Adapting Instruction to Individual Learners: Assessment

Service Learning also provides students great opportunists in which they can interact with real professionals and learn from their work. Below is a reflection I had concerning student assessment, followed by reflections I made by having the chance to spend time with assessments created by some teachers at the school. I include it to demonstrate the rigor and hands-on opportunities that Service Learning can provide to students. As seen below, it provides the opportunity for you to really get down-and-dirty with the work being done by professionals in all fields.

  1. Purpose of Assessment

     Assessment is not just about “testing” students’ ability to re-iterate information previously learned, but about gathering information in diverse and varied ways in order to understand how students are interacting with the knowledge being imparted to them. A true assessment must determine what students “know” after being taught, what they understand about that knowledge, and how they can use that knowledge or put it into action. As Grant Wiggins*, a critical author for Education-related articles, points out, “testing students” is only a small fraction of assessment and not the entirety of the concept. To test students is to gauge their ability to pull from what they know, which does not take into account that truly assessing students must also focus on their critical understanding of that knowledge and the ways in which that knowledge can be used (even in partnership with other kinds of knowledge). Assessments are not only important to the students, however, since they are also powerful tools that allow teachers to shape and mold their lessons and objectives. When teachers think to themselves, “what will this lesson try to assess?”, they are using the concept of assessment as a way to shape a lesson around imparting useful and actionable knowledge to students. This is why I think that the concept of assessment is a multi-layered one that is important to every corner of the Educational world.

  • Wiggins, Grant. “Defining Assessment.” Edutopia. N.p., 1 Jan. 2002. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.

 

  1. Evaluate Peter’s Assessment

      Peter’s assessment uses a variety of “test questions” in order to ensure that different objectives are being met. The multiple choice questions range from the basic – assessing if students were able to remember information that was given to them – to the more conceptual – like asking students to theorize and make assumptions. There was one question which asked students what a certain symbol “most likely” was, thus forcing students to rationalize their thoughts and to think critically. I think that the multiple choice sections of this assessment are pretty perfect because of the way they manage to engage different ways in which we process information, both as data to be memorized and also as concepts that we can process thoughts about. I think that this element of the assessment is central to developing students in a democracy because it is teaching them a useful skillset that involves analytical reasoning and critical thinking. As students better learn to make educated and well-evidenced assumptions, they will be better prepared in the future to engage in the complex issues that our country engages in. Not only that, but I think that these skill sets will also serve students as potential historians. A major element of “studying history” involves being able to understand history as both a series of events that happened and also as an abstract flow of time that is constantly influencing itself. Peter’s assessment touches on both of these concepts by assessing students’ ability to understand historic events, and also understand what those historic events really mean for the study of history. By asking students to pick a sentence that does NOT describe Hitler, or by asking them what one reason for a certain even may have been, Peter is asking students to directly engage with history and to place their own thoughts into the realm, while also making sure that the questions rely enough on memorization so that there can be only one correct answer. Having multiple choice questions that are too abstract or open-ended can ruin the point of basic assessment, while having questions too simple or straight-forward can ruin the point of assessing students understanding, and Peter avoid both of those risks.

His short answer section also does a lot right, especially in how it makes a point to have students define the term that they pick and also describe its importance. Like the multiple choice questions, this ensures that two levels of assessment are taking place and that students are being asked to engage with, and put to use, the knowledge that they learned and memorized. I would say that including both people and concepts (or events) as options for terms that students could pick might be complicated or confusing for some students – they may struggle with boiling down the significance of a person to one sentence instead of giving a mini-bio of them – but I think that this confusion could be avoided just by re-iterating the instructions to the class that you only need to highlight one key way the term’s significance relates to what they had learned in class. Besides that possible confusion, all of Peter’s instructions and details are really good and make it easy for students to focus on the questions without being bogged down by confusing or ambiguous questions. Whenever there is a graphic that goes with a question, it is formatted simply and the questions makes sure to include mention of the graphic in its phrasing.

