By Dr. Tim Hudson, Chief Learning Officer, Discovery Education
When I was in graduate school, the first “paper” assigned in my Qualitative Analysis class was to explain the differences between qualitative and quantitative research methods. I say “paper” because my professor gave students the option to either write a standard essay or describe those differences in some other way – perhaps a sketch, poem, or song.
I chose to write a song, entitled Bye, Bye, Quantitative Design (The Day the Numbers Died) which was set to the tune of American Pie by Don McLean. I found this alternate form of assessment to be fun and engaging, and now, looking back on the experience, I believe it likely helped me understand and remember the concepts better than a traditional assessment would have. And it further underscored the fact that teachers of any subject at any grade level can leverage alternative assessment methods that collect evidence of student understanding in ways that traditional assessment methods – like five-paragraph essays and multiple-choice items – can’t produce.
While I believe traditional assessments will always have a place in classrooms, we rely far too heavily on them. Alternative approaches can make our assessment practices more equitable and engaging for students because they create new opportunities and remove barriers for students to achieve success. Here are three ideas that can help any educator start designing and using alternative assessments to collect evidence of student understanding.
1) Don’t Force the Format
The example from my Qualitative Methods course is a perfect example of the first idea – don’t force the format of your assessment. Essays are one of the most common forms of assessment, but they are often uncreative and can be plagiarized or written by AI. My Qualitative Methods professor, who was nearing retirement, said he had been offering the option to produce something other than an essay for many years. My hunch is that after teaching the course a few times he got (rightly) bored reading basically the same essay over and over again. A standard essay is typically boring for teachers to read and boring for students to write because it can feel formulaic and unmotivating. If you’re inclined to continue assessing with essays, one idea is to at least require that students make it an entertaining or humorous essay.
There are many creative ideas available in places like edutopia and Discovery Education Experience (subscription required) to help incorporate non-traditional-but-rigorous ways to collect evidence of student understanding. However, one caveat when exploring different formats is to make sure the learning goals being assessed aren’t lost with the new format. A classic example is having students create what are essentially art projects such as a 3D model of a human cell. When considering such a model in isolation, it’s impossible to conclude that students fully understand how the parts of a human cell work. As an assessment tool, dioramas or models are incomplete at best and ineffective at worst. They are also inequitable because students who understand these topics deeply but struggle with art or don’t have access to art resources can’t demonstrate what they know. Similarly, students with art skills and resources who don’t understand the content could falsely appear to have understanding. These projects can support sense-making and the learning process, but more evidence is needed if they’re going to be used as a component of assessment.
2) Make Time for Performances and Interviews
One simple approach to collecting evidence that complements a model or diorama is to have each student use their project as a visual aid for a presentation in which they verbally describe all of the elements, share why they’re significant, and explain why they included those specific elements. Student presentations and performances are not only a meaningful way for students to demonstrate understanding, but they are also effective in building community and improving engagement. In my Qualitative Methods class, everyone who chose the non-essay option was invited to present their sketch, poem, or song to the class. So, early on in the class we were learning about our fellow students and having a few laughs. No one who wrote an essay was interested in reading theirs out loud, though I had hoped someone had written a humorous essay worth sharing.
Because some students may be hesitant to perform or uncomfortable sharing in front of the class, it can be inequitable to regularly require this assessment method from every student. Therefore, teachers should also use interviews or small group conversations to collect evidence of student understanding. The “performance” is the same – all that’s changed is the size of the audience. An interview can be particularly useful when assessing students’ understanding of story elements such as character, setting, conflict, and theme. Many students create elaborate situations, characters, settings, and stories when they’re playing – like in The Lego Movie. And because students might have difficulty putting pen to paper to write out these stories or have a fear of public performances, we can more equitably assess their understanding by having them tell these stories verbally in an interview.
3) Make it Personal and Personalizable
Related to the second idea, a third alternative way to collect evidence of understanding is requiring that students include personal experiences for analogy and illustration in their assessments. This method leverages the fact that students are the best experts on their own lives, and they can demonstrate deeper understanding by making comparisons and contrasts to people, events, and relationships they know. One example is from the second season of The Simpsons, when Ms. Krabapple gives Bart an extra point because he drew an empathetic analogy between his own failure and an obscure defeat of George Washington.
In that scene, the show’s creators demonstrate that the goal of learning history isn’t merely to recall a collection of facts that turn students into human versions of Wikipedia – it’s to understand deeper ideas of how we exist, relate to the world, and find common bonds as we build communities with one another.
Just as we differentiate instruction to support the success of all students, assessment methods should be differentiated as well. Inviting students to make a personal connection when demonstrating their knowledge also ensures equity because students with more resources don’t have an unfair advantage. It’s essential that we leverage equitable assessment strategies that meet the needs of all students by giving them the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding in ways that leverage their personal strengths, interests, and experiences. When students have the opportunity to demonstrate what they know in multiple ways and make personal connections within their assessments, they learn more, care more about the assessment, and have less opportunity to plagiarize or desire to cheat.
These three strategies ensure students are bringing their own unique thoughts to the assessment and not merely regurgitating information. These assessment techniques also make it more likely students remember what we want them to learn, and they might even keep the assessment instead of just throwing it away like they throw away a test once they’ve gotten a grade. Students might even hold onto their assessment and enjoy it for decades, like I did with my Quantitative Methods song. On that note, I’ll leave you with a few of those lyrics I promised:
A long, long time ago, I can still remember
how those numbers used to make me smile.
But I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those data dance
with research Qualitatively designed…
I can’t remember if I cried
when I learned about some new design.
But something touched me deep inside
the day the numbers died.
So bye, bye Quantitative design,
Now I use words and mostly verbs to explain things that I find
Them new age boys are thinking, “What’ll you try?”
Singing, “Won’t you help us understand why?”
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