METHODS TO MAKE LEARNING MORE MEANINGFUL
M. THOMAS WORLEY
College of Education, Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, GA 31419
This paper provides an overview of a variety of alternative assessment techniques.
Included in this overview are: portfolios, anecdotal records, audio and video
recordings, checklists, rating scales and rubrics, diaries, journals and writing folders, conferences, and debriefings and reviews.
Views on Assessment
Two opposing forces are influencing educational assessment today. On the one hand are the proponents of more and more standardized testing. Parents, politicians, boards of education, and business leaders are pressing for a systematic approach to holding schools and teachers accountable for student progress in gaining knowledge. This view sees the curriculum as only consisting of a body of knowledge and facts that can easily be transferred from teachers to students . The accumulation of facts and information sometimes referred to as the “stuff” of education only relates to the content part of the curriculum . The primary instrument of assessment for this paradigm is the standardized test . Standardized tests attempt to measure the amount of knowledge acquired by a student over a period of time. This view implies that knowledge exists separately from the learner. Therefore, students work to accumulate knowledge rather than to construct it. This belief is grounded in a traditional approach to the educational endeavor based on Behaviorist theories.
Adherents of this paradigm tend to believe that the only reliable and objective form of assessment is the standardized test. The pressure on educators and policymakers to demonstrate accountability in schools has led to an inappropriate use of test results . While standardized tests may be easy to administer, easy to score and easy to interpret, they do not provide teachers with all the information they need to make decisions about their students’ instructional needs or progress. Additionally, viewing content as the only component of the curriculum is an incomplete and shortsighted position.
The curriculum is made up of four parts: content, process, product, and environment . This view indicates that how students learn, how they demonstrate what they have learned and the circumstances in which they learn are as important as what they learn. This paradigm, based on the Constructivist theory, therefore, requires alternatives to standardized testing to assess student learning. It is to provide an explanation of these alternatives that the remainder of the paper is dedicated.
Student work must be assessed through an informal and continuous process . Roberts and Kellough enumerate ten forms of alternative assessment as: portfolios, anecdotal records, audio and video recordings, checklists, diaries, journals, writing folders, peer conferences, teacher-student conferences and conference logs, and debriefings. While there are certainly other forms of alternative assessment, this list will serve as the outline for this paper.
The definition of a portfolio indicates that it is merely a container for carrying documents, but in educational circles is refers to a collection of samples of a student’s work used to give evidence of progress in learning. Portfolios are an opportunity for students to provide documentation of their learning activities, ideas and reflections . Portfolios help students take more responsibility for their own learning. By making decisions about what to include in their portfolios, students become knowledge producers rather than knowledge receivers . Thus, portfolios help students construct their own knowledge base (constructivism) as opposed to reacting to a teaching stimulus provided by the teacher (behaviorism).
Nelson and Nelson list several items than may be appropriately included in a student’s portfolio. Samples or photos of the student’s creative work; written narrative observations; anecdotal records; developmental checklists and rating scales; audio and/or video tapes; work samples that document ability development in certain areas; and developmental screening tests are among the items to be complied in a portfolio . While some of these items will be discussed separately later in this paper, it is fitting that they be included, collectively, in the portfolio format.
LaBoskey lists four critical features of educational portfolios. 1) They must allow for, promote, and reveal individual meaning-making. 2) They must provide an opportunity for interaction between the student and the teacher. 3) The developmental process must occur over an extended length of time. 4) They must be constructed and presented in a context that supports, promotes, and assesses reflective thinking elsewhere . While many teachers claim to want portfolios to foster reflective thinking and student growth, some provide very restrictive requirements as to the form and content of the portfolio, thus, stifling problem solving opportunities, critical analysis, or individual and contextual adaptation .
“The portfolio is not supposed to be an easy alternative to honest assessment or a gimmick used to substitute for testing. If the portfolio is taken seriously, applied with skill and intelligence, it can become a teacher’s valuable tool. It authentically reflects what students really produced, what they really learned, and what the work was really worth, instead of relying on the simple expedient of choosing letters on a multiple choice test for those answers” .
An anecdote is a short account of an incident. An anecdotal record is a collection of written observations of students related to their progress in learning . This written account of observations may be kept in a separate notebook or included in a student’s portfolio. These descriptions of student’s activities and/or behaviors are done briefly and informally using only key words relating to the observed incident . Teacher notes to students, wheather offering criticism or encouragement, and student notes to teachers should also be part of the anecdotal records, as well as teacher annotations on a student paper . As anecdotes are complied over time, a teacher may be able discern patterns developing in a student’s behavior and/or learning. Using this technique allows teachers the opportunity to modify their instruction to better meet the needs of their students.
Audio and Video Recordings
As technology has advanced, more and more tools have become available to teachers to document student learning and performance. Videotapes, audiotapes, photographs, and slides are technologies that have become readily available and accessible in most classrooms today to document the progress of student work . Not only are these technologies helpful for teachers to assess student progress, they can be used by students in their own self-assessment . Recording students several times over a period of time allows for comparisons that reveal student progress toward learning goals.
Checklists, Rating Scales, and Rubrics
There are several formats for checklists. They may be simple or complicated . The simple checklist provides evidence of either the presence or absence of a particular behavior, trait, ability, or characteristic . The simple checklist merely requires the observer to check yes or no as to weather or not the item was observed.
