Multiple-choice tests offer a limited ability to assess what children actually know.
For Administrators

Useless Projects, Limited Tests: A Look at Teaching Practices Worth Reconsidering

By Brian Gatens July 2, 2015

Summer is a good time to talk about classroom practices worth reconsidering — the stuff we do mainly because of tradition or a perceived lack of better options.

Of course there are many tried-and-true teaching choices, but we also do a lot of things more for convenience and familiarity, and less for how they help students. If I could wave a magic wand and wish away certain educational practices, I’d start with:

Tests that measure only base knowledge

Multiple-choice tests offer a limited ability to assess what children actually know.The pencil-and-paper test is a legacy of a time when it was the only way for students to show what they had learned. By their design, tests (especially those with word banks, true/false sections and one-word answers) measure only the simplest information taught in class.

Having students memorize the most basic knowledge and then regurgitate it for a test is perhaps the most common (and least effective) way to assess their learning. Yes, tests are important, but they should be part of a larger approach to student assessment. This broader approach should include having students create something — a document, presentation, website, podcast, etc. — to show what they have learned.

Assessment by exhibition expects students to create and share their work in a public forum. With today’s easy access to website technology and social media, this kind of work can become the norm rather than the exception.

Group projects done primarily outside of the classroom

Parents, from time to time, grumble to me. One of the largest frustrations they share — and definitely a practice worth reconsidering — is the “group project.” While our intentions are good, and we want students to experience the social and academic growth that comes from working with others on an extended project, the at-home project is often dreaded by parents (and completed mostly by them).

Unless done well, these projects — consisting of long hours on the weekend, getting children (and their busy schedules) to line up perfectly, and often requiring many trips to the arts and craft store — are no more than extra time and cost for parents. Before you assign this type of project, make certain of a few things:

  • Have as much of the work completed in class as possible.
  • Design it so expectations are shared evenly among students.
  • Make sure the final product fosters growth in important academic areas and is more than a glorified art project.

Extended summer and holiday projects

Naturally, teachers want to make good use of their students’ out-of-school time to keep them focused on academics. School is growing progressively more difficult, and every moment is necessary for children to hit important academic milestones.

Unfortunately, the practice of assigning extended work and projects when school is not in session isn’t a good thing for the students or their families. Instead of giving the home a break from the day-to-day pressure of school, these assignments increase stress. Along with that, they are mostly completed at the tail end of the break, require students to rush through them, and they don’t have the positive impact teachers are looking for.

As an alternative, be judicious in your work expectations. Instead of giving the assignment just before the break, list projects several weeks beforehand and give students a longer time to complete them. Make sure students focus on the most important things to learn, and that they can complete the assignments on their own.

To gather excellent feedback on practices worthy of reconsideration, take the time to survey your students and their families. Asking for honest and open feedback about the activities that improved their growth, being willing to listen to what caused frustration, and being willing to evolve as a teacher are the signs of a dedicated professional.

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