Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Growing into a New Perspective on Assessment

by Aliel Cunningham

(As the school year draws to a close in many parts of the world, this readers’ favorite from our building blocks of teaching series is well-timed. May it inspire reflection on growth happening in your classroom and the Master Teacher’s!)

Change is the end result of all true learning. (Leo Buscaglia)

Assessments are key building blocks to any curriculum building design—they are the windows (and sometimes the doors) of the building. Without them we have no light to see what we are doing and no way for others to peer in and witness what is being accomplished. Despite this crucial role, the word “assessment” often gets a bad rap and is frequently associated with fear and stress rather than celebration or a joyful sense of attainment. Too often we have learned to see assessment as a zero-sum game in which there are “winners” and “losers,” or to put it another way, we see it as a punitive grade-focused system in which our mistakes are punished and excellence is rewarded.

However, if we look back into the Old Testament, we see Yahweh using “tests” in a very different way. In Deuteronomy 13:3, we see Yahweh using a period of “testing” to see what was in the heart of the Israelites. A heart-check, if you will. It is not because Yahweh was ignorant about the condition of their hearts but because the Israelites themselves needed to see what was there. Well-designed assessments can cast light on both the existing gaps in knowledge as well as depth of understanding. If the true end of learning is change—one step closer toward a learning goal or fluency in a skill—then we have to see how assessment prepares students for that change and demonstrates when that change has occurred.

If this is the case, the goal of assessment should always be growth towards that change, not simply grades piled upon grades. This shift away from grades toward growth informs both the frequency of our assessments and how we respond to them. The Master Teacher often checked his disciples’ understanding through questions and highlighted to them where they had grown and where they were still in need of change. With the question, “And who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29), He was testing their understanding of his identity and mission. Peter understood his identity, but not his mission. There were gaps in his understanding. Like the Master Teacher, we too need to regularly assess where our students are on the path of growth.  This can be done with simple, well-devised questions during or after activities.  Depending on the demonstrated goal or skill you are targeting, this assessment can take several other forms. (Click here for examples: Assessment Options.)

In our own assessments we should think through how we will respond to both the gaps revealed in assessment as well as the achievement of the goal. In Luke 10, we read how Jesus sent out his disciples to apply what they had learned and come back and report. He gave clear and specific directions as to how they were to go about their assignment and set clear expectations for them. When the disciples came back from their “assessment” time rejoicing, The Master Teacher rejoiced with them! They had seen for themselves the power of applying the principles of the Kingdom in real life situations and their Teacher celebrated that step forward in their growth.

What can you do?

  • Use an assessment framework that highlights growth rather than grades.
  • Give specific directions and outline clear expectations with an explicit rubric or guidelines.
  • Give a clear model to follow (just as the Master Teacher did).
  • Allow time for mini-assessments under supervision so that you can give feedback in a low-stakes context to prepare for a high-stakes assessment.
  • Use both closed (only one answer) and open (many answers possible) questions in your assessment to get a fuller picture of the students’ application of the content or skill.
  • Use mistakes as learning opportunities, and celebrate with students when they have achieved the goal.

Further exploration

  • What has been the most effective assessment tool for you as a student?
  • What assessment approaches are currently being used in your context that are more distracting than helpful to your learning goals in the classroom? 
  • What is your attitude toward mistakes in classroom assessments?  Do you highlight what went well?

Post Author

Aliel Cunningham, PhD is an Associate Professor in TESOL at LCC International University in Lithuania. Aliel has experience teaching ESL/EFL in a number of contexts over the past 14 years including Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois in the United States, and England, Kazakhstan, China, and Lithuania. In her free time, she enjoys taking walks, drinking tea with friends, and learning to play the hammer dulcimer.

Photo Credit: albertogp123 via Compfight cc

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This entry was posted on May 13, 2015 by in Aliel Cunningham, assessment, building blocks of teaching, readers' choice.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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