Tag Archives: practice

Ruminations on Assessment as Learning

Photo: framed

framed – cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by eyemage

As I wrap up my Beyond Letter Grades experience, my last badge effort involves contemplating assessment as learning, which I must confess is a bit of a slippery subject. It overlaps so much with terms like assessment for learning and assessment of learning that it is pretty easy for them to start blending together. Honestly, I am not sure that I see enough difference between as and for to make a significant case for them being separated.

Modifying Portfolio Assessment

For years I have employed a writing portfolio as the single most important task of my classes. As I have changed schools, schedules, and students, it is one thing that has remained in place as part of my practice. In this sense it is less a lesson and more an assessment. However, it has remained a fairly foreign concept to most of my students and requires definite preparation, which takes the form of a series of short lessons. It is always a bit onerous to tackle in a single one.

On a superficial level I modify the portfolio requirements all the time depending on what the students have accomplished over the course of the semester. Unfortunately, the school where I now teach uses a semester-based system, which means that there is some minor potential turnover of students at the break every year.

Semester vs. Year

Consequently, I ask for a portfolio at the end of each semester, although I feel like the results were better when I have worked with a year-long schedule. With a year-long portfolio, there is a much longer developmental arc and the thread of learning can be more consistent over that time.

For me, as well as my observation of students, semesters tend to truncate the natural flow of the school year, compressing desired outcomes into even more tightly bound boxes, which may or not be reasonable for some students. By the time a high school student has adapted and begun making deep progress the semester is over and a new one begun. I have always felt that it takes most students about two-thirds to three-quarters of the year to be operating at their peak level. Shortly after that is the sweet spot, where I have always looked to get the best assessment of learning. Prior to that it is all about feedback loops and improvement.

Nevertheless, I use a semester portfolio, which includes a reflection on the selections and the process of creating them, which I wrote about for the self assessment module. Yet, I have always felt that this task needs more scaffolding to better reach students at a variety of different ages, levels, and abilities. This unit, in conjunction with a handful of others, got me thinking about how to do just that. I think the answer may be through a lens of assessment as learning, a series of scaffolded student experiences.

Adjusting the Assessment Lens

Photo: Lens (160/365)

Lens (160/365) – cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by Andy Rennie

In essence Beyond Letter Grades has already sparked this change. Building on the work from the self assessment badge, I will ask students to engage in a series of self assessments that will grow in depth and complexity.

Beginning with a closer self assessment of the main “summative” task in the narrative unit students are completing, students will get the first formal formative self assessment experience. While I explained this particular plan in greater detail, here is the quick summary. Students have two drafts of a long narrative they have composed, one completed before and one completed after a round with a peer response group. The amount of feedback each student receives varies, but all groups include three students.

Considering the limits of time and peer feedback the differences between the two drafts will be somewhat limited. This means that the changes are likely to be limited as well, and thus easier to identify and explain why they were made. Students also were given a rubric by which the narrative will be assessed to use as an additional reason for making changes. I will ask students to highlight the changes between the two drafts and explain what prompted the revisions and why they were made. Previously I was only contemplating this move. Now I am committed to it. This should be take about half a class session.

Additionally, within a couple of days of this first experience, I will present students with both a pre-test and post-test narrative assessment and ask them to identify the changes they can observe between the two pieces. This is a more complex task given the length of time between the two compositions and the number of potential technical areas growth. Also, there is no group feedback for this task. However, a rubric will again assist the identification of changes. Similarly, student will be asked to identify what has changed and improved, as well as what they believe the reasons are for the changes. My hope is that this experience will not require a full class session but it certainly could.

As I transition students to a more expository writing focus, I will repeat a similar comparative methodology. Having saved a brief expository sample from each student a couple of weeks ago, I will return it to students and ask them to assess their own sample using a specific criteria. I will then give them another copy of the sample assessed by me using the same criteria. Again, students will be asked to compare the pieces, identifying the differences. This task’s complexity will increase is by having students then rewrite the sample, as well as document why they made certain changes. This is probably a full class worth of work.

These three formative experiences should be preparatory for the kind of self assessment I am hoping to see when they assemble and submit their portfolio of revised pieces they have selected to best show their learning. I suspect that there may be a one two more experiences along the way that will assist, but I will have to wait and see what emerges from looking at student work through this new lens.

