar was going to be. Norma Calabrese’s question seemed to be (or so the infographic said) ‘Many European LDS Church members detect a strong sense of Americanism in their Church experiences. How might relinquishing this America-centrism enrich the Church?’
At this point I need to confess that I am an Americaphile- I love most things American. I would much rather watch the Dallas Cowboys play than a local football team (though I still love them), my favourite TV series tend to be American, and it has always been easier to situate my politics in America rather than the very centrist and homogeneous political situation of the UK (up until recently anyway). My first experiences of the Church were infused with America and I loved it- missionaries who gave me fireball gobstoppers, Tootsie Rolls, root beer and played American Football with me.
Occasionally comments were made that made me bristle- for example the companion on my mission who suggested I might be apostate because I didn’t want to go to ‘God’s University’- i.e. BYU. Or when I served on a Stake Presidency a member visiting from the US saying that it must be great to live in the Mission field and have all these opportunities. Translation: you wouldn’t have that calling if you lived elsewhere! As for living in the mission field, I’m not sure what that means- we have Temples and everything in the UK? There have also been huge strides too to globalise the Church- a couple of years ago the General board of the YW reflected a worldwide make up; a couple of years before that though less well known was the inclusion of a few members from outside Utah and around the world on the Curriculum Writing Committee for the Gordon B. Hinckley manual- of which I was grateful to be one. So any perceived Americacentrism was easily adapted and amended by relying on the encouragement of Elder L. Tom Perry to adapt the handbook to local circumstances.
The second event that contributed to this train of thought was an email to do with one of my callings as an early morning seminary teacher. The email contained some training for me and a link to the purpose/objective of Seminaries and Institutes. This is:
Our purpose is to help youth and young adults understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ, qualify for the blessings of the temple, and prepare themselves, their families, and others for eternal life with their Father in Heaven.
This triggered a memory of a concern I have with some changes that were made to seminary a couple of years ago. This is not just sounding off in a blog post- I have raised them with S&I people in the UK as I felt that it was right thing to do. Who am I to have such concerns? I am a professional educator, I lecture in Religious Education, I train teachers and I am responsible for Religious Studies exams for a large portion of English school students at the age of 16. To some extent, when talking about the principles of education and assessment I can be considered to have some knowledge.
What were my concerns? Before I get to those, I want to say that the requirement to read the book of scripture being studied is great. There are lots of things that I love about seminary, and my own experiences as a student and as a teacher are very positive. The concern I have is about the test. It is a reflection of a particular (American) approach to teaching, learning and assessment. For me, it seems to be a very blunt instrument that is not measuring what it is supposed to measure. An assessment is supposed to be linked to the objectives/ purposes of the course. The multiple choice and writing framed question does not seem to measure in any way the stated purpose of S&I. The manuals do not break down any further learning outcomes or objectives, and so in analysing the test and the course it assesses I am only left with the stated purpose.
A couple of sample questions include:
In the New Testament, __________ fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy that a messenger would be sent to prepare the way before the Lord.
- John the Baptist
- Mary, the mother of Jesus
Section 2 is an ‘extended’ answer question
- The role of Jesus Christ in the Plan of Salvation. Include reasons why Jesus Christ had to be the one to make the Atonement. (You will receive one point for including this item.)
- The need for and the results of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Include the significance of the Atonement in your everyday life. (You will receive one point for including this item.)
- A miracle, parable, or truth from the New Testament that helped strengthen your belief in Jesus Christ. Include your personal thoughts on why Jesus Christ is important in your life. (You will receive one point for including this item.)
- Something you have done this school year to draw closer to Jesus Christ. Include something you can do to continue to draw closer to Jesus Christ. (You will receive one point for including this item.)
This is slightly better but still a point marking system that can be answered with a check box approach.
The fact that it does not assess what it should is just one concern- and you may say that such an objective is impossible and perhaps inappropriate to assess. So I will move onto other concerns. I recognise that assessment is central to teaching and learning, and just as teachers should be clear about the purpose of why they are teaching they should similarly be clear about the purposes of assessment. I’m not sure there is much purpose behind the assessment apart from checking knowledge. The Teaching and Learning Research programme have summarised the main purposes of assessment into three broad categories:
- The use of assessment to help build pupils’ understanding, within day-to-day lessons.
