Assessment in the Digital Age

Assessment in the Digital Age – Moving beyond Traditional Assessment to more Authenticity.

Have you ever had a student who has asked this question? “When do we ever get a chance to get better at something without being graded?” I have and it stopped me in my tracks. Students, like all of us, need to be given time to learn from their mistakes without the fear of failure. Students need helpful feedback that will encourage them to make the necessary changes for the final performance measure. Helpful feedback is what we all desire, and students are no exception. If we don’t, we instill in future adults an avoidance of taking risks because of their fear of failure. Futurists predict that, more than ever, future generations will need to be equipped to handle problems that haven’t even been thought of. Let’s face it; we want a certain amount of risk taking. We can begin to ask ourselves, how do we create assessment practices that reflect our desire for our students to do their best?

Assessment has historically been about grading students on a 100% grading scale. Lately, with the use of Rubrics, we have moved forward in our quest for better feedback. Dr. Robert Marzano speