When assessment interferes with the measured

There was a time, not so long ago, when no scientific presentation could afford to omit at least one cartoon from The Far Side. One of my personal favourites (which can be seen here) depicts people of an apparently remote part of the world hiding their luxury Western goods as anthropologists arrive unannounced in the village.

I was reminded of this cartoon recently whilst washing my hands at work. This surprising mental leap was prompted by the temporary addition of a tool for monitoring water consumption in one of our buildings.

Can the method of assessment interfere with the thing it is supposed to be measuring?

Can the method of assessment interfere with the thing it is supposed to be measuring?

As can be seen in the photograph, the equipment being used scores few points for subtlety. I cannot believe that people use their usual amounts of water when confronted by this instrument. This raises the question of their value given that the method of monitoring is almost certainly interfering with the thing that is being measured.

There are all sorts of occasions in education where the mere act of measuring something might have an impact on the assessment in ways that make a difference to the outcome. Two examples spring to mind.

In a school context, there might be the Headteacher or member of Senior Management sent to do an observation of the NQT who has been reported to struggle to maintain order in their classroom. The very presence of the gnarled old pro at the back of the room will inevitably make the wiser of the disruptive element temper their behaviour.

I think secondly of a project conducted by a final year student a few years ago. They were actually investigating different aspects of Bloom’s taxonomy, but that doesn’t really matter. The point was that their chosen instrument for measuring student attitudes was to use questionnaires. A LOT of questionnaires. In the end the students were so sick of filling in questionnaires that even if they had been asked about an aspect of their learning about which they were unremittingly enthusiastic, they likely would still have responded negatively because the method of assessment was getting in the way.

There will be plenty of other circumstances where this problem is equally true. Anyone care to suggest some?

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