A reference is an evaluation

probably quite different from most of the evaluation you have experienced in the past.

This can be a new and unsettling way of thinking about evaluation for you. Through high school, it is pretty obvious when you are being evaluated, because months ahead of time, you are told there is a test on January 25. Next Friday is a test. The test is at 3:00 pm. The test starts now and you have 45 minutes. After the test, you are given your mark. It is almost expected that everyone is treated the same between tests, so that labelling someone a “poor student” does not become a self-fulfilled prophesy.

In university, course management policies often require professors to provide a clear outline of how marks are earned in a course, and place strict limits even on “pop quizzes” so that you know at the start of a course what weight is attached to various coursework and when the test and evaluation periods and methods will be. You may even find that essays, papers and reports are marked with a rubric, like a primary school assignment, in response to previous demands for students to know where they lost points. This is a relatively recent evolution in the university world, coinciding with a student generation that professors often describe as having a “sense of entitlement”. Rather than the impression that points had to be earned by learning, there is the impression that the points are theirs until they lose them. A strong consumer orientation to learning, and reinforced by your parents, has made today’s students vigilant about getting every mark they deserve. These course management policies ensure you are marked fairly and rules are not changed in the middle of the game. Following these policies ensures that you are not cheated out of points on your transcript, but you are cheated out of valuable real world experience of thinking for yourself about the consequences of your choices and actions. In recent years, I have noticed that many students work to these specific details, even deliberately neglecting the big picture, to ensure that they maximize their points on assignments. Although these students earn all of the available points, it is obvious to the professor that the student is primarily interested in marks–not the paper for its own sake. Because the marking scheme is set, deductions may not be made, but it is an impression that will be recalled at reference time.

The half-life of diligent obedience is short. In fact, it is not likely to get you into graduate school or many professional careers. Every question you are asked by a potential employer or graduate supervisor is a test where you do not know the marking scheme, weight, or right answer.

In the “real world” of industry employment, not only do you often not know the marking scheme and weights, or when the test will be, but in fact everything is a test. In the real world, you must spend a considerable amount of your time deducing the power relations in the workplace (the marking scheme) from peoples’ behaviour. Criteria conflict. Satisfying one person completely dissatisfies another. You can do 100% of what you were asked to do and still be considered a slacker if everyone around you is showing initiative and finding things to do that go beyond their assignments and add value to the employer or supervisor.

Author: Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (https://thrilllab.blog.ryerson.ca), and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.