With any research project, assessment and measures are important. This section will certainly be on-going and in constant flux. I would absolutely love to receive some feedback on this section (as well as any others, but particularly here).
I’ve spent a fair bit of time considering what assessment strategies would best reflect and report valid data. A few of the measures I plan to use include:
- anecdotal evidence
- student feedback via a standard survey
- student verbal feedback via discussions with me
- thought journals and student self-reflection
- small group discussion assignments
- assessment tasks that allow opportunity for collaboration, critical thinking, creative thinking
Are Standardized Tests and Traditional Assignments/Final Exams Valid?
I’ve debated back and forth with myself, and have included the perspectives of others as well, on the issue of using standardized tests/final exams as a measure of “improved achievement.” At this time, I have decided not to accept these types of assessment as being valid. In coming to this decision I was forced to consider what achievement truly is. Is learning reflected accurately through timed, high pressure, high stakes testing? Can these test provide valid data about achievement? I suppose if this is what we are teaching our students to do, then the answer would be “yes.” However, that’s not what I teach my students, nor is this what the Alberta curriculum asks me to teach my students. So, I question the validity of the results provided by these assessments. I question this definition of “achievement.”
In the following video, Garfield Gini-Newman, a professor with the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at OISE, and a Senior Consultant for the Critical thinking Consortium states that assessment must align with the curricular goals; that critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration are all connected; and that we need to build true communities of thinkers.
“Have I chosen assessments that actually measure what I said mattered in my program?” If I apply this question to my AISI project, can I honestly say that standardized tests and traditional assignments/final exams provide ample opportunity to think critically, creatively, and collaboratively? The answer is easy: No, I can’t!
The Role of Students’ Beliefs in Assessing Achievement
Another issue I believe plays into evaluating the achievement of students revolves around what the students themselves believe about achievement. If a student views my ELA class as unimportant to their lives, they may be happy with a mediocre grade even if they are capable of more. I had a number of students say this to me and their parents during PTI’s last term. Students who believe achievement means passing a course, or meeting their parents’ expectations are not challenging themselves to do their best. In these cases, achievement is not accurately reported. Therefore, noting responses like this and then tracking changes in attitude and effort will provide valid personal reflection by students and anecdotal evidence from me. My goal is to improve engagement through critical thinking strategies, and my hope is that if the strategies are used to connect students to the subject matter, and if this leads students to being more engaged, then their willingness to learn and show learning will be increased.
The Link Between Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, and Collaboration
Ultimately, the proof of concept for my AISI focus question will come from measures that I believe provide students the opportunities to be critical thinkers. Critical thinking, according to Garfield Gini-Newman, requires a person to assess or judge the merits of possible options in light of relevant factors or criteria. It’s not just about looking at a problem and coming up with an answer. It’s not just receiving an essay topic and sitting down to write. It’s not just being able to comprehend a text that you’ve been given. No, students must actually take the time to consider the problem, essay topic, or text, and consider the best approach to the task based upon criteria. They must be given the opportunity to apply the background knowledge they have, consider the criteria for judgement, and apply thinking strategies. A “single-shot,” timed, isolated, inauthentic assessment does not provide any opportunity for critical thinking. Thinking creatively through a solution, gathering a variety of perspectives, and reworking initial understandings are necessary strategies to produce critical thought. One of the keys, as I understand it, to encouraging students to be both critical and creative thinkers is to create a community of critical and creative thinkers. A community. Not isolated individuals working alone. I believe that critical thinking is best done as a part of a community; therefore, assessment of achievement in textual analysis and creation must allow students the opportunity to utilize their critical thinking community. This requires students to collaborate together, to analyze texts together, to create texts together. I don’t mean group work; I mean utilizing each other (and any other resources) to critically think through a problem, just as teachers do, just as doctors do, just as society does. I’ve sat in on a number of Garfield Gini-Newman’s presentations on both critical and creative thinking, and the similarities between the two are astounding. Consider the following images, all taken from these presentations. The links between critical and creative thinking are astounding. Often in Gini-Newman’s sessions, teachers feel the Euler diagram should be “Other” where critical and creative thinking are the same size and fully overlap, indicating that one can’t be successfully done without the other. I would agree with this line of thinking; therefore I would expect that any assessment used to determine whether or not students are achieving better because of critical thinking would allow for students to also discuss their ability to think creatively. This leads to one final multimedia for your consideration.
