3 Tips for Using Conversations for Assessment

Assessing students doesn’t have to mean giving a test—an interview or informal chat is often a better option.

November 8, 2018
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The word assessment carries a lot of baggage and can cause anxiety in both teachers and our students. However, most of us know that assessment doesn’t have to be viewed in that way. It simply means understanding where we are in terms of learning so we can plan next steps. It can be a natural and meaningful learning experience.

One way to reframe the narrative of assessment is to use our conversational skills as educators to check for student understanding. In fact, a conversation is often the best tool for doing that. Sometimes a formal test intimidates students, and a chat may be a more effective way to assess their learning. A project or task may be too time consuming for a learning target or outcome that a quick conversation can assess. Also, a conversation can be a choice offered to students, allowing them to decide how to show their learning.

3 Tips for Using Conversations for Assessment

1. Preparing for the conversation: In planning for conversations to assess student learning, you need to create a list of intentional questions to ask students to ensure that you’re getting evidence of their learning.

General questions and prompts such as “What are you learning about?” and “Tell me more about that” are useful for getting the student talking, but you’ll also need some more specific questions and prompts. You can start by reviewing the learning targets in the unit and crafting questions that connect to those learning targets, and any other explicit goals you have set out for your students.

You can also sequence the questions to bring out deeper learning and evidence—you don’t need to proceed linearly a list. You can start with questions on simpler goals and thinking skills: “What did you notice in...?” or “Share what the character did when...,” and then move progressively to higher order thinking questions such as “Why do you think...?” or “What would you predict would happen if...?” This allows students to share different levels of learning that you can assess clearly. It’s important to know what you want to assess and to have the goals in mind as you ask questions and probe for student thinking. Use your questions as resources rather than as a script.

It’s important to paraphrase to the student what they’re sharing as a way to show you’re listening and to allow them to clarify if you didn’t quite understand what they were saying or if they made an oversimplification or error.

2. Choosing between obtrusive and unobtrusive assessment: There are many ways to use conversations to check for understanding. Sometimes we observe students and engage in an informal chat—this is unobtrusive and does not interrupt the learning process. When we assess in unobtrusive ways, students don’t know they’re being assessed, so this is a low-stakes experience.

We can choose to make the assessment more obtrusive—in this scenario, we do interrupt the learning process to check for student understanding in a more formal way. Even then, the assessment can be conversational, keeping the stakes relatively low.

Some of the teachers I work with use this method slightly more obtrusively by giving what they call “couch quizzes” to assess students in their learning. And a recent video on Edutopia shows how one teacher schedules 60-second interviews with students throughout a unit to gauge their understanding in a nonpunitive way. These are all good examples of using conversation to check for student learning.

3. Documenting student progress: Sometimes working with paper and pencil is the best way to document student learning. While some might think that this is old school and that taking notes on a laptop is better, I like having a simple tracking sheet in front of me as I have a conversation with a student. When I have a computer, I might be focused on the data entry rather than on listening to the student.

A documentation tool allows me to quickly collect data in a way that doesn’t distract or detract from the meaningful conversation. As a teacher, you can choose to have it during the conversation or to fill it out very soon afterward.

You might have a sheet for each student—like this one from the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida—that lists learning goals, the conversations (assessments) you have with that student, and a score for each assessment. Or you could have a sheet that lists all student names and mark their scores as you talk with students (the sheet is free, but registration is required).

You’ll notice that these forms of documentation are quick and don’t require a lot of note taking. If you know the learning targets from the start, then a simple checkmark is all that is needed, rather than long narrative notes or quotes.

Instead of always thinking that an assessment must be a big deal, we can use conversations to assess students in low-stress, low-stakes ways. We can choose to make such conversations formal or informal, but we should come to them prepared to ask students questions to gauge their level of understanding.

This, of course, is nothing new—it’s merely an affirmation of what teachers already do. Conversations with students honor that the fact that relationships matter and can lead to better student learning.

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