For Administrators

Look Beyond Tests and Quizzes to Help Students Master Their Material

By Brian Gatens May 26, 2014

Progressive education researcher and writer Alfie Kohn speaks often of children becoming disillusioned about school when they begin to feel that education is something being done “to” them, rather than “with” them. While the many ways children can be included in classroom activities, school functions and other aspects of their education is well-covered territory, I don’t think we spend enough time getting them as involved as possible in their classroom assessments and their overall learning.

Spending time in your class addressing both of these topics will challenge you in new and worthwhile ways. As you change your practice for the better, you’ll experience higher levels of student engagement and learning. It’s a myth that children don’t want to be engaged in their learning — the key is to have them meaningfully engaged to bring out the best in them (and you). Try these tips to make it happen:

Think outside the test

There’s a good reason why tests and quizzes are the most common types of assessments: They create hard data that can show teachers where students need to improve their performance. Unfortunately, tests and quizzes tend to measure information, aptitudes and skills that aren’t really indicative of a student’s understanding.

Teachers should look beyond testing to find more productive ways to assess student performanceA test simply measures our ability to absorb and repeat information. We really need to focus on mastery, and to alternatives to traditional tests that demonstrate that students have mastered the material. A couple ways to do that include having children edit and revise a piece of writing and developing a hypothesis around a scientific principle. Start by thinking of the actual tasks your students will have to complete in the world outside of school, and work on having them do the same thing in your classroom.

Teach how people learn

Going along with Kohn’s idea that school is “done” to students, a great way to bring them deeper into their learning is to actually teach them how people learn. Far too often, teachers focus solely on the content of the class; teaching children how to learn something new can help them develop lifelong skills.

A great way to start the year would be to have the children complete a personalized learning style assessment and then use that information to guide how they approach their studies. Researching the environment, attitudes and beliefs that surround authentic learning will help you build more student interest and engagement in your class.

Offer choices

It’s a basic tenet of human nature that offering people a choice in what they do makes them feel happier and work harder. A great strategy to increase your class connection to a unit of study is to let them choose what they can do to show mastery and understanding of class content.

By encouraging the children to pursue their interests through learning, you’ll be creating much stronger “muscle memory” for their brains. Don’t hesitate to poll the students on how they think they will learn and retain the information. By marrying this idea to the discovery of personalized learning styles, a teacher can create an environment where students can become highly engaged in worthwhile activities devoted to important topics.

Focus on high-level mastery

Traditional tests and quizzes focus on baseline data and information like names, dates, locations and simple events. While a learner needs a base of pure knowledge to understand a topic, focusing solely on that knowledge isn’t intellectually healthy in the long term.

Researching Bloom’s Taxonomy and aligning your assessment expectations with those principles is a masterful way to bring students more and more into their learning. Helping students work collaboratively in high-functioning teams is another way to increase their aptitude for life after their formal schooling ends.

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