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So shall we discuss evaluation?

29/11/2016
di Isabelle Houot
Lingua: EN
Document available also in: FR

- How should we define 'evaluation' in the context of training?

An evaluation is both an anticipatory and a retrospective look at actions we have carried out.

Let's look at an example: would we set off on a journey if we had no way of estimating the distance, and no way of imagining the destination? It's certainly true that Christopher Columbus had a caravel, but then he was aiming for the East Indies when he discovered America.

Evaluation happens in all spheres of social life; it meets our need to form an idea about things and their function, so that we can fit them into our own universe. It is from this 'order of things' that we construct our permanent environment; our way of acting in the world.

This evaluation of things also extends to others, and their actions: we can live with other people because we are able to understand them as people who are both similar to, and different from, ourselves.

To evaluate is to compare, to bring the unknown into our own awareness.

To undertake any action, we need to estimate the measures to be taken; and once the action has been carried out, we judge how successful it has been, using the same criteria. We then try to answer this question: to what extent did the action meet our expectations?

In other words, evaluation is taking the measure of things and giving these measures a particular value, taken from a scale of values.

In the context of training, evaluation consists of judging how, and to what extent, the results obtained correspond to the expectations. That is the reason why it is impossible to distinguish the question of evaluation from that of formulating training objectives.

- What are the different stages of evaluation, in the training context?

Evaluation takes place throughout a training programme.

Referring to the training programme itself, it is there right from the start: setting training goals, that is, determining the term of the educational activity, as well as the criteria which will allow us to say whether or not we can consider it a success.

Referring to apprenticeships carried out during the training period, it must answer the question: what has every pupil, every student, every trainee, achieved during this training period?

At the end of the training programme, it is only from the evaluation that we can decide whether to repeat the activity in the same way, or to make changes to it.

- What importance should we place on evaluation?

Evaluation is essential in training activities, just as in apprenticeships, because it takes us out of the implicit, going beyond the spontaneous point of view which we have of our acts, ourselves and others. Evaluating also means forming an exchange, or joining a collective.

When I learn, I am shown how to give ideas, concepts or actions a sense which is new to me; but the value of this new sense can only be perceived when compared to the common sense accepted and validated by my own educational community.

Evaluation allows training programmes to be positioned both from their own perspective, and from the perspective of others and their expectations. It sets out the training plan, and allows the student to find his way towards it. It opens the door to the training dialogue between the teacher and the student.

But if evaluation is essential for estimating achievements, it also contains pitfalls which the teacher should not ignore.

- What are the limits, and where are the pitfalls in evaluation?

Beyond a doubt, the first pitfall is the desire to measure the achievements resulting from training too quickly, or too systematically. This is often the result of believing in the absolute value of our measurements. Learning means going beyond these certainties, opening up to a new understanding which can sometimes go far beyond the evaluation criteria. If evaluation takes place throughout the training activity, and has established certain landmarks, it does not have to drive the training activity; it is in itself a real-life experience, a new universe to discover, to venture into, from which the student is going to develop his own ideas.

Only he can truly judge the path he has taken. The measure of achievements consists of comparing the recorded progress of a student to a notional plan predetermined by the teacher; this is important because it is this measurement of the difference between the two which gives a value to the achievements attained. However, this value should not be confused with the measurement: it is a judgement based on the difference observed between the teacher's expectations and those of the student himself. Evaluation is made up by comparisons and judgements based on the results of these comparisons.  It should be borne in mind that the value we give to things and actions is always relative.

For therein lies the second pitfall: confusing a successful activity with training. The student has successfully completed his exercise; the apprentice his task; there's no more to be said: he's got it!  But what is hidden behind these expressions: 'he's got it'; or 'he's not got it'; or even 'he's getting it'?

What can we really deduce from the correct execution of a given instruction if we know nothing about the way in which the student grasped it, interpreted it and used it to carry out what he was asked to do, if we do not know what he has retained from this experience? We can 'fail' his work (even in 'evaluation')yet he may still have learned a lot! The opposite is equally true.

If this second pitfall is so prevalent, it is because it goes together with a third, equally formidable and often found, particularly in the world of work: confusing performance with skill.

The risk is indeed high for trainers, generally expected to establish and use 'skill benchmarks' (widely used to define expectations) within the context of evaluating apprenticeships and training  courses; and to go from there to literally taking the student's skills for granted in forgetting that competence is nothing more than a judgement made of an observed performance. In other words, for all that we can observe and judge that someone is competent in a given situation, to assert that he has skills is unreliable.
 A student must be successful to be considered competent. To be competent, he must have ... achievements.

- What is evaluated? How do we evaluate?

What a teacher evaluates are precisely those achievements attained as the result of an apprenticeship or training course. They allow the student to be more or less successful in a given situation, and consequently to be considered as being more or less competent. They are of different types: the knowledge that the student has acquired;  the resultant capacity to act; and the skills which he developed in and through the learning activity. These are all the results of learning (learning outcomes) which interest the teacher, and it is on those that the evaluation must focus. 

This is why the training dialogue (as I named it above) proves itself to be not only necessary, but essential, when carrying out evaluations. Without this reflexive return by the teacher to the very heart of the training activity, without this expression of the learning experience shared between the teacher and the student, his achievements remain unmarked, and no evaluation is possible.

Similarly, at the level of training activities, as much attention is paid to the conformity (or non-conformity) to the fixed objectives of the results attained, as on the events which allowed the student to attain them - or not, as the case may be.

At the end of the day, if evaluation allows the path to follow, or the path which was followed, to be measured, it contributes above all to establishing a socially shared value.

Isabelle Houot, expert for EPALE France

Teacher, researcher at Université de Lorraine / Andragogy

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