Think back to an assessment you took in your elementary years. Do you have it in your mind? If not, that’s the problem that needs to be addressed! The assessments you took were not that memorable; you probably didn’t have a lasting connection and there was absolutely no impact on you as a learner whatsoever. But do you remember maybe a science fair project? A public speech that you made? A birdhouse or table that you made in shop class? A portfolio of photos that your art teacher let you create? Those are the culminating pieces that you remember! So why can’t we do that in a class that [only] allows for traditional assessments? That is what we are going to dive into today.
Currently, we are in such an opportunistic time in education. It can be difficult with the adversity families, learners, teachers, districts and communities are facing. Educators are adapting to different learning models – hybrid, remote, hyflex, and back to face-to-face; but with these different learning models, we cannot forget the learner’s voice, choice, and engagement with their learning. Right now, we may have learners that are still engaged and are attending class daily; but we definitely have some learners that are struggling to stay connected to their education due to circumstances that may be outside of their control. As educators, it is our responsibility to see this disconnection and to do what we can to cultivate that relationship again and empower our learners.
One way to do that is to ditch that paper-pencil test! Read that again, ditch that paper-pencil test. There are some skeptics to this idea because it contradicts everything they have done as a teacher, and in their time as a student. Just think of the monotony and repetition of learning a new topic, practice that topic, test, repeat. We are in a personalized digital era where learners are increasing their knowledge of technology at a rapid rate, definitely surpassing the teachers’ knowledge. Let’s embrace that!
How can we use technology and tap into our learners’ interests to make assessments more meaningful? How can we empower our learners and build community at the same time? If you’re ready to approach these questions, continue reading!
Tip #1: Ask yourself if you’re ready to give up control and make a change
6 questions to ask yourself to see if you’re ready to give up control to your learners:
- How do I know what a learner knows when I give them a test or essay prompt?
- What are the ways a learner has shown me their thinking?
- What are some ways that a learner can show me their understanding that I haven’t tried yet?
- What if I gave my students a choice on how they want to be assessed?
- Will the learning objective change?
- Is learning the variable and time the constant? Or is learning the constant, and time the variable?
These questions can be uncomfortable to dig into at first for many reasons. It’s natural for people to think of the barriers first. Your district probably has common assessments that you have to give to your learners for accountability purposes. Those assessments are designed to capture what that learner knows at that very moment on the topic you just covered for the last couple of weeks.
Sometimes your content or district team might tweak the questions from one year to the next. The school district might be switching from a traditional grading system to a standards-based system, or even to a proficiency-based grading system. You have 35 weeks to complete 19 units, so your time is very tight. These are all very real circumstances and barriers that have made change difficult or assessments inflexible.
The next tip is going to help you transition from inflexibility to innovation. We will dig into questions that may arise when you consider the idea of giving up control to your learners, and making assessments more meaningful.
Tip #2: Build intentional time to ideate [with your learners]
Once you’ve answered the above questions honestly, your gears may start to turn. I remember when I first answered these questions, I had so many “what if,” “will you,” or “could I” kind of questions. But I realized that I need to involve my learners in these questions if I want to give them voice and choice in the matter.
Will I provide the options on how I want to assess my learners? I had one or two ways in my mind of how a learner could demonstrate their understanding, I thought they could make a video showing me they could solve a series of math problems that were the toughest in the unit. They could make an infographic on a Google Slide detailing their research, calculations, and linear models on a particular healthy restaurant as a Public Service Announcement. I shared these ideas with my learners, and that’s when the ideas started flowing.
I created a prompt on Padlet, and they all posted their ideas. Their excitement and awe that they had a choice in the matter was palpable. This is where the real community building and engagement started. One student loves board games so much she ended up making a chutes and ladders dice game involving simplifying expressions; she glow-forged a piece of wood, produced a bag of game materials, and made the game objective rule sheet, along with other supporting materials. She then filmed herself playing it as a way to prove that she was able to not only create the game but do the math behind it as well. Another student created an iMovie by screencasting his iPad while he narrated a live lesson on solving square root and cube root equations on Notability. These two examples definitely have a math focus, but just think…how could you extend this to Science? Social studies? Art? Music? Literacy?
7 ways you can assess your learner’s understanding beyond paper and pencil
- iMovie (video tutorial)
- Infographic or anchor chart
- Slideshow lesson notes
- Board game
- Spoken Word performance
- Mini-lesson to you or a small group of peers
- Virtual Tour with Google Maps
Will I develop a rubric or checklist to assess their understanding?
