Testing: we all know assessment is important, but oh, the anxiety it causes! In the best of all possible worlds, students wouldn’t feel stressed by exams and would continue learning even as they take tests. They would be allowed to showcase their thinking and find answers that may be different from what the teacher envisioned. Testing would help students trust that learning is a process and that their understanding will improve as they go along. In this utopian vision of assessment, testing would help develop a growth mindset. But, in reality, most traditional tests train student to spit out what they know without teaching them anything new. They feel like failures if they do poorly and lose confidence in their ability. Luckily, however, performance assessment can change this, giving students the opportunity to explain their thinking and learn from their mistakes.
Just before winter break, our math teacher, Rachid, invited me to come in and watch his 12th grade students present their learning. Students were expected to work in pairs to produce a tutorial video showing how to solve a given trigonometric equation (examples: 3sin2 (3x) – 3cos (3x) – 3 = 0, tan2 (2x+л) – sec (2x+ л) – 1 = 0). Videos could be no longer than five minutes, and were to be graded on accuracy of information, the explanation of all steps, and showing mastery of the topic.
As students shared their videos with the class, I was impressed with the clarity and creativity of their work. After watching the videos, the class discussed what they saw – what the strengths were, any mistakes they noticed, and how the problem could be solved differently. It was an amazing class to watch – kids were 100 percent engaged and the discussion was dynamic.
So, why use this method of assessment rather than a traditional exam? Rachid wanted to assess students’ learning in the unit they were studying, but knew that, by this time of year, students are generally tired and simply waiting for vacation. He saw several strengths in having students prepare a lesson for each other:
- The assessment was less stressful than a test would be, and therefore more accurate, since stress often hinders students from putting forward their best effort.
- Being able to explain concepts to others demonstrates a deeper understanding than simply solving equations does.
- By working in teams, students helped each other learn. However, the final assessment was still valid, since after making the video, both students had to be able to, independently, explain the process.
- Students continued to learn during the assessment – from their own productions and from discussing those of others.
- As students shared their strategies for solving problems, they gained a deeper understanding of the concepts being covered.
- Student understanding could also be assessed based on their comments during the discussion.
When Rachid and I discussed his method of assessment, Rachid admitted that he rarely does this sort of thing, because he feels he has so much material to cover that he doesn’t have time. But he realized that, in preparing their lessons, students worked harder on their math assignments than they usually do and the actual presentations only took a class period – the same amount of time a traditional pencil and paper assessment would have taken.
Performance assessment always sounded like a complex concept to me, but watching this class in action, I saw that it can be both simple and extremely effective. As we search for better ways to assess, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are your favorite non-traditional methods of assessment? What challenges do you face in assessment? How have your assessment strategies changed? Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments, so we can learn from each other.