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Topic: Assessment in Maths. - Statement from the IMU
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 15,675
Registered: 12/3/04
Assessment in Maths. - Statement from the IMU
Posted: Dec 5, 2013 3:33 PM
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From the The Electronic IMU Newsletter <>,
IMU-Net 62: November 2013 -- A Bimonthly Email Newsletter from the
International Mathematical Union. Editor: Mireille Chaleyat-Maurel,
University Paris Descartes, Paris, France

As students we are taught the importance of rigour and precise proofs
in mathematics, and those of us who are now teaching mathematics try
to transmit this to the next generation. Providing detailed
assessment of written work is an important part of this process; this
task can be time consuming and requires considerable care and
attention, but it is a somewhat easier one in mathematics than in
most other sciences or in the humanities, since an answer to a
mathematical question is more clearly either correct or not. I have
actually noticed that the fact that evaluations were "fair" is
frequently mentioned when mathematicians remember what made them then
prefer mathematics to other subjects in high school.

This commitment to rigorous and fair assessment resurfaces in various
ways in academic life. For example, mathematicians themselves prefer
to be the ones who make editorial decisions in our main journals.
This contrasts with some other scientific disciplines whose major
journals, including Science and Nature, employ professional editors
rather than relying on the editorial judgement of active scientists.

Interdisciplinary panels tasked with evaluating the scientific output
of individuals are a common feature of today's academic world.
Usually, if not always, mathematicians who sit on such panels have
the impression that the evaluation criteria come from a foreign
planet. Arbitrarily defined bibliometric indexes and impact factors
often seem to virtually automatically govern important decisions,
which, in many cases, decide allocation of large sums of money.
Furthermore, the members of evaluating panels can have very limited
understanding (to say the least) of the actual work that they are
evaluating. All this seems in total contradiction with the
foundations of our conception of science, and can indeed have
devastating direct repercussions on the science produced (since
meeting the criteria of these artificial evaluation rules would
become the main goal to achieve, instead of the intrinsic quality and
originality of the research output).

While evaluation is in general a sensitive subject and a difficult
task (a complete consensual guide on "how to evaluate" would probably
be impossible to produce), it is important to remain firm on
the basic principles, particularly that it is neither fair nor
efficient to evaluate something that one does not understand. It is
therefore essential that we continue to resist pressure from
governing bodies, universities and other institutions that try to
implement semi-automatized evaluation procedures.

IMU plans to release soon a short statement stressing these basic
principles. I hope that this will be a useful tool for all of us who
have to plead this cause.

Wendelin Werner
Member at large of the Executive Committee of IMU

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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