Additionally, I have to remain sensitive to the students needs and progress. While I want them to have a few reps of self assessment in hopes of building a deeper more reflective disposition, I do not want to fatigue them on the concept. If I cannot find ways to increase the complexity of the task or reflection I probably need not add another rep.

Concluding Thoughts

As I see it, the key to cultivating assessment as learning is framing activities in the course around different types of formative and summative feedback, being prepared to transform any summative assessment to a formative one when needed, and scaffolding self assessment in such a way that students gain a deeper capacity for reflecting on their own work and processes.

More than anything, reading the excerpt from Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind and ruminating on how to apply some of the principles has lead me to believe assessment as learning may be more about creating a cultural disposition in class. One that both encourages and honors student’s monitoring, assessing, and ultimately evaluating there own performance. It has to become a habit of mind of regular practice for it to really be successfully realized.

Student Blogs & Reading Responses

This year I have added a new task as part of the freshmen English classes I teach. Every couple of weeks, i have been giving them a non-fiction article to read and then asking them to write a response. In a way, I guess it was kind of inspired by something I read in one of Kelly Gallagher’s books. It started very modestly in the first semester. Over the course of the semester, I have gradually increased the demands and provided more guidance.

It was kind of an experiment really. Initially, I  just wanted to see what they would do when asked to read something and write about it with very little requirements or instruction. Initially, they wrote very little but got credit for writing at all. Then I started to up the ante and ask them to incorporate their personal reactions to the reading. Mostly, these are newspaper or magazine articles that I have read or found interesting for one reason or another. They span across multiple subjects, but often are focused on what I think of as being issues facing all of us in modern everyday life. The  are not the big global problems but smaller things, like internet and gadget use, issues related to brain research or learning, and generally just some of the day-to-day aspects of living in this time, things that they might not otherwise think about or reflect on without prompting. Overall, I think it has been successful.

Part of the goal was to get them writing about non-fiction, non-literature in my class, which is important and increasingly so with new standards coming. Being an English class, the discipline of English tends to use capital “L” Literature almost exclusively in the curriculum and reduce the reading of non-fiction to maybe anything involving a research paper, project, whatever. It has always seemed terribly out of balance to me. I also wanted to give the students the opportunity to write about something more informally, without all of the formal requirements of academic writing. Plus, I wanted them to react to the readings on a personal level, making direct connections to the material, in a way that asked them to begin reflecting on their own lives and what they see everyday.

The first obstacle was how little they are asked to do anything like this. Consequently, many of them really had no way to begin. “What do you mean write about what I think?” was an open cry. “How many sentences does it have to be? Is this going to be graded?” all the usual responses were expressed. So they needed more guidance than I had originally thought.So, slowly, iteratively, I have been providing more instructions and using some of their work as models of engaging, interesting work.

Another new wrinkle at the school where I work is all incoming freshmen now go through a kind of computer boot camp, known as the Freshmen Technology Seminar, which is some rudimentary instruction on using the school’s computers, network, Internet, and the like. Of course, this was an area where most of the students think they already know everything, but many of them have expressed its helpfulness when not under the gaze of the larger group. This seminar was, ideally, positioned in a way to give every student a Google account and shore up a lot of the smaller file management details, so we teachers need not explain all of that in class. The Google account was the best outcome, as far as I was concerned. A few years ago I had my students register a Google account and submit work electronically, so this was a boon for me. They all get an an account with all of the associated tools and an official school domain. Of course part of the account tools includes Blogspot. By the end of term, this became the space to publish the reader responses.

While not terribly radical in approach, I am certainly not the first teacher to get their students blogging. Yet, simply having the students routinely reflect on a reading and write about it in a public way is slowly having an interesting effect. The students are becoming much more conscious of what they write and how it looks when presented. We discuss the changes that need to be made when moving from paper to electronic mediums, from me as the audience to a more public one. All good conversations. For nearly all of them it is a genuinely new experience. Better still, I am the only teacher taking advantage of this at the moment, which should stay the kind of “journal fatigue” that can set in when every teacher opts to use the same writing to learn strategy. I continue to monitor the developments and showed them how I can track each section’s posts with a simple Pageflakes dashboard, which mildly fascinated them. “No more excuses about printers,” one student admitted.

I plan to examine the impact of all this much more closely, but it is still ongoing and developing. Some final reflection, with significant student input, will be forthcoming. Plus, it is the kind of long term experience that I have been wanting to seed for when we do actually enter into some actual research driven work. Now, however, it is not a once and done kind of experience.