- The use of assessment to provide information on pupils’ achievements to those on the outside of the pupil teacher relationship: to parents (on the basis of in-class judgments by teachers, and test and examination results), and to further and higher education institutions and employers (through test and examination results).
- The use of assessment data to hold individuals and institutions to account, including through the publication of results which encourage outsiders to make a judgment on the quality of those being held to account (Mansell, James, & the Assessment Reform Group, 2009, p. 8).
Although a secular approach to learning, elements of these principles seem to underpin the learning in seminary. It could be argued that these categories decrease in day to day importance, but the reality is that seminary while the first is pre-eminent, the introduction of this test makes number 3 central to the programme. If this becomes a major element of the course then it could be argued that we are preparing our youth for is a recitation of facts. The way the test is structured it seems that factual knowledge has become the purpose and aim of the test, and therefore seminary completion, rather than the deepening of knowledge and understanding of the Restored Gospel.
To enable assessment to take place it is important to note that there are two main types: formative and summative. Summative assessment takes place at the end of a piece of learning and is often the terminal or final assessment of learning. These tests would be examples of a summative assessment. Formative assessment takes place throughout the learning process, it helps students and teachers understand where they are and how they can make progress. Formative assessment is on-going, as such while these tests may be seen to be summative. They can become formative if the learning measured in the test is used to inform future learning and teaching, but this is not automatic or necessarily suggested. For learning to be effective the major proportion of assessment undertaken should be formative; indeed John Rudge has argued that “It is only formative assessment which benefits the pupils directly in their learning” (2000, p. 109). As an example, it is impossible for a teacher to be able to plan effectively for a lesson if they do not know the learning and progress which has already been made by pupils. Without this knowledge it is possible for the lesson to be inappropriately pitched and no progress to be made. I have no doubt that our teachers are using formative assessment where a pupil’s prior knowledge, experiences and abilities are used as a basis on which to build future learning. Indeed, Seminary teachers are generally very good and adapting lessons to ensure all the students are challenged and the aims of seminary are fulfilled. It could be argued that the scriptures suggest this type of assessment where students learn ‘line upon line’ (2 Nephi 28: 30).
I completely agree that assessment is important in seminary, but not through this blunt instrument. The underlying principles of assessment should underpin all the planning and teaching that takes place; the Assessment reform Group suggested ten such principles, Assessment for Learning:
- is part of effective planning
- focuses on how students learn
- is central to classroom practice
- is a key professional skill
- is sensitive and constructive
- fosters motivation
- promotes understanding of goals and criteria
- helps learners know how to improve
- develops the capacity for self-assessment
- recognises all educational achievement.
Although these, again, are important in secular education I think that all of these are important in the assessment of student learning in seminary. If I just take a selected one:
Is sensitive and constructive/ recognise all educational achievement
The feedback that the student receives in this test will generally focus on their pass mark. One Seminary teacher reports a student who got 50%. For this young man who is a convert of a year and has dyslexia this is an amazing achievement. However, all he knows is that if we go by his mark is that he failed. This is not the case he has done extremely well. If I am honest all he has done is not do very well in a factual recall test (i.e. a pub quiz). His learning curve has been substantial and however much praise is given the test is neither sensitive nor constructive. S&I do discuss how to meet the needs of all students, but it is still a pass/fail approach that has been adopted.
If we need a test, consider a test that enables students to utilise their skills in using scriptures or scriptural passages to show their understanding of the principles they have learnt. This would be much more valuable. It seems as though the type of tests administered in the USA are being implemented here, and they are of debatable educational value. They can tell you how much a person knows but not how much they understand. Elder Bednar has consistently taught the difference between knowing and understanding, and this test seems to focus almost completely on knowledge.
In my ‘day job’ I teach a subject that explores attitudes, values and beliefs- and the debate about how to assess it has been ongoing for the last thirty years. I have argued “It is difficult to see how a percentage in a factual recall exam could be linked to progress in anything except factual knowledge. Understanding the central concepts in individual religions should be at the core of good RE. It is insufficient for pupils to have knowledge of religions that is only good for a pub quiz, the central concepts should be explored and from there the impact of them on the lives of individuals.”
