Trustworthy Assessment in Theological Education, Pt. 1: Assessment as Learning

August 14, 2023

by Greg Henson, CEO Kairos University; President of Sioux Falls Seminary


Over the past several weeks, we have been looking at Spirit-Led Excellence and Faculty Mentoring in Kairos. Both reinforce the fact that the work we do is intimately tied to assessment. Kent Anderson, President of Providence University, often remarks, “Competency-based theological education is really just a robust system of assessment.” I tend to agree. It begs the question, however, what do we mean by assessment?

The work of assessment is intimately tied to learning. It is the topic of countless books, articles, conference workshops, and more. Having engaged in and even led some of those conversations over the years, I am consistently reminded how helpful it is to have deep and thoughtful conversations around the topic. Over the next few weeks, my hope is that we can engage in some of those reflections on assessment. We will do so by taking a look at how we envision and practice the work of assessment in Kairos. Let’s begin this week by taking a look at assessment as learning.

Perhaps you have heard people use terms such as diagnostic, formative, and summative to describe various types of assessment. A diagnostic assessment might be something that helps to identify where a learner is at a certain point in time while a formative assessment is meant to help the learner move in a particular direction or develop particular knowledge. Summative assessments may tend to happen toward the end of a course, outcome, or learning experience and they tend to look back over a period of time. While those are helpful words, I tend to appreciate the phrases “assessment for learning, assessment as learning, and assessment of learning.” Many people have used these phrases. I often go back to this resource developed by the Ontario government because it provides a few helpful examples.

In particular, section four of the document pays close attention to assessment for learning and assessment as learning. The authors spend time making a case for the role of feedback in assessment and note, “Ongoing descriptive feedback linked specifically to the learning goals and success criteria is a powerful tool for improving student learning.”

This feedback process is an important feature of assessment in the context of Kairos. We strive to take a developmental approach to learning. Getting a passing grade on an individual assignment is not the goal (for the student, mentor, or professor). Instead, assignments, activities, conversations, and learning artifacts serve as opportunities to provide feedback as the student discerns, develops, and demonstrates proficiency and integrated knowing within a learning outcome.

This is why assessment as learning is such an important lens for everyone in the Kairos community. The resource I mentioned above defines assessment as learning as:

The process of developing and supporting student metacognition. Students are actively engaged in this assessment process: that is, they monitor their own learning; use assessment feedback from teacher, self, and peers to determine next steps; and set individual learning goals. Assessment as learning requires students to have a clear understanding of the learning goals and the success criteria. Assessment as learning focuses on the role of the student as the critical connector between assessment and learning. (Adapted from Western and Northern Canadian Protocol for Collaboration in Education, 2006, p. 41).”

In my opinion, the most salient point of that definition is the level of student involvement. We need to ensure that our practices of assessment include, involve, and enliven the students God has placed in our care. It is through this kind of work that we steward followers of Jesus who flourish in their vocations. If we default to assessment of learning, that is assessment for the purpose of assigning a value or grade, we miss the opportunity to help people grow in their own ability to discern, develop, and demonstrate proficiency and integrated knowing. There is room for several types of assessment, and all are needed at some point in time. My encouragement for the Kairos community is that we spend a lot of time and energy on assessment as learning.

Next week, we are going to continue learning from our friends in Ontario’s Ministry of Education by talking about various assessment activities. We will also introduce an image we use to describe assessment within Kairos. 

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