Recently, I posted my thoughts regarding ‘The Exam Question’, an article which was published in the Ottawa Citizen on January 9, 2016. As I prepared to write this companion piece to it – one on alternative methods of assessing student knowledge, I revisited The Big Picture by Denis Littky, both the book and my review of it.
The major premise of Littky’s work and of the schools which he has developed is that there are other ways than the way education is currently structured to challenge students to explore ideas and concepts which are of authentic interest to them. And there are alternative ways for students to demonstrate what they know and for them to be assessed.
As a student, I remember doing pages of math homework and wondering, even as I did all the required work, why I had to answer so many questions when I could answer 2 or 3 which would demonstrate just as well that I understood the concepts which had been taught in class. I remember coming into a class and being confronted with blackboards filled with notes which I was expected to copy down. I remember reading novels and plays and poetry and then completing questions which asked me to regurgitate the content and which never asked me what I thought about what I had read. In almost all of my classes, the standard format of delivery of the curriculum was: read the book, do the questions, complete and [hopefully] pass the test. Then we’d move on to the next topic.
The teacher was always at the front of the room teaching the lesson of the day. In general, they taught the course material in the same way for everyone no matter what their students’ preferred learning styles or potential educational issues might be. We learned early in our careers as students not to admit that we were having difficulty grocking the material being taught. In part this was due to our fear of appearing stupid to our peers. It was also due to the fact that we learned that almost all of our teachers could not explain what they were teaching differently so that we could understand. And if we still asked for clarification, we learned that we would be considered to be an annoying student who was merely acting out in order to disrupt the class and wrest control from the teacher.
There was an ad for CBC radio which used to be displayed in the subways in Toronto. In it, the top of a listener’s head had been pried open so that words and music could be stuffed into it. I always thought that that picture was an apt representation of what my schooling was like – sit obediently while information was crammed into our heads. The course content as established by some outside educational authority was not always of interest to us. I used to wonder when, in my everyday life, I would need to know sonnet form or the parts of a plant or trigonometry.
And then I became a teacher. Initially I taught as I had been taught. I set the order of the day, created seat work, delivered the daily lesson, and marked everything. I was told by my department head to keep them ‘cranking out the work.’ That’s exactly what I did. And my students sometimes balked at the amount of work they were expected to generate — work in which they often had little or no interest. And I know that I really did not enjoy teaching that way with me controlling the content and attempting to contain their responses.
It was not until I remembered all the things I had not liked about my experiences as a student and believed that my students probably felt as I had that I changed what I was doing. I stopped being the ultimate controller. While I did ensure that my students developed the skills essential for them to be able to deal with the work required in the next grade, it was when I let go of the belief that writing tests and exams was the only way for my students to demonstrate their understanding of the course material which we had covered that I opened myself to the possibility of developing and using alternative summative assessments in the courses which I taught.
Alternative assessments provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in ways which are authentic to them. These types of assessments can be created to effectively assess student acquisition of the skills and objectives as set out in course profiles while they allow students to creatively demonstrate their understanding through the creation of work which requires that they use the higher level thinking skills of application and, especially, synthesis. These types of assessments can challenge students to ‘think outside the box’ to show what they know. Students have some choice and input into the shape and design of the work which they create. And students can use their individual learning strengths as they create their final work for assessment.
I know from my own experience the possibilities of alternative assessments. I had the opportunity to create a course called ‘Gifted/Independent Design’ which, for a few years, was available for students to choose when they completed their option sheets. Students had to complete 3 independent studies over the course of one semester. Those who took this course learned how to develop questions which they wanted to explore in depth, how to draft proposals for approval in consultation with the teacher, and how to create marking rubrics which were appropriate to the nature of the work they would create. With each independent study, they were expected to keep detailed notes of their process – their successes and failures and how these informed how they proceeded in completing the independent study. For each independent study, they met with the teacher a minimum of 3 times to discuss their progress. For each independent study, students had to create an appropriate final piece for assessment. As well, they had to give an oral presentation of their progress throughout the completion of their project.