The teacher may develop and administer checklists alone or in collaboration with the students according to the activity being observed . In the case of a classroom performance such as giving an oral report, members of the audience may also be included in completing the checklist.
If more information is needed than simply reporting on the existence of the behavior the checklist becomes more complicated. Rating scales are checklists that require the observer to make a judgement concerning the degree to which the behavior was performed by placing scores on a scale from high to low performance . An advanced form of a rating scale is a rubric. Goodrich defines a rubric as a scoring tool that lists the criteria for a piece of work and articulates gradations of quality for each criterion, from excellent to poor . Andrade suggests that rubrics are usually used with more complex assignments that are more difficult to grade. She indicates that the purpose of a rubric is to give students feedback on their progress and to provide a detailed evaluation of their finished products .
Rubrics can be powerful tools for both teaching and assessment. Goodrich lists five reasons to use rubrics. Rubrics are used to make the expectations of the teacher clear. They help students become more thoughtful judges of the quality of their own and others’ work. They reduce the amount of time teachers spend evaluating student work. They allow teachers to accommodate heterogeneous classes. Rubrics provide an easy way to explain student evaluation to parents .
Montgomery offered several pieces of advice to teachers attempting to design their own rubrics. First, she said to be specific when choosing your evaluation criteria. Second, she suggested that you include specific feedback on the students’ work. Finally, she directed teachers to encourage students to become involved in self-assessment .
While many teachers see the value of using rubrics for scoring purposes, some have difficulty converting rubric scores to grades. Clauson provides examples of how to assign points to the criteria listed on a rubric. Once the points have been assigned, they are placed on a scale that is related to a letter grade . Therefore, if a problem or project is worth 20 points the scale for converting to a letter grade might be 17 – 20 = A, 13 – 16 = B, etc. After teachers become comfortable with this process, converting rubric scores to grades becomes an easy task.
Diaries, Journals, and Writing Folders
Students should be encouraged to write across the curriculum. Student writings may take several forms. Students may be encouraged to make daily entries summarizing their progress in a particular study in a diary. Many teachers require students to compile a journal that is also known as a learning log . The learning log can become a life-writing journal, a think-book, an “anything goes” journal, a brainstorm journal, the news-tracker journal,or a cooperative teacher-student log. Barlow indicates that journaling deepens students’ comprehension by allowing them to make connections with the subject matter being studied by responding to the material they have learned .
“The purpose of writing in learning logs is to have students reflect on what they are learning and learn while they are reflecting on what they are learning” . While students benefit by reflecting in the learning log, the teachers also benefit from the exercise. Teachers get to know their students better, to understand their students’ thinking better, to communicate with students through writing, and to reevaluate their instruction based on student responses in the learning logs .
Barlow provides several tips for journal writing. Try to keep journal writing stress free. Let students know that they are writing for themselves and that you will only read entries they want to share. Write back to the students with personal comments. Avoid grading journal entries as grades can come at other places. Encourage journal writing to be spontaneous. Let students add images, illustrations, and photographs to their journals . McIntosh and Draper provide several more tips. Have students use learning logs frequently. Anticipate student resistance when beginning journal writing. Learning logs do not have to take much class time or much grading time. Students need to know that you are reading their logs so you should write back to the students. Teachers should not accept partial, ill-conceived, or no-effort responses .
Writing folders show the different styles of writing that students accomplish such as first drafts, current writing, finished drafts, new writing ideas, and student reflections on material being studied .
Several types of conferences occur within the school setting. A peer conference is composed of a group of five to six students who meet together to assess the written work of the group members . Students are to provide help, feedback, and ideas to each other in a non-threatening atmosphere, before work is turned in the teacher for grading.
The teacher-student conference is held to provide vital communication between the teacher and the student concerning the student’s educational progress. Stevenson indicates that these conferences usually occur at the middle school level as part of the advisory program where affective problems may be discussed as well as academic matters . As students develop the capacity, they should assume more responsibility for documenting their progress in their school work and other activities. All of the alternative assessment objects, such as portfolios, journals, recordings, etc., should be included in this conferencing.
“By far the most effective way to accomplish home-school communications is talk” . Therefore, communication with parents should be more than traditional report cards and notes sent home with students. Eventually, students should be asked to lead a three-way conference between themselves, the teacher, and their parents. Stevenson suggests that students should be able to explain what they have learned and done well and to point out areas where they need improvement. Productive parent conferences can develop support for the teacher and the school.
Debriefings and Reviews
“A debriefing for a specific experience is a “what we learned” type of discussion with the purpose of assessing a single event or happening, such as a field trip or visitor to the classroom” . Teachers customarily review all lessons to establish closure. So, this should not be overlooked for special or specific experiences that may not require a formal written lesson plan.
Standardized tests are here to stay. Teachers need to help the public understand the appropriate uses of these tests and their common misuses. Meanwhile, there are multiple sources of alternative assessments that can and should be utilized by teachers to better serve the educational needs of their students. This paper has attempted to highlight several of these alternative assessments.
M. Thomas Worley is an Associate Professor in the School of Graduate Studies for the College of Education at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, GA. Formerly a high school teacher and a middle level administrator, Dr. Worley now teaches graduate courses in middle level education. He has made numerous presentations and has authored the textbook Affective Educational Programs.
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