Because of the strength of this assessment, Peter’s grade distributions surprise me a little. It tells me that the class, despite maybe even being able to memorize the information given to them, had difficulty truly understanding that knowledge or being able to put it to use. Because Peter’s assessment was multi-layered and assessed how students engaged with the information they learned, an assessment like this would be difficult for a student who was just hoping to memorize some key words or important names. I think that the grade distributions shared with us – many grades C’s or lower – indicated that Peter’s class needed extra help with thinking critically about what they were taught so that they can form their own thoughts about the knowledge in an analytical way. I would distribute grades in a similar fashion as Peter did, making a pass/fail for each individual multiple choice question while making each short answer question worth two (one for identifying the term and one for its importance). I think that the 90/A, 80/B, system that Peter used works very well because it sets simple goals for students to reach, and is easy to understand for students who may worry about how their scores translate into grades. In short, what these grades tell me is that the students in this class, whether they are paying attention and memorizing the information or not, are having difficulty understanding it and being able to focus on what is important to understand. I would incorporate more class discussion around the vital parts of our lessons from here on out, being sure to really engage students into thinking about the lasting significance of what we learn.

  1. Evaluate and Extend Mentor’s Assessment

This assignment involved two “sides”. First, students had to read through a text concerning the life of George Washington, and under-line at least two words that they didn’t know the meanings to. Then, they looked those words up on their laptops and wrote the definitions to them off on the margins of the page. On the second side of the assignment, students had to answer six questions about the reading. Most of the questions were basic memorization/search-and-find questions, but one of them did ask students why they think something occurred based on the reading.

A rubric or checklist I would use to assess a student’s work on my Mentor’s assessment would look like this:

10 Points

10 – A

9-8 – B

7 – C

6 – D

Below – F

I would assign four points for the first side of the worksheet and six points for the second side. The first side would be as follows:

2 points for under-lining or high-lighting words that they do not understand in the text, with at least two unique words under-lined.

2 points for giving definitions of those words within the margins of the page. For all three points, the student must provide a concise and simple definition for their under-lined words, with at least two words under-lined and defined.

For the second side of the paper (the one with the questions on it), I would grade as follows:

1 point for each correctly answered question (out of the six). I would give half a point if numbers #3 or #6 were partially answered correctly, as those are double-parted questions. #5 (which asks why students think something happened) would also need to have a reasonable answer that is supported by the text, and is a good assumption for the student to make based off of the reading.

  1. Looking at Student Work

The student work I reviewed received a score of 7/10 for the assignment. The first side of the assessment, in which the students had to underline words that they did not know and write the definitions to them, was completed correctly (and actually, the student did more than they needed to on that side). However, the back side, while all of the questions were answered, had one multi-part question that was only partially answered. Not only that, but the very first question on the worksheet, while filled out, was incorrect. These two flaws were enough to bring the score down to a 7.

The student exhibits some specific strengths, I believe. For one, their assessment is completed and, in some cases, the student did beyond what was necessary. This indicates that the student took the assignment seriously enough to dedicate time to it, and that they did put some effort and thought into their replies. Also, when defining the words they did not know, the student picked thoughtful and difficult words to define and correctly wrote their definitions in the margins of the page. Not only do their choices of difficult words seem genuine, but it also indicates that they were able to easily follow the instructions of the assessment, and that they took time to pay attention to those.

As far as the short answer/memorization portion of the assignment goes, their answers are fairly basic but are their own words. When this student pulls information from the text to answer these questions, they do a good job of not simply writing down exactly what the text says. Instead, they try to simplify the thought into their own words. Sometimes this means that they mis-interpret the point of what they read, but it does show a willingness to engage with the information. None of the replies on the back side are from the original text at all, word-for-word.