Over the period of time that this course was offered at the school at which I taught, the topics which students explored and the projects which they created included: building an electric bass guitar from scratch, investigating robotics and programming remote controlled toys, writing children’s stories, composing a piece for trombone quartet, learning how to paint with oils, designing and creating a colouring book on the anatomy of horses, learning logic and then teaching it to the class, operant training of horses, learning calculus and then designing a project on the effect of calculus on object oriented touring, learning hypnosis as a tool to help a friend stop smoking, creating a community awareness project on the plight of the homeless during the winter. And these are only a few independent studies which students created.
Students learned about something which was of genuine interest to them. They learned skills which would be transferrable to other courses and experiences. And they learned more about themselves and what they could do when given the opportunity to have input into what they learned. For me, as the creator of this course and one of the teachers involved in working with the students who chose it, it was extremely rewarding to see the students simply soar. And I’ve rarely felt as stretched as a teacher or revelled in that feeling as when I taught this course.
The benefits of this type of assessment notwithstanding, there are issues regarding alternative assessments which can make them seem daunting.
Teachers need to decide what are the essential skills and most important knowledge which students must have acquired by the end of the course. Having established that, then teachers must decide how best to assess student acquisition of this knowledge and skills. From that, course outlines can be crafted and lessons created to ensure that these goals are met. In essence, teachers must reverse design a course by considering the end points and designing assessments and course materials to achieve those end points. All of this takes time and reflection and seeking new sources and considering other ways of achieving educational goals. As all teachers can attest, time is usually at a premium.
Alternative assessments require a different way of marking, one which is much less straight forward than scoring tests or exams. And what that evaluation rubric will look like is dependent upon what the alternative assessment is – an interview, an art project, a musical performance, an oral presentation, a student generated play. The rubric needs to evaluate not only content but higher level thinking skills and creativity. Teachers need make conscious choices about what needs to be assessed and how it will be assessed. Again, this takes time to consider and to create. And there rarely seems to be enough time to do everything that teachers are expected to accomplish not only in the school day but also over the semester.
The marking of alternative summative assessments is much less objective. Since not only content but higher level thinking skills and creativity are assessed, there is the potential for teacher subjectivity to affect the overall evaluation of the final work which the student creates. There are several ways to work to offset this: having students involved in the creation of the rubric which will be used for their work, having a few students also mark presentations using the same marking scheme as the teacher, having another teacher invited to evaluate the final work created by students. These do help; however, they require time to teach students how to create rubrics or for other students to practice using the rubric for presentations or for other teachers to be available to be part of the final assessment process.
For students, completing alternative assessments can free them to explore topics in the depth that they wish. However, with this, comes the possibility of added stress as they must manage the preparation of such assessments with the demands of all their other courses during a semester or year. And, if these students are working on several different alternative pieces at the same time, this might only exacerbate their stress to complete the work on time and to their personal satisfaction. Thus, time management is absolutely critical.
As well, even though these types of assessments allow for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in ways which are as bona fide as final pen and ink exams might be, there is little carry over of this type of assessment into the post-secondary academic world where essays and lab reports and final exams are still the order of the day.
There are those who argue that alternative assessments do little more than water down educational standards. They argue against alternative assessment suggesting that this type of assessment allows students to achieve inflated marks because teachers are striving to account for student learning by means other than strict testing and exams. In today’s educational system there seems to be an emphasis on limiting the number of teachers working. Class sizes have increased, minimum requirements for course registration have risen, many courses [especially some senior courses] are cancelled or grades and levels are combined to facilitate timetabling. Thus, with fewer teachers and larger classes, alternative assessments which require time to create, complete and assess might seem to be more work than they are worth. Exams are relatively short and sweet and cut and dried even as they may be slanted toward students who have better literacy skills. The use of short answers and multiple choice questions allow teachers who must work within compressed time frames to mark quickly. And so, the culture of pen and ink final summative assessments seems to still hold sway.
I do believe that there are times when a final written summative assessment is the best way to assess student knowledge and skills, and there are times when alternatives would do a better job of it. Sometimes a written exam is the best way to assess and it is not the only way.
It is a challenge to create alternative summative assessments. And it is one which I know teachers are extremely capable of meeting. As they educate in this quantum age, they only need to believe in their ability and in the value and viability of this type of assessment as they choose how best to assess their students.