Researchers at Seattle's University of Washington are
creating a new kind of assessment that would turn our
age-old ideas about learning on their head.
Contrary to popular belief, says project leader John
Bransford, learning basic facts is not a prerequisite for
creative thinking and problem solving -- it's the other
way around. Once you grasp the big concepts around
a subject, good thinking will lead you to the important
facts. So, along with colleagues at the university's
Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE)
Center, a laboratory sponsored by the National Science
Foundation, Bransford is building assessments of what
he calls "preparation for future learning."
"What we want to assess is how well prepared
people are to learn new things in a nonsequestered
environment where they have access to technology
tools and social networks," says Bransford. Compared
to typical standardized tests, for which seeking new
information would be considered cheating, he says this
model is "way more motivating, much more interesting
for students, and much more valid in terms of what
people really need to do when they get out of school."
These avatars represent a virtual couple for whom students will provide genetic counseling in Bransford's Preparation for Future Learning assessment. Test-takers will deal with a series of increasingly difficult cases that allow dynamic assessments along the way.
Credit: Courtesy of John Bransford
In the computer-based tests, students are presented with complex problems that might have more than one good solution. One test challenges students to assume the role of animal-endangerment expert, fielding
questions from fictitious clients around the world about
how to protect local species. Another makes them virtual
genetic counselors, dispensing advice to couples
about potential risks to their children. They need
enough conceptual knowledge to decide what kinds of
questions to ask, then they search the Web for information and create whatever charts or diagrams will help them meet the challenge. Scoring is done with rubrics.
Fully realized, this kind of assessment would be
linked with curriculum. Rather than moving along a
metaphorical conveyor belt from one lesson to the next, Bransford says, students would spend time developing expertise in a subject. Through repeated challenges,
they'd build up strategies and resources over time, just as a worker would on the job.
The researchers are trying out the test now with
students in North Carolina and Washington State; they
aim to have a prototype science test ready by the end
of this school year.
Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.