Triangulation in Assessment

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Almost 20 years ago I had the great pleasure of serving as the Training Officer of Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps “Rainbow” based at CFB Esquimalt in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia. Having been an Air Cadet and in the Air element for most of my career with the Cadet Instructor’s Cadre, my Commanding Officer at the time thought it best if I learned first hand how the Navy does things and at her first opportunity sent me on a weekend sail aboard Yard Auxiliary General (YAG) 319 commanded by good friend of the Corps, Lieutenant (Navy) Peter Lawless, aka “the Captain.”

Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia

Upon hearing that I was a pilot I was quickly put to work as navigator. The Captain knew our route with eyes closed but had me taking bearings every few minutes. This involved shooting a bearing using a gyro compass similar to the one shown below.

Gyro compass on the bridge of a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer – picture credit: Ken Walker

I would line up the compass with a known feature identified on our map and draw a line on that angle from that feature. I would repeat the process twice more with different landmarks. The three bearings had to be taken quickly as there was no way the Captain was going to slow down for an airplane pilot to take a bearing on board his ship. After this process I would end up with three intersecting lines on the map:

Triangulation – image credit: Bryan Hansel

If I had taken the bearings quickly and accurately the lines would intersect in a tiny triangle and we could be confident the ship was located within that triangle. Sometimes I was taking a bearing on a land mass that was close beside us and the bearing changed quickly as we steamed by, sometimes I was just too slow and the Captain would look at my huge triangulation, shrug and say “Do it again.”

I had not thought about this experience for a long time but was reminded a few years ago when our Ministry of Education in Ontario rolled out a new Assessment policy.

There are three keys to making a triangulation successfully, good landmarks, taking accurate bearings and taking the bearings quickly.

Good landmarks in this context are your own observations as a teacher, conversations between student and teacher and student product. As in navigation, “Using multiple sources of evidence increases the reliability and validity of the evaluation of student learning.” (Ontario, 2010)

Taking accurate bearings speaks for itself in one way, you want to make sure that you are fairly and accurately assessing student work. I would take this metaphor a step further and come back to one of the fundamental principles of the Ministry’s assessment policy, teachers are to use practices that are carefully planned and as much as possible relate to the interests, learning styles, needs and experiences of all students (Ontario, 2010). We can be accurate if we remember our “landmarks” of conversations, observations and product.

The final point is taking a quick bearing. In the numerous student and parent surveys we have completed over the last three years we often heard that timeliness of feedback needs to be improved. This is another of the principles in our province’s assessment policy, “provide ongoing descriptive feedback that is clear, specific, meaningful, and timely to support improved learning and achievement.” The key to remember here is that when you are on board a moving ship, the bearing you take is only valuable for a moment….it is used to make a slight course correction and then you must take another. If you are not doing it quickly and often, you could get lost or run aground. That is the last thing we want for our students.

Government of Ontario. (2010). Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. Ministry of Education. Retrieved from

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