When I began this semester, and my ECS 410 class, I thought that I had a somewhat reasonable understanding of assessment. I understood that assessment was important, that it should often be one of the first things that is planned when creating a lesson or unit. I knew that while formative assessment is needed in the classroom on a daily basis in every subject area, summative assessment should be provided only after students have had time to adequately understand the content, and are ready to be assessed on their overall understanding, knowledge, and ability to apply the concepts learned. What my ECS 410 class has since taught me is that assessment is not only required, but that it is imperative in helping to increase students’ ability to succeed in the classroom.
So, what does this look like? Well, that’s what I’m hoping I can explain to you in this post. I believe that my understanding of assessment is much more than what it was just a few short months ago, and that I now have a much better understanding of how it will impact and influence my teaching. I have learned that while there are literally hundreds of different tools, strategies, and opinions on ways to assess, there are also many ways to appropriately utilize feedback to optimize student engagement, enhance students’ learning experience, and to adjust the ways we teach to meet the needs of the students. I have gained new understandings of quizzes and tests, of homework, and I have developed opinions on how I see assessment working in my classroom to improve the experience for everyone.
Assessment is in many ways, a holistic endeavour that brings together feedback and student engagement. Without one you can’t truly have the other. If students (and teachers!) do not know how they are performing on a given day, then it seems to give them permission to “check out.” Students also need to know where they are going if they have any hope of getting where you want them to be. So, I have learned that you need to be open with students, share your learning goals with them, and perhaps even have them create their own goals within the path that you are guiding them on! This is the first key strategy that Dylan Wiliam‘s presents in his book, Embedded Formative Assessment, a book that we read in our ECS 410 class, and one I really learned a lot from. Wiliam goes on to discuss that students also need to know where they are relative to the learning objectives, so that both students and teachers have a base to start from and can then generate a clearer picture of how to get where they are going. It’s all part of creating a really solid “map” for learning. It’s pretty impossible to assess anything if you don’t know where you’re starting or where you’re going! Thankfully, these two concepts are ones that I had begun to understand in the fall, and have enjoyed working with the Understanding by Design (or Backward Design) style of lesson and unit planning.
The UBD template for both unit and lesson planning puts assessment first. After selecting what it is you want students to learn by unpacking the curriculum outcomes, the ways in which you will assess students is determined. At first I wondered why you’d need to do this first. Why would you pick how to assess students before even deciding what they will do? Well, it’s because assessment informs and directs the learning. This is something that I really began to understand in this class, and throughout the semester. Previously, I’d thought that assessment was just a way to check that students “got” what you were trying to get them to learn, but now I see that it really can let you know where students are at, what areas they are struggling in, which students need to be challenged, and where you should take the learning in the days to come. This is because assessment is all about feedback.
Feedback, as I’ve learned this semester, is vital to the learning process. But how does one provide effective feedback? Well, Grant Wiggins, one of the co-creators of Understanding by Design, wrote an article about how to do just that. In his article, “7 Keys to Effective Feedback“, Wiggins explains the best practices and reasons behind providing feedback to students. He explains things like making sure that feedback is goal-oriented, so that it can help students make progress towards their personal learning goals, actionable, meaning that students can really take action on the things you tell them, and consistent, so that students are constantly receiving feedback to have a continuous understanding of where they are and where they need to go. The other keys that Wiggins mentions, I feel, really align with the ideas that Douglas Reeves presented in a video chat that we were privileged to have with him in one of our classes. Doug uses the acronym, FAST, saying that feedback needs to be fair, accurate, specific and timely. In this video, Doug explains how his FAST feedback can really be a powerful tool in the classroom (he also wrote a book on this concept).
Assessment as feedback can be done in countless ways in the classroom. I created a resource of just 50 ways to formatively assess students in the classroom, but there are hundreds of ways to do this. The important thing is really not even how you do the assessment, but what you do with it. How will the assessment help students improve? How will the assessment help you as a teacher improve? As I created this list, these were things that I thought a lot about. I also started to think about those “old school” methods that we use to assess students, namely quizzes and homework. Are they of any benefit to students or teachers in the long run?
I did a little extra investigating into these two assessment methods that often get a lot of flack from students and parents, because quite often they seem to have little purpose and result in little feedback. As Doug Reeves presented in another video, quizzes do in fact, actually have the ability to provide great, instantaneous feedback to students. They can be very informal and stress-free, which can lead to students feeling a sense of accomplishment. In this respect, I realized that there are actually several methods, like Poll Everywhere, Google Forms, and the incredibly fun Kahoot! game that certainly lend themselves to a quiz-based assessment. If you’re looking for some “lower tech” yet still fun options, Plickers, class created flashcards, or even a class race to answer a set of questions may be great options. The thing about these methods of quizzing, is that the feedback is in real-time, and quite instantaneous, which is why they can be quite effective. The tech methods even allow you to save data so that you can go back afterwards to analyze trends of find students who may still be falling behind.
It is this instant feedback that is often lacking in using homework as a type of assessment in the classroom. Homework needs to not only be checked for completion, but for understanding. If students simply get a mark for completing the work, how is that an accurate reflection of what they’ve learned? It’s not. Our friend, Doug Reeves speaks to this a little in his videos, but another educator, who’s opinions I really agree with is Myron Dueck. In his video clip about his book “Grading Smarter Not Harder“, and this great article, “The Problem with Penalties“, Dueck explains how so many students often don’t do the homework because it’s either not interesting, too challenging, not challenging enough, or because they know that there’s nothing the teacher will do if they don’t do it. The problem is that penalties don’t really work, what Dueck suggests is motivating to students is the chance to improve. He suggests that students really do want to improve, but some students perhaps just don’t know how to go about doing this. Homework and in class work can be helpful in this aspect, but as Reeves pointed out in his video, that homework needs to be something that students want to do, something that they understand how to do, something that has a purpose, and something that is at the right level of difficulty for every student. I’ve seen this backfire in the classroom, even in my short time of teaching, and at that point I didn’t really see the point behind homework. If I gave students homework, the ones who really needed the practice didn’t do it, and the ones who didn’t need the practice often finished it in class time. I now can see how the “right” kind of homework can really be more motivating to students and empower them to be in charge of their learning.
