3 Assessing the learning process
Assessment, like instruction, needs to be geared toward various learning styles, and teachers can create rubrics for ongoing assessment that keep a formal daily record of what students are learning.
Traditional styles of teaching focus almost exclusively on auditory presentation of material to students — in other words, lecturing. K–12 education is moving away from that traditional model towards methods of teaching that address children’s multiple intelligences and are appropriate to different types of learners, not only auditory learners. Although we’ve come a long way in how we teach students, we haven’t always made great strides in how we assess them. Most assessment still takes the form of quizzes, tests, and written homework, which work best for students who are the strongest verbal thinkers. Portfolios play only a small role, and even they only begin to address the various learning styles. If we’re going to teach in a way that addresses all learning styles, shouldn’t we also assess that way?
Questioning and learning styles
In my eighth grade math classes, I question students continually about what they’re learning. It’s the best means I have of ongoing assessment. When my students are working in small groups, I talk to each group and ask them two or three questions, with each group member answering a different question.
To foster different learning styles and higher-order thinking, it’s important to ask different types of questions. If we were working on adding and subtracting integers, for example, we might be looking at it on a number line with an activity called "Take a Hike." In this activity, students stand on the number line, face forwards or backwards, and "take a hike" to count off the integer they’re adding or subtracting. Or I might give a problem involving a submarine: the submarine sinks to this depth, rises so many feet, and so on. For these activities, I could ask several different types of questions about integers:
- A comprehension question might be "What is this question asking me?" I’m looking for an explanation that connects altitude or depth to the number line: sea level is zero, above sea level is positive, below sea level is negative, and by rising or sinking you’re adding or subtracting integers.
- A kinesthetic question might ask the student to model the question on a physical number line — stand up and show me what it looks like.
- A visual question might ask the student to draw a picture of what the problem looks like, showing the submarine and its depth below sea level.
- An analytical question would be "What have we established so far? How do you know that underwater is a negative number?"
Asking different kinds of questions accomplishes two goals. First, it allows students to express their various learning styles. Second, varying my questioning helps me to cover various levels of thinking skills, from information recall and summary comprehension to analysis, evaluation, and application.
Because each student has a different way of thinking and learning, I let them decide for themselves what strategy will work best for them in approaching each problem. But I want them to be able to explain the approach they took, why they took it, and why it worked, and so I ask mostly questions that go beyond basic comprehension. If we’re studying rational and irrational numbers, for example, I won’t simply ask them to explain the difference between the two; I’ll give each student an example and ask him or her to explain whether that number is rational or irrational and why.
To answer these questions, students have to apply their knowledge, not simply repeat what they’ve read in the book or what I said at the beginning of class, and they have to apply it in a way that makes it clear to me as the teacher that they really understand what they’re doing. Even if I’m just asking "What’s five times nine?" I don’t want a memorized answer, I want an explanation. Otherwise, it’s too easy for the kids to anticipate the questions I’ll ask and prepare an answer. I want my students not just to figure out "the answer" they think I want but to prove why the answer is correct. I believe that it’s more important to demand reasoning than rote memorization!
A rubric for questioning
While every good teacher has great questioning techniques, we don’t document that questioning. As a result, despite the value we place on ongoing classroom assessment, when it comes time to demonstrate what students have learned, we can show only tests and papers. If teachers, parents, and administrators want to judge what children actually know, rather than only what they can demonstrate on tests and papers, we need to do more. We need to create rubrics not only for projects and tests but also for the questions we ask in classroom discussions.
To make sure I cover each type of question with each student, I’ve developed a formal rubric with each child’s name and each type of question I ask. (See the example, below.) As I go talk with each group, I record whether the child answered the question correctly (a plus if she did, a minus if she didn’t). Then the next time I go back to that group, I ask different types of questions, so that each child gets a comprehension question, an analytical question, and so on, during the course of the class period.
I’m not looking for every student to answer every question; I want each student to answer a different question and a different type of question each time I visit his or her group. The key is to keep track of students’ performance so I have a formal record of my assessment. This in-class questioning, along with other in-class work, is worth thirty percent of the students’ total grade. (Homework is worth twenty percent, quizzes and minor projects together are worth twenty percent, and tests and major projects together are worth thirty percent.)
I began the school year hoping to use this rubric every day. That was a little optimistic. It’s a lot of work to prepare the rubric and keep track of all that information, and it gets tedious after awhile. I’ve found that once a week is enough to keep a formal record of what students are learning and to make sure I’m asking them different types of questions on a regular basis.
Before this year, when a parent or administrator asked why a student wasn’t doing well on tests, I could only say that he seemed to be answering questions correctly in class, but I couldn’t say which ones, or when. I didn’t have any data. Now, I can show them the record and say that a particular child has answered this many verbal questions, this many visual questions, and so on, and we can look at specific areas in which he might need help.
Extending the principle to written assessments
Of course, in-class questioning can’t account for all of a student’s grade, so it’s important to extend these principles to written assessment like tests and homework. On tests, it helps to give open-ended questions that allow students a choice of how to answer. In a language arts or social studies class, you might give students a choice of writing an essay, drawing a political cartoon, or writing a story. For an algebra problem, you could solve the problem traditionally, working through all the steps; you could model it using algebra tiles; you could explain it verbally. As long as each student demonstrates that he or she can solve the problem and understands the concepts behind it, the method they use to solve it and represent the solution isn’t as important. (Of course, you could require that each student use each type of learning style at some point.)
If we believe that multiple intelligences and diffferent learning styles are worth supporting in the classroom, we need to put our numbers where our mouths are! Blending support for different learning styles into ongoing classroom assessment, and keeping a formal record of that assessment, can go a long way toward making our classrooms friendly to all types of learners and fostering a diverse classroom.
Rubric for assessing group work
These questions are from an activity on the Boston Marathon. The types of questions asked might vary with the activity and relate to multiple intelligences, orders of thinking, or both.
I use the following notations on this rubric:
- Answered question thoroughly and accurately. (Student gives correct answer and can explain how he/she arrived at the answer.)
- Answered question with help from group. (Student gives correct answer but needs help from the group for an explanation or provides explanation but needs help from the group determining the correct answer.)
- Unable to answer question accurately. (Student cannot give correct answer or explain how to arrive at an answer.)