Tips for Teaching for Understanding: Ongoing Assessment

How do we navigate an open-ended classroom, with students working collaboratively while at the same time accurately assessing individual understanding? This is one of the primary challenges teachers face when making changes to their practice and adopting new techniques.

We want students to be driven by their innate curiosity and interests, but how can we chart this evenly across the entire roster of our class?

This simple question forces us to look into our philosophy on assessment. What is the purpose of assessment and how is it being used in our classes? With a shift towards understanding, over coverage, our assessments need to chart understanding and not simply give an evaluative snapshot. Let’s take a look at ongoing assessment.

The fourth and final piece of the Teaching for Understanding framework is ongoing assessment. We have reviewed the other three components:

Ongoing assessment is a part of establishing a “feedback loop” whereby students get consistent corrective information. It helps not only see where they are currently at in their development of understanding, but also gives them a target to continue to move towards.

Our roles as teachers have to shift from the “sage on the stage” towards a coaching model. Think of any performance art or athletic endeavor and you will see a better example of what teachers in the classroom should aspire to be.

This also changes the nature of what an assessment should be. Assessments should help cultivate understanding and, as suggested earlier, this is not a hard-and-fast process with a simple binary statement – students either have it or not. Knowledge is a component of understanding; having knowledge does not necessarily reflect understanding. The reason why this is called “ongoing” is because we are looking to establish a process, a loop, where students are checking in and out and we are assessing the state of their understanding. It is a development, an evolution, a disposition. We can assess understanding as a product of their thinking; it is active.

With the nature of assessment being seen in this way, we need to note a couple of changes to how we assess. First and foremost, if we are giving feedback, students have to have the opportunity to enact it. Most of the time, our assessments are making a statement with no opportunity to improve. This also means that feedback should occur frequently, so that students can make adjustments in real time and as necessary.

Assessments also should be tightly aligned to our understanding goals – both for the unit and for the course. This means that our understanding performances need to incorporate ongoing assessment often. Each cycle of performance should receive feedback. Students can only build up understanding if they can refine their work. If assessment only takes place at the end, there is no opportunity for growth and thus, it is not ongoing.

The challenge is to get that feedback in there as often as there is a performance and make it relevant to what is happening. This does not mean that only a teacher can offer feedback; there is peer to peer and individual forms of feedback. Also, there is formal and informal kinds of assessment taking place – so when is it appropriate to do which?

Understanding performances are broken down into three basic phases – introductory, guided, and culminating. These correspond to the point in the unit that students are delving into the topic. It would also seem reasonable to adjust your assessment continuum from informal to formal as you apply these understanding performances. Informal at the introductory point and formal at the culminating point.

Feedback should also be based on agreed upon and public criteria. This is where using rubrics comes in handy and giving the students the rubric ahead of time is a plus. You wouldn’t play a sport without having a solid understanding of the rules, and a rubric basically outlines what students should be able to do in order to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of a given topic.  In fact, at the introductory phase of a unit, it is totally appropriate to have students assess themselves – if in groups and collaboration or as individuals – so long as they have the criteria for their assessment in hand.

As the unit moves along, and the sequenced understanding performances are taking shape, the ongoing assessments need to provide feedback and an opportunity for everyone to refine their efforts. This feedback can come from a teacher, from a peer, or a self-assessment which requires a reflection. This not only helps students move forward but also gives us teachers a metric to assess student understanding to adapt the lessons subsequently. This is another important point – everything doesn’t have to be scripted from the onset. In fact, the more generative the topic, the more likely the criteria for assessment is going to have be adapted – which may or may not incorporate student feedback into the process. You can set up your criteria as you move along.

To summarize, criteria should be established early but adaptable, it should be aligned to your understanding goals, and it should be transparent. Feedback needs to occur early and often, it should be qualitative and informative, and come from a variety of perspectives (individual, peers, teachers).

For more specific information, I highly recommend The Teaching for Understanding Guide as a starting point to review all of these components in more detail.