There are many things that can be done to ensure that learning is assessed effectively and I feel that this test does not do it. Consider this satirised version of the Sermon on the Mount:
Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and gathered them around. He taught them saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are they that mourn.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are they who thirst for justice.
Blessed are you when you are persecuted.
Blessed are you when you suffer.
Be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in Heaven.
And Simon Peter said, ‘wilt we be having a test on this?’
And Phillip said, ‘I don’t have any paper.’
And Bartholemew said, ‘Does it matter about my spelling?’
And Mark said, ‘Do we have to hand this in?’
And John said, ‘The other disciples didn’t have to learn this.’
And Matthew said, ‘Can I go to the toilet?’
Then one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus’ lesson plan and enquired of Jesus, ‘Where are your learning and assessment objectives?’
Another asked, ‘What range of teaching strategies did you draw from, and do you have differentiated provision?’
A third Pharisee asked to see a cross-section of work.
And Jesus wept (source unknown).
I would be loathe to tell the student who ‘failed’ that he failed because in every area he has succeeded and achieved really well according to his context. This is in contrast to another young man in the same class who did not really engage with Seminary but has 15 years of a Church upbringing to draw on to make sure he passes the test. Surely application is far more important.
One person suggested to me that the purpose of the assessment for the assessment is to get (some) teachers away from having lessons on folk doctrine (“The Seven Classes of Angels”) or faith-promoting rumours (“An Hour-Long Version of the Time the Three Nephites Changed My Tyre”) and so on. I hope this isn’t the purpose. My concern with this is that it is using the assessment of students to respond to shortcomings in teaching. Teacher education is the tool much better suited to that- improving teachers may result but by testing students it seems unfair to the students.
Exploring the reviews of the implementation of the tests online the suggestion is that they have worked because students interest and participation in the classes has increased. Again, this should not be a purpose of assessment- it is not a tool for classroom management. If students are not engaged and participating in class then an exploration of pedagogy and teaching and learning methods is needed rather than a terminal assessment.
If you haven’t noticed I am not world’s biggest fan of terminal written assessments, but if they are to be kept, how could the test be improved? At the moment it is learn more facts- and don’t even get me started on multiple choice questions. There are ways to structure the questions that might help students know how to make the next step.
If I take the theme of the questions above In the New Testament, John the Baptist fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy that a messenger would be sent to prepare the way before the Lord. Evaluate John the Baptist’s role as a messenger. You may want to consider the prophecy’s importance for people at the time of Jesus, and also why it might be important for members of the Church today.
Or maybe: There are many different prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, such as the great King, or the sufferings servant. Evaluate the extent to which Jesus was the Messiah for whom the Jews at the time were waiting.
These are difficult questions, but helps students synthesise knowledge and draw together their learning. If these are used then we could design frames for support, and indeed, could break down the questions and allow students to use their scriptures and class notes. In the exam system within which I work (designed for 16 year olds) the top level descriptor in marking for such a question might be:
Critically deconstructs religious information/issues, leading to coherent and logical chains of reasoning that consider different viewpoints. These are underpinned by a sustained, accurate and thorough understanding of religion and belief. Connections are made among the full range of elements in the question.
Constructs coherent and reasoned judgements of the full range of elements in the question. Judgements are fully supported by the comprehensive appraisal of evidence, leading to a fully justified conclusion.
In the system used in parts of the USA (released time) the training of teachers to function in such an environment and assess in such a way is possible because they are employed and paid to teach and assess. Throughout the rest of the world, with a large number of volunteer teachers this may be inappropriate and would certainly be difficult to standardise. However, when I consider my students I think they may have done enough when they get up at 545 every morning to attend Seminary, learn the scripture mastery passages, read the scriptures the formative assessment through questioning in the lessons is far more valuable a tool in measuring progress.
So returning to the original inspiration for this post, using an American system to assess the learning of students all over the world seems to accept the familiar as the default position. Looking beyond our own context would certainly enrich the experience of members everywhere. It might be that we return to the familiar, but we will know the reasons that we do so and will be stronger and more secure in the approach being suggested. On the other hand, we might recognise that this system works in the USA but that as a global Church sometimes we need to be a little more local in our approach and that more things are able to be adapted to local circumstances.