This ownership and power over their own learning is something that Wiliams talks about in the last chapter of his book, and is something that I have begun to feel really passionate about. Really, who doesn’t want their students to feel proud of their learning and want to continue to learn more? Isn’t that every teacher’s dream? The problem is, it’s a challenging thing to actually achieve as I am very quickly finding out. It takes a lot of practice, persistence, and perseverance as a teacher to help students achieve ownership of their learning. Wiliams (2011) suggests that, by outlining what you’re wanting students to learn, promoting the thought that student success and ability is always increasing, making it difficult for students to compare themselves to others, providing feedback that will help them in their journey, and empowering them to be in control, that students will begin to see their own potential and take more ownership of their learning (p. 152). I think that these thoughts also really align with Paul Solarz, author of “Learn Like a Pirate: Empower Your Students to Collaborate, Lead, and Succeed“. In his book, and on the website, Solarz explains practical methods to encourage students to take charge of their learning, even leading the direction of the learning for the class. It all comes down to that concept of making sure students WANT to learn by creating opportunities for them to engage with relevant topics, allowing them to work collaboratively, and of course, providing a lot of feedback. I am not quite finished reading this book yet, but I am very excited to try out some of these strategies in my internship experience in the fall.
These understandings of student ownership I think can be made even more powerful by reinforcing the idea that growth is constant and that one grade doesn’t make or break a student. This was a concept that we discussed in our class quite a bit, and is one that I have really taken to heart. Why should we penalize students for not understanding the concept at the start of the unit, but being confident with the same material at the end? Why do we often just take an average score across all of the work the student has done, making it look like they have only achieved an average score, instead of acknowledging the growth that they have shown? These are questions that I think still need to be examined in many classes, including our university settings. It seems to be a mindset that we have to take the average scores in any situation. Why is that though? Is it to create a more “even” field? To make everyone “average”? I’m really not sure at this point, but I do know that it is frustrating. It is frustrating to a student who receives a 20% on an assignment, and perhaps is then given the chance to improve upon his or her score, and receives an 80% on the second try, but when those scores are averaged only receives a 50%. This really just doesn’t even seem fair! So why do we do this students? Why, after our attempts to build them up and show them how successful they can be do we take away their success? I unfortunately do not have these answers yet, but they are ones that I am beginning to work through as I create my own assessment philosophies and strategies. The trouble is that during pre-internship and even our internship in the fall, it is difficult to really stamp out your own understandings, as you have to work within the format that your co-operating teacher has for his or her class. So, while I am beginning to create a vision of assessment that includes showing a students’ growth and putting more emphasis on the process and end result, this may not always align with other teachers that I work with.
The awesome thing about feedback though, is that it is most powerful when working with a team of other teachers. So, while I may work with other teachers in my internship, it is going to be those relationships and professional learning communities that are not only going to have an impact on me, but to my students too. While I had the chance to work with one really great teacher in my pre-internship, I really hope to be able to work with even more teachers throughout my internship this fall. The idea of collaborative teaching is one that I think can be really powerful. I have found that The Teaching Channel is a great resource, and this video on collaboration amongst teachers is really great. Many of their videos look at how teachers work together to plan and reflect on lessons and units in order to improve the learning of their students. They are really taking the assessments that they give their students and reflecting on how to improve their teaching. This was something that I found out very quickly during my pre-internship. I really had to stop and take in the information that I was getting back from the students in their work and use it to guide where I would take them next. When we had previously just taught single lessons this was not nearly as important, but I have now really realized just how important it is to use all of the feedback to design the next learning steps. When working with other teachers I think this has the potential to create even better lessons for students, especially if you have teachers of a variety of experience levels. Everyone brings different ideas, insights and opinions to the table, and that’s what makes us all better teachers.
Collaboration with other teachers is something that I have really enjoyed doing in the last year or so, and my love for connecting with other educators I think is just continuing to increase. I have established a wonderful PLC within my cohort at the University of Regina, I have a great group in the #saskedchat Twitter group that discusses new topics every Thursday night, and it is through these many avenues that I have created real collaborative power with many educators that I know will help me plan, reflect, and continue to learn. Opportunities like EdCampYQR are also great to help make those new connections, hear new ideas, and collaborate on future projects. The main idea is that we can always learn from each other, and this will make us better educators, which in turn, will hopefully make us better teachers for our students as we empower them to take charge of their learning experiences.
What I have realized over the last few months is just how much there is to learn about assessment, and what an integral part it plays within the classroom. While I once thought that it was just about tests and projects, I have now come to the realization that assessment truly is everything! It is what shows students how they are doing, it is what shows teachers where students need help, it is what encourages students to learn more, it is what drives the classroom. While I had spent the first two months of the semester just trying to digest all of this information, in my pre-internship I had a brief chance to try and put some of this learning to the test. Although I don’t feel like I came even close to where I wanted to be in terms of assessment, I certainly learned from the experience. Assessment is complicated, but only because it encompasses so much. It is my hope to continue to learn more about assessment throughout the summer as I prepare for my internship in the fall. I hope to be able to put all of my “book knowledge” to use and be able to inspire students and activate them to wanting to learn. I know that this will be a challenge, but I’m excited for the uphill climb, because the view from the top is going to be spectacular!