Friday, March 23, 2012

Assessment shift: Learning or Learning on time?

The classroom is a busy place for a teacher. In high schools, every block means roughly 30 more students, each bringing his/her own strengths, weaknesses, interests, personalities, etc to the class. We know that each student is unique, will learn in different ways and at different rates, but too often we make a generalization and refer to them as our 'English 9 class' or our 'Block G class'. Likewise, because we are faced with the organizational challenge of working with so many students we put expectations on our students that they will all learn at roughly the same pace. Too often, the unintended consequence is that we emphasize 'learning on time' instead of what we should emphasize...LEARNING!

This post focusses on a few assessment practices that educators can implement within a busy 'class' that will embrace each student's individuality and support...
  • students learning at their own pace
  • learning as an ongoing process
  • students learning from their mistakes
Learning Logs
There is a lot for students to learn each class. Sometimes students grasp concepts immediately but most of the time the end of a class signifies a forced interruption to their learning process. When you consider students repeat this same process four times each day, you can start to understand why it's quite easy for students to forget precisely what they were working on when they were interrupted, what they've already mastered and what they need to continue practicing. 

Enter the learning log! Learning logs can exist in a variety of forms. What is important about a learning log is that a student writes down the specific learning targets for the class and self-assesses his/her own progress towards these targets at the end of each class period. The self-assessment could be as simple as a 'green light, amber light, red light system' where students assess themselves a green light if they've mastered a target to the extent that they could teach a peer, amber light if they are getting there but need some more practice and a red light if they need to stop, ask a question, then practice with some guidance from the teacher.

What is most important about a learning log is that it encourages students to track their own progress towards the mastery of learning targets.  Learning logs focus students' attention on their learning progression towards targets rather than simply trying to meet deadlines for completing work. Learning logs also offer students a way to go back in time and update their progress towards a target that they were previously unable to meet, even if the learning target came from a previous unit or term.  Learning logs also recognize that we should be encouraging our students to learn from their mistakes. Say a student uses teacher feedback to correct a process he/she was previously applying incorrectly to solve a certain type of problem.  Even if a student goes beyond the initial timeline for the class to demonstrate he/she has made an improvement, his/her progress is still valid and should be acknowledged.

Flexible Deadlines
Too often, our practices indicate to our students that we are more interested in the timeliness of their learning and less about the depth and quality of their learning.  Inflexible due dates, late penalties and zeros for work not yet completed all send the message to students that as much as we value learning, we place greater value on the fact that they learn certain things by a certain date. These practices penalize the slower learner and force him/her to hastily complete work rather than learn for the sake of understanding. If we truly want to encourage deep learning, we must allow students the necessary time to do so and our assessment practices must reflect this belief.

Here is where the flexible deadlines come in! Does it really matter whether a student learns to solve an algebraic equation or write a chemical formula today instead of next week or next month? Ultimately, are we more interested in seeing students learn or learn on time? I'm not suggesting we should eliminate deadlines completely, but I do think we need to offer our students a little bit of flexibility and acknowledge that some students are going to require a little more time to master certain concepts. Furthermore, our assessment practices should reflect students' most recent improvements in learning.  Just as the new learning of a concept replaces the previous learning of the same concept, new assessments of a student's level of mastery of a concept should replace previous assessments of student's level of mastery of the same concept.

Say a student, despite his efforts, struggles to master a concept by the time the class writes a major test. The student performs poorly, receives a low mark, but seeks the assistance of his teacher, who re-explains the concept so that the student understands. Days later, when the teacher checks with the student to assess his level of understanding, the teacher determines that the student now has a solid understanding of the concept. Shouldn't the student's mark on the test now reflect the teacher's most recent assessment? Or at the very least, doesn't the student at least deserve the opportunity to rewrite a similar portion of the test that he struggled with the first time? I would say so! After all, if we want students to accept our feedback, learn from mistakes and we acknowledge that our assessments should reflect students' most current learning, then allowing redo's is a logical step. I'm not suggesting that redo's become a free-for-all. I believe students need to earn their chance at a redo by creating and following through with a plan for improvement. It is ok for students to 'fail' at things but it is unacceptable for them to be 'failures'. By offering redo's we send the message to them that when they make mistakes they will have the opportunity to learn from and improve upon them.