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How to Make Student Assessments Useful and Productive

By Brita Williams February 8, 2018

When it comes to assessing our students, it’s easy to fall into the age old trap of giving an exam, grading it, and moving forward. But to get the most out of the assessments we give, we need to stay focused on the two primary goals of an assessment: gather evidence that our students learned the material, and use it to further motivate your learners.

1. Make sure your assessments are valid and reliable

A test or a pop quiz can both give you a pretty good idea of a student’s learning, but only if it is a valid and reliable assessment without bias. There are many assessments that are pretty flawed with ambiguous wording, unclear instructions, or obscure cultural references that are unreliable and possibly biased. So when designing assessments, be aware of those pitfalls.

The dreaded homework, worksheets, and the answering of chapter questions may be considered “busy work” if it has no purpose. Any assignment or task with the purpose of teaching and learning is an assessment. Group work, projects, and reports, written or oral, are assessments. Any means of analyzing a student’s knowledge, reasoning, or skills requires planning and forethought.

2. Give productive feedback

Productive feedback is more than a score or letter grade, but it’s also more than just a couple words. Teaching students involves giving “corrective,” timely, and criterion-referenced feedback that encourages them through their learning. (You can learn more about this type of feedback here. )

For example, “this is excellent” doesn’t give the A student anywhere to go from there. And if the A student continues to get As without doing anything extra, they might become complacent and expect the A. Many times, the teacher also expects the A and bias can sneak into the assessment. Try giving that student productive feedback that will help them extend their learning, like, “You hit the mark on recognizing the main character’s moral dilemma; nice critical thinking skills! Next time, I’d love to see you consider the antagonist’s perspective.”

Conversely, the student who receives a C grade and “much improved” has no idea what they still need to work on—or what they did well. Many struggling students are unable to see the positive side of their work on their own. When that’s the case, the C student will eventually stop trying very hard if they see no possibility of improving. Then expectations exist, which leaves the door open to bias. Say something positive, but also give them clear instruction on what to work on.

3. Use Backward Design

I highly recommend using Backward Design when planning your lessons. Here’s an overview of how it works.

  • Identify Desired Results →  GOALS
  • Determine Acceptable Evidence → ASSESSMENT
  • Plan Learning Experiences → INSTRUCTION

Step One: Identify your goals: What do you want the students to know, be able to reason, or be able to do?

  • Identify standards to support the goals.
  • Develop learning targets from the identified standards.

Step Two: Design your assessment: Keep strategies and evidence of learning in mind.

  • Determine the evidence: What do you want to see that will show you the student knows what you want them to know?
  • Decide on the strategy: How will you elicit that evidence of knowledge, reasoning, or skill from the student?

Step Three: Create strategically aligned lesson plans: 

  • Design lesson plans that will assist the student in producing the evidence that shows they’ve achieved your learning goals.
  • If your lesson plans are fun and engaging but the learning isn’t measurable, then your class activities may end up like Pinterest boards: a fun way to pass the time, but specific goals aren’t always at the forefront of your mind.

(For more info on Backward Design, check out this informative post.)

4. Remember that your words matter

As a teacher, I know that the most time-consuming part of the job is assessment and grading. It is also the most important part of the job to ensure our teaching is effective and our students are learning and motivated. When I taught middle school, I remember asking parents if they thought the comments I wrote on the report cards were useful. Their answers were a resounding yes! Most parents do not have time to come in and visit with their child’s teacher to see how things are going. Unfortunately, many parents are unable to attend parent conferences and others do not see the need. Those comments we laboriously compose for individual students are highly valued with some and may be the only communication we have with others.

5. Motivate students to be responsible, active learners

Motivating students to learn transfers the responsibility for learning to them, leaving the teacher as the knowledge base, resource, and facilitator. When they believe their success is your goal, not just to “get through the next chapter” or “proctor the test”, they will be more inclined to ask for support, be creative, and want to learn more. Researcher John Hattie put it best when he said, “The most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback. The simplest prescriptions for improving education must be dollops of feedback”.

Assessing our students and using that information to inform, empower, and motivate them in purposeful, productive ways is the key. Yes, it is more work, but it is also more rewarding to see the students improve and learn to challenge themselves every step of the way.

Brita Williams instructs and mentors new teachers as a lecturer at Central Washington University and is currently pursuing her EdD from Concordia University-Portland. She also holds her Masters in Teaching from Seattle Pacific University and was a math and history teacher for ten years. 

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