I came from a district that shifted towards standards-based grading, and we had common assessments with a rubric at the top of each test. When we shifted towards proficiency-based, the language changed towards what a student is able to do at that particular grade level, and what are the next steps or supporting steps. So I sat down with my learners and asked them, “What have we covered so far in this unit? What was a struggle for you? What has challenged you? What have you conquered in this unit?” Those are the items that we put into a rubric that we developed together. With this conversation, I not only asked their opinion, but I involved them in the decision making process. Their voice was heard, acknowledged, and implemented. We are building a community of learners, together! The parts that were on the original rubric of the test were on there, but in a completely different way: applicable and personalized.
How much time will I allow for this?
I wasn’t sure about this one. We were at the end of one unit, and I asked my two classes if they would be interested in doing an alternative summative project rather than a paper-pencil test. You’ll get the students who just want to take a test, and you’ll get the learners who are hesitant, and the kids who absolutely hate tests and will do anything but test. All three categories create wonderful opportunities to dig deeper. You could pose statements or ask questions such as, “tell me more,” “how do you know if you’ve never done it before,” “what’s been your experience with a test [or project]?”
We decided that in the last week of the unit, we would start to allow class time and encourage time outside of class to start creating their project. At this point, some learners opted out and continued down the traditional path of reviewing and taking the paper-pencil test. However, some students opted in and started to develop their iMovie, board game, memory matching game, etc. Some students only needed 2-3 days, others needed 3 school days and the weekend to complete it. We would provide meeting times throughout the week to check the status of the project and give suggestions. I can’t tell you how long it should take because every teacher, student, class, content area, school, and district is different. You have to ask yourself, what’s more important- the test and its results or creating life-long learners who are now committing to their learning out of choice?
What if this fails?
This is a relative question. How do you define failure? A student doesn’t complete the project on time, if at all? You can give them the test. (This was an agreement I made with the students beforehand.) What if the student doesn’t do well on this project? What a wonderful opportunity to confer with your learner to discuss their process! Teachers can be their own worst critic, but to know that you have tried and continue to try to involve learners in the assessment process, provide meaningful opportunities for them to share their voice and perspective, not to mention their creativity and identity! What if it’s a success because the aforementioned was a byproduct?
Tip #3: Reflect!
Whenever you try something new or add a new layer to your pedagogy, always reflect. If you’re challenging yourself to release control to your learners and make your assessment process more meaningful and applicable to your learners, then why not reflect with them?
- What was something you appreciated the most about this project?
- Given more time, what would you add to your project?
- If you did this again, what would you change?
- How is this different to you from a traditional test/essay?
You could ask these questions on a Google Form, a Padlet, Jamboard, or even on a virtual call with breakout spaces. You could ask this in a community circle style within your classroom. You could choose to have the learners who opted out of the alternative project to be a part of the discussion in hopes to pique their interest. The opportunities are endless!
When I first started offering alternative assessments, I started with one unit, in one class, with a small group of students who were interested. It then grew to a second class to more students that were interested. I wasn’t quite ready to dive in and release control to too many students. But once I did, I didn’t regret it. They were asking me if their ideas were acceptable, and asking to use their extra work time to work on their project.
When the projects were turned in I conferred with them using the rubric or gave them feedback on the rubric in Google Classroom. Some students really took advantage of this opportunity and blew me away with their creativity. A smaller group of students definitely under performed; this opened up the doors to a great discussion and making next steps. Whether the project was a success or a “failure,” I always counted it as a win because I let go of the control, I invited the learners to own the assessment process, and the intentional time for feedback and conferring was invaluable.
I’ll always remember the following words, time is the variable, and learning is the constant. When my grad school professor stated those words, it shook me. If we’re worried about Day 50’s lesson not going into Day 51, we are leaving kids behind. If we have to give this test to this one kid on this day no matter what, we’re leaving that kid behind. If you have a student that has a hard time writing their thinking and that’s the only way you’re assessing that student is through writing, you’re leaving that student behind. Once you start to release control to the learners and what they want, you find yourself doing it more and more. The learning becomes the constant; the learning becomes more meaningful; the learning becomes fun. The more we lead with this in mind, the deeper your connections and trust will be with your learners, and your learning community will be just that – a community of learners with a shared purpose and sense of responsibility for each other’s learning.
If you have any tips, suggestions, or want to share your experience, please comment below.
Bryn Grosskopf is a secondary math teacher in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Bryn earned her Masters of Education at Carroll University focusing on Personalized Learning and Teacher Leadership. She has worked at the Waukesha STEM Academy for eight years, developing a community of empowered learners and pushing her colleagues to do the same. Teacher leader, innovator, and a learner-centered educator are just a few ways to describe how Bryn pushes the envelope on implementing personalized learning strategies and creating life-long learners.