Dr. Maryrose Caulfield here. I can viscerally remember, like it was yesterday, learning how to drive a stick shift with my father. It was so complicated trying to manipulate the shift, the clutch, the brake, and remember all of the rules for driving. It took a long time to become really comfortable and proficient. Years later, it was impossible for me to “unlearn” driving a stick shift when I started driving an automatic. To this day, I drive using one foot for the gas and one foot for the brake. Don’t tell a police officer! Once something becomes hardwired in your brain, it is difficult to unlearn it.
Learning in a classroom can produce much the same outcome. Anxiety-producing assessment and grading are ubiquitous and loom large in every conversation about learning. But what do we mean when we use these terms? Assessment and grading have been examined, discussed, reviewed, and revised. Several notable authors and clinicians have come up with several justifications for assessment, including to:
Select, identify, or group students for certain educational paths or programs. Thomas R. Guskey
Provide incentives to learn. Thomas R. Guskey
Evaluate the effectiveness of instructional programs Thomas R. Guskey
Communicating Student Learning: The 1996 ASCD Yearbook, ASCD, Alexandria, VA, 1996
Many times, grades become a token economy. Students hand in so many homework assignments, get so many correct out of a total number, present a project in compliance with directives given and the teacher provides a “grade” corresponding to the number of requisite conditions provided. This gives rise to several important questions. Does this system inform us about a student’s knowledge at a deep level? Can it effectively describe a student’s ability as a result of an educational process? Studies have been done analyzing classroom assessments involving grades K-12 in all content areas. Here is a sample of what was discovered:
“Of the total of 664 assessments collected, 20 percent were identified via a random sample for analysis by a committee of teachers and administrators. Here were two of their findings: 1) The majority of the assessments (75.5 percent) measured the lowest levels of cognition (levels I and II on Bloom’s Taxonomy), and 2) assessment items were predominantly (80 percent) in multiple-choice, true-false, matching, or fill-in-the-blank formats (Frey & Schmidt, 2010), (Gibble, 2000).”
These types of grades/assessments are summative in nature and reflect the outcome of student work. To actually change the course of student understanding, however, assessment must provide feedback to the student throughout instruction. This feedback, in turn, allows the teacher to alter the academic process that ultimately affects student learning.
Hanover Research, August 2014, compiled information from seminal research studies on formative assessment and learning intentions. The following were the key findings:
Existing research yields promising conclusions regarding the impact of formative assessment on student academic achievement. Though the focus of most research is not on summative test scores, findings indicate that students who receive formative assessment perform better on a variety of achievement indicators than their peers do. While many of these studies exhibit methodological limitations, experts agree that the practice of assessment for learning shows promise in its ability to improve student performance.
The literature supports the efficacy of explicitly stated learning intentions and assessment criteria in improving student learning outcomes. Learning objectives are the subject of a significant body of research, though most research has been conducted at the higher education level. Findings indicate that learning intentions, specifically as a part of guided instruction methods, positively impact student learning. Similarly, studies demonstrate that statement of learning objectives and assessment criteria improve students’ self‐assessment abilities and, as a result, improve learning outcomes (Hanover Research | August 2014).
Both key findings are extremely important. It bears repeating that effective formative assessment, which identifies student needs and informs instruction, is closely linked to student achievement. Identifying student misconceptions and remediating them before they are repeated over and over prevents topics from being incorrectly hardwired in the brain. When learning is viewed through this lens, it becomes clear there are no wrong answers. There are only misconceptions that, when corrected, allow students to experience success and move to higher levels of thinking, processing and application. This is precisely why it is so important to discover these misconceptions through the use of formative assessment before a student applies them over and over incorrectly.
Secondly, learning objectives are critical to student understanding. Teachers must craft learning objectives which explicitly identify, in child friendly language, exactly what students will be expected to master by the end of a lesson. A practice we utilized in one district was a series of rubric scores which students used to identify their level of understanding. The rubric was as follows:
4 – I can teach the information to someone else.
3 – I understand but am not ready to teach it to someone else.
2 – I need more assistance in understanding.
1 – I am lost and need help.
Students assessed themselves throughout the lesson. This began with their assessment of how well they understood the learning objective. The process of student self-assessment immediately identified for the teacher how to individualize instruction to meet the needs of each student through differentiation. The responsibility for understanding the lesson was placed squarely in the hands of the student. An additional benefit of this process was educating students to advocate for themselves and their learning. Students clearly understood that this process was for them to assess their understanding and was not about a grade. Student achievement increased dramatically in the district using this system.
Below you will find resources to assist you with this critically important topic. You will find descriptions and links to access them. When you empower students with the assessment process, the work becomes easier, achievement will increase, and you will feel wonderful about your instructional process. Take some time to research this topic and try a few different procedures. Real student understanding and mastery are worth the effort. All the best!