My Major Assessment Practices This Year
I’ve talked a fair bit on other parts of this website about my changing assessment practices. In addition to collecting data specific to this project, I have also been attempting to create better methods of assessment in general; in reality, this is an attempt to make assessment more useful and fair to students, but I have also been finding that my methods are utilizing and requiring critical thinking as well.
Most of the major changes can be found through my blog posts at jondavidgroff.com (the home page); however, one particular post summarizes my practices. The short version is this:
- I am using a modified standards-based assessment strategy.
- I am not giving my students overall marks on projects/assignments.
- I give marks based on the criteria only, so each assignment receives multiple marks.
- Marks are not given using a percentage system (though I must report that way).
- Students receive Stars (quite literally) instead of percentages.
Another change includes offering students the opportunity to “muck around” with ideas prior to completing a project, and the opportunity to “fail forward.” Both of these terms are used by Gini-Newman, and stem from his observations of the popular app, Angry Birds. The concept is that students need time to form thoughtful and insightful ideas (descriptors from the diploma exam–these take time to and effort to form, much like the video above on creativity. For many of my units this term I utilized a Thought Journal in order to have students begin mucking around with the topic that would be used for their unit assignments. Through the use of asking transcendent questions (questions that relate more to the student’s lives than directly to the curriculum) at the beginning of a unit that would be carried through the unit and culminate in a project at the end of the unit, students have time to consider the topic throughout the unit, building on prior understanding and deepening ideas. Students use critical thinking to make judgements about how texts and discussions relate to the topic and update their Thought Journals with deeper thoughts and new ideas as they go. In all honesty, this has been a bit “hit and miss” but I am encouraged by the positive outcomes and am optimistic that as we stick with this learning task, things will continue to improve.
Failing forward allows students to change their mindset about education and failure. Failing has a negative connotation and denotation in education. If you fail, you’ve missed your opportunity learn the material, and in most cases that means you will never have the chance to learn that material because the course keeps moving; that is, unless you fail the course, in which case you get to repeat the entire thing. Failing forward is a concept that allows students the opportunity to fail realistically and authentically. Oddly enough, students can recognize the benefits of failure in their own personal lives. I had a conversation not that long ago with my ELA 10 class about what they planned on learning this summer. I was met with cries of “Nothing! There’s no school in the summer.” After some prodding and pointed questioning, they came to realize their lives are full of learning, and more than that, the learning come from their failures. One specific example involved learning to quad. Students said they don’t need to learn that skill because they are the best. And at first they couldn’t remember ever learning to quad; they thought it was a natural skill. Until I pointed out that I had never gone quading, but was now optimistic that I would be as good as they are on my very first try. They didn’t like that thought. Soon they realized that they weren’t always as good as they are now and began joking with each other about some of the funnier failures they had while learning and improving. Failing forward allows students this sense of accomplishment and learning. When students are given the chance to receive their assessment and to improve on that using the feedback they’ve been given, the criteria, and a critical look at what went wrong, they are able to learn from their failures rather than come to understand that school says “if you don’t get it the first time, then you’ll never get it.” Failing forward requires critical thinking skills. It requires a student to look at their work, questions their mistakes, and find solutions and strategies to improve.
After reflecting on all of this information, it became clear that tradition “testing” is not an appropriate means for judging students at all, let alone accurate for assessing critical thinking skills. Traditional testing isn’t even very realistic. Few employers administer tests to their employees. Those that do aren’t likely to fire the employee for failing, and they certainly aren’t going to just throw up their hands and move on. They will instead provide extra training to ensure the employee is competent. When teens take a driver’s test and fail, they aren’t told never to come back. They are encouraged to go home and study up, learn from their mistakes, and come back and try again, penalty-free. Grades are deducted, feedback isn’t withheld, even the test remains virtually unchanged.
My final for ELA 10 this year will be significantly different that my exams in the past. The number of reading and multiple choice questions are drastically reduced. While the test will remain timed to diploma standards, students will have the opportunity to use their critical thinking skills and strategies. After completing the traditional yet reduced test, students will have the opportunity to redo the test while utilizing critical thinking strategies such as collaboration, rereading, discussion, research, and having time to think more abou the texts. Students will therefore answer each question twice. Their timed, traditional test will tell me where they fall on the inauthentic traditional assessment practice, and their second set of answers will tell me what students are capable of when given the chance to complete a more authentic 21st century compatible assessment. I can’t wait to see the results.