This is the time of year when one traditionally makes “New Year’s Resolutions,” setting goals for improvement in one’s behavior. Yet it’s well-known that the system of New Year’s Resolutions has been unsuccessful in actually achieving the goals that it has set, and it is here that I think we could learn a great deal from recent advances in educational assessment.
One thing that is striking from an assessment standpoint is the vagueness of most resolutions. Let’s say I resolve to go to the gym more this year. Do I have reliable figures for how often I have gone years prior, as a baseline? How much “more” am I looking for here? Do I have a mechanism in place to keep track of how often I’m going?
One might also note that the stated goal is surely not the intended goal. Simply stopping into the gym to use the vending machine would presumably not “count” toward fulfilling the stated goal. This is where we need to lay out some resolution objectives. Do I want to increase my stamina? Do I want to look better naked? Do I just want to feel generally better? Only once we’ve clarified those goals can we begin to consider how we might measure our progress toward them.
For the gym, quantitative measures such as heart rates, “reps,” weights used, distances run, etc., are readily available — and outcomes, such as body mass index, cholesterol levels, etc., are easily measurable as well. For subjective measures, usually expressed in vague terms like “I feel so much better since I started going to the gym!,” it is a simple matter to develop a quantitative assessment tool. For instance: Do I feel much less sexy (1), somewhat less sexy (2), equally sexy (3), more sexy (4), or much more sexy (5)?
Such an approach would give us much greater clarity as to whether we’re meeting our resolutions and to what degree. And it provides a mechanism for accountability. Instead of making some vague resolution, doomed to failure, every year, we can look back over the data and see how close we came. Over the course of several years, this will provide us grounds to assess how competent we are in proposing and fulfilling New Year’s Resolutions — and to compare performance across resolvers. If a clear pattern of underperformance emerges for any given resolver, then it’s probably time for someone else to be put in charge of thinking of ways for that person to improve their life over the course of the calendar year.