In terms of improvement, the students seem to have difficulty under-standing what some of the questions are asking. The first question, in specific, demonstrates this. It asks what made Washington’s election different from any other election. The reading information clearly states that he was so popular that the people of the country urged him back into power, which could be one answer a student could see. Also, they could surmise that it was different just for being the first one and having to set a lot of precedents. However, the student on this work wrote that “he had to be President”, which I think is just a mis-interpreting of the idea that Washington was so popular that people really wanted him to be President. Instead, the student must have read it as people forcing him to be President, which seems to indicate that there is no problem with the student reading the information but instead a disconnect between that and truly understanding the material. Also, for the third question, which asks the student to write three difficulties that Washington faced in office, the student only wrote two that were about how Washington needed to sign a lot of papers and attend a lot of meetings. Since the text clearly lays out some of the early troubles that Washington faced, it seems like the student had trouble either locating these reasons from within the text or understanding what those difficulties were. The answer that was given was a very simplistic answer that didn’t seem to have a lot of thought put into it. Thus, since the entire assignment is basically completed with even some extra work put into it, it seems clear to me that the student’s area of improvement doesn’t have much to do with effort or with their ability to engage with an assignment, but instead with their ability to truly understand what they are learning and to think about it critically. To extend the learning of this assignment, I would maybe offer the student 1.5 of the 3 points that they missed if they could write the correct answers next to the ones that they got wrong, and underline in the reading where they found the correct one. This would be an incentive for the student, not only to correct their work, but to go back and see why they got it wrong and where the dis-connect is in their understanding of the reading.

If I were the grade this assessment, I would have given them a similar grade but would have given feedback to them (which my Mentor teacher did not do, instead only marking next to incorrect questions). I would write something along these lines:

I commend you on completing the assignment and being able to make sense of the words in the reading that you didn’t understand, but removed two points for questions #1 and #3 because there is no evidence in the reading to support those as answers. The assignment asked you to use the reading as a way to find the answers to the following questions, and the answers given were not supported by the text. I would recommend re-reading the text and trying to use context clues to find passages that relate to the specific questions, and then correcting your work so you have valuable studying notes for our test. That being said, good job on a 7/10 – fully completed – worksheet. I especially enjoyed reading your thoughtful definitions on the front side for the words you didn’t understand.

…For this specific student, I think that one possible way to tailor this assignment in a way that would make it easier for the student would be to maybe bold or put markers by important concepts of paragraphs. The student seems to struggle with separating the main ideas of paragraphs away from the smaller details within the reading, and having those main parts bolded could serve as an easy way to guide the student’s attention. Of course, however, this also takes away from giving the student the opportunity to develop their critical thinking and reasoning skills, and so this adaptation could also be seen as a simplifying and bad thing. I do not think I would personally do it, as I think that having students try to discern the key parts of a reading is part of what makes this assessment touch on different layers of learning. Simplifying it too much, while possibly making it easier for this student or for a struggling student or ELL student, would harm the student’s ability to use analytic thinking. That said, because the use of a laptop is needed to look up words for this assignment, I think that it works pretty well for struggling or ELL students as it stands and would give such students an avenue they could use to help understand what is being asked. Certain students who struggle with thinking critically about reading, like in this student work, will end up struggling more but I think that is something that has to be remedied outside of this assignment instead of simplifying the assignment to make it easier.

A second way I might tailor this assignment for this student is by graphically organizing it so that it is easier to understand where the information being asked in the questions is in relation to the reading. By either having specific questions follow specific paragraphs, or even just by having all of the same questions on the same page as the reading, this might make it easier for this student to locate relevant information by narrowing down the amount of area they need to search. If this student is just getting so bogged down in all of the details and the words, then organizing the page such as this could help the student in focusing on not being distracted by non-relevant information. Of course, you don’t want to make it too easy, but I think that organizing the assessment more creatively instead of just reading on the front/questions on the back could be beneficial for students who have trouble trying to remember information and then think about what it means, all while trying to think about what the questions are asking. This is maybe the main take-away I have from this assessment about how it could influence my own instruction – it makes me see the importance of multi-layered assessment so that students are being tested for their abilities to remember and utilize their knowledge. For my own instructions, I would be sure to ask questions like Peter or my Mentor did that asks students to consider the “why” behind what they read. That said, I would also consider organizing my assessments in a way which fosters critical thinking, and high-lighting certain key parts of readings so that there is more of an emphasis placed on having students recognize why those high-lighted things were so important as to high-light.

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