This is a test, only a test? – Assessing students

In addition to being learner centered and knowledge centered, effectively designed learning environments must also be assessment centered.” (NRC, 2000)

Many teachers confuse assessment with evaluation.  Assessment is an on-going process that influences planning and direction of classroom instruction.  Assessment can be used to make students aware of their own progress, to instill confidence, and promote deeper understanding (Cox-Petersen and Olson, 2002).

Most every exchange among students and between teacher and students is an opportunity for assessment (Atkin, 2002).  Assessments happen in nearly every aspect of teaching, some will occur during the course of daily classroom activities, giving teachers immediate feedback on which to base decisions.  An example is to assess students’ prior understanding when first introducing a concept.  Drawing out students’ prior knowledge needs to be the beginning of teaching to help students make meaning of new information and make connections to existing schema.  Effective questioning is imperative to assessing all aspects of student learning.  Asking extended-answer questions and using wait-time I and II encourages student thought and gives the teacher the best assessment of how students are grasping new material.  When asking questions, teachers must remember that questions should promote student activity and reasoning in order to create deeper understanding of and for the learner (Elstgeest, 1985) (Read more).

Generally, when assessing students, teachers need to continually probe student thinking, not just get correct answers.  Basing further instruction on student thinking allows the teacher to attack misconceptions head-on.  Once instruction has been given, teachers need to again assess students to see if their conceptions have truly changed or if students are just “telling you what you want to hear”.  Again, perhaps the single most powerful tool a teacher has is questioning (Cox-Petersen and Olson, 2002).  It is during extensive classroom discussion that students’ real thinking can be ascertained.

Taking into account the ideas above, I try to assess student understanding by having them complete reflective journal prompts, comment about their own learning and how their ideas have changed, and apply their learning to new situations. As one example of a summative assessment I ask students to explain why some things float and others don’t, rather than calculate a meaningless number.  Or I’ll give them a situation such as:

I have a boat.  The boat’s mass is 5 grams, the boat’s volume is 10 mL.  How many 1 gram marbles could my boat hold? Explain/defend your answer.

I don’t claim the above question to be ideal, but I do hope it demonstrates my efforts to have students apply their knowledge and use their knowledge in useful ways.  This manner of “summatively” assessing students takes considerably more work, but I find value in better understanding my students’ thinking, rather than just knowing if they can pick the right letter on a multiple-choice test.

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