Deeper Learning: Performance Assessment and Authentic Audience

December 20, 2012
Photo credit: shareski via flickr

In a conversation with a veteran educator -- a man with years of experience teaching English and acting as a headmaster -- I was confronted with a prejudice so ingrained in my teaching that I was almost embarrassed to admit it.

He said, "You know, when I ask a student to write a paper and turn it in to me, that's ridiculous; I'm the worst audience they could have."

I was intrigued.

He went on, "Who am I to assume that someone will want to write their best work, something truly personal and creative, for me? A single-person audience is a pretty lame audience, let alone the fact that I'm a middle-aged white guy."

That hit me like a rolled-up newspaper.

As I absorbed this veteran educator’s words, I realized that not only was I wrong in my assumption that I (or any teacher) is a meanigful audience, but also that my assumptions about how grading and assessment work were so far removed from modern research that I might as well have been a 21st-century doctor treating humours.

Over the years I've come to believe that the use of single-shot, for-point assessments is one the worst possible things we can do to students. If the students don't recognize assessments as a chance to show their learning, then these things aren't even assessments; they're something altogether alien to real learning.

Fortunately, there are many approaches we can take within our own classrooms to change this situation. With a few changes, we can make assessment a loved part of the educational process.

Here are a few ideas to get started.

Change Your Gradebook into a Logbook

Only list things in your gradebook that students and parents can Google. If the search of that assignment title doesn’t bring up the beginning of the breadcrumb trail you intended, then you need to word it better.

I used to list things like "Quiz 1" or "Homework from Chapter 3" in my gradebook. No one has any idea what those are, and if those scores are low, no one has any idea how the kid can improve them.

This is opposite of how psychology shows that humans work. We want to be shown our mistakes so we can fix them. Student grades need to fluidly move up and down as kids show learning, retention or lack thereof.

So, start listing the big ideas from your course as your assignments. A parent can really help their kid when they know they've got these grades:

  1. Net Force and Vectors: 5/10
  2. Momentum: 9/10
  3. Energy Conservation: 10/10

Finally, allow those numbers to change as you learn more about the student's abilities -- or, in keeping with the intention of school, as he or she learns more throughout the year!

My students have noted this in every end-of-course evaluation I've given them: the fact that they can change their grade by mastering the material is so much more enabling than bringing in a box of Kleenex for ten arbitrary points.

Allow for Alternative Assessment Types

This is the key to a reformed performance assessment strategy. Since the '70s, we've known that people of equal ability assess differently depending on the assessment schema.1

This matters. A lot.

If a student is capable but assessing poorly, that student will only persist for so long until he or she quits, and that's the stuff of tragedy.

Here are some things I’ve used as formative and summative assessments:

1. Paper Quizzes

I can hear you groaning, but they still have a place as long as the students see them as plastic instead of concrete -- a tool of many uses instead of a make-it-or-break-it moment. Students also need to see quizzes as an opportunity to let you, their teacher, into what they don't know. Ask questions that demand meta-cognition. Have them identify the limits of their abilities. Quizzes need to inform a larger picture painted in tandem with some other assessment options.

2. Product-Oriented Projects

Build this, fix that. I have students hanging Calder-style mobiles from my ceiling right now to assess their understanding of torque.

3. Process-Oriented Projects

Product is irrelevant; the flowers-stopped-and-smelled are all that matter. This is often how things work in math courses. We want students to learn the parlance and joy of curiosity simply by trying to answer a question. I recently had students fail at colliding two rockets, but they admitted to knowing more about calculus, rockets and trajectories than they ever would have learned by staying in the classroom.

4. Interviews

Pull students from the hallway during lunch or before school, and have a heart-to-heart about a learning target they don't get. Find out what they really don't know. Ask them to verbalize the big idea. Ask them to explain what part they always get stuck on. Ask them if they have context. Why would you want to know how to find the directrix of a parabola? Do one or two of these interviews each day, and just keep cycling through your students.

5. Writing

Ask essay questions in math. Ask for big ideas. What are the limits of calculus? What would math be like if the library at Alexandria hadn’t been sacked?

6. Art

Can the students demonstrate the concept beautifully? Provocatively? Can they force a conversation about their learning just by creating something? I once had a student create a mirror etched with images of corn kernels. I've never had such conversations about corn's prevalence in the American diet. That was a biology class to remember!

7. Ditch the Numbers

You don't have to use points to grade students at all. Keep a running journal online of the work they're doing on each of your learning targets. Add your own feedback into the conversation, and upload the work that the students do to prove they're proficient. These records will be thousands of times more valuable than any GPA when they apply for jobs and college admission.

The key here is that the assessment of the student hinges on combining data from more than one of these options. Take a student's performance on a quiz about ancient Egypt. Combine that with an oral interview later in the year about Egypt's influence on Rome. Finally, combine those two data points with a mapping project showing the flow of trading through the ancient world. Now you can decide how much that student knows about Egypt. If the quiz doesn't match, perhaps it's OK to throw it out.

Announce Learning When You See It

In physics this week, a student puzzled so deftly through a laboratory setup to study collisions that I was powerless against his knowledge. He refused my instructions to set up an impossible pool shot, and formed the physics into a palpable argument, not because I was testing him, but because we were having a conversation. I immediately gave him full credit for our learning target about momentum, because there was no way that he didn't understand the big idea.

Later I'll see how he performs on a pencil-paper test, but for now, I'll record what I know about him.

This flexibility in reporting has a manic effect on the other students. They can't wait to show off how much they know. They also can't wait to talk about what learning looks like. Win.

Seek Out Authentic Audiences

All of this is moot if the students aren't blazing ahead, motivated by the ingrained social need that comes with being human.

Most teachers' first foray into this approach often involves having an expert of some sort (mine was an engineer at a local firm) come in to critique a student's project. This is cute, and often has some positive outcomes, but it's a billion times more powerful to have the student select the audience out of necessity.

Ensure that it is impossible for the teacher to be the audience. That's what it means to have found authentic audience in your classroom.

I once watched a room full of chemistry students furiously fermenting an exotic species of switchgrass. The fervor in the room was contagious, and I jumped in to help.

I asked the students why they were so excited, and one turned to me and said, "This is for a town in the Philippines. We Skyped with them last week, and we found some of the same grass they have. We want to help them make ethanol. Regular gasoline is a really high cost of farming for them, and they have a lot of switchgrass."

I almost tripped over what seemed too contrived to be true, but I realized that these kids were actually doing what people claim to want to do: they found a problem, and they were fixing it.

Finding authentic audiences can be complicated and often time-consuming. Get on, find the companies in your area that do what you teach, and email the secretaries. Find the local college professors that teach what you teach and ask them to explain their research to your students. Start curating a list of community members that will donate time and resources to your school, and don’t be afraid to email all of them whenever you need ideas or materials.

Most importantly, find someone who has a question to which no one knows the answer. Trust the content of your core curriculum to show its face while your kids investigate Chaucer, or wind energy, or programming, or whatever.

I asked the teacher of the switchgrass students how she knew if her students were learning any chemistry. She laughed at me.


1 Marzano, Robert.

This blog series on Deeper Learning is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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