Assessment has emerged as a touchstone in education. Although assessment of the student has always been a central part of education, it has also become a critical measuring stick for whole institutions. With the passing of “No Child Left Behind,” educational assessment changed from determining whether a student had learned enough to merit a passing grade into determining whether whole institutions should live or die.
It is valuable to ask what some good reasons for assessment are…
- Pace – Assessing whether a class is following a lesson or more time is needed.
- Methodology -Determining which teaching methods are more or less effective
- Teacher Centered – Assisting educators in refining their art
- Student Centered – Ensuring that students take an appropriate level of comprehension from a lesson
The first two points concern how teachers manage the classroom in order to ensure that students learn. The third point is really the sum of the first two and helps the educator determine what material should be presented and how it should be done. Further, it is intended to evaluate the skill of the teacher. Finally, the last point is the most important of all, given everything that came before, have students learned the material?
It is the second last points that I want to consider here. How do we know what students have learned and what methods get us the best results?
“If I could just meet you in the hallway and talk to you once in a while that would be enough for me to know whether you’ve learned all you can here or not. If it were up to me, that would be it. There’s no reason we really need to do the dissertation…”
-A loose quotation from an academic advisor
Knowing what to assess and how to assess it is critical to determining whether a lesson or whole course is working for students. When working one-on-one with advanced students a good assessment can be as easy as the quotation above suggests. The advisor’s point was that objectivity is an illusion and in graduate education, the first three purposes of assessment are often not in question. However, when working with a larger class of introductory students, more quantifiable assessments become valuable.
Simply asking a class whether they understand as you go along a lecture or other classroom activity is no help. Teachers know that the answer to this question is, more often than not, a murmur of agreement – only to find that only a small fraction of the class can demonstrate their comprehension (personal anecdote).
Why is this? Do students think they understand when they don’t? Do they expect that they can figure it out later? Do they just not care? Perhaps they get the ‘gist’ of a lesson, but just can’t deliver on the details.
Pop quizzes are one way to make assessments in these situations. But this method has some drawbacks. First, it requires a substantial break in the class to administer. Second, even if a quiz can be administered without loss of time or the disrupting class, it is difficult to assess the results and move forward appropriately without taking more time out to grade.
Technology in assessment
Clickers have provided a high tech answer to this problem. Without allowing students to shape their answer by their peers in a call of hands, clickers (or similar feedback) provide a way for educators to poll a classroom and get real-time, honest feedback on specific questions in a way that does not seriously jeopardize the flow of a class.
Another way to use technology in support of a lesson and its assessment is to use games that are played within or outside of the classroom. With the advent of new devices, this is becoming increasingly possible. Further, because information can be shared between devices over WiFi, it is now possible to have collaborative games in which measurements can be taken not only of final outcomes, but also of the collaborative steps taken to attain these outcomes.
Collaborative peer learning has been shown to be a successful approach to teaching 1, one would expect to see a direct correlation between instances of shared information and final assessment scores. To my knowledge, such ‘real-time’ collaboration assessments have not been made. This could be one avenue to improving student outcomes that could change the way content is delivered.
I am still relatively new to teaching having only been at it for a couple years, but I am very interested in improving my techniques. In a recent conversation with a program officer for the NIH, he indicated that making assessments of new classroom materials was vital to obtaining grant money for developing those materials. I am now very interested in learning how to measure this and determining what questions I should be asking in evaluating new technology in the classroom.
What assessment tools have you found to guide how your classroom functions?
Other than a strict measure of whether students can reproduce material they have been exposed to, what other questions are valuable in assessing a lesson plan/ strategy / technology?
1. Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom. (Interaction Book Company: Edina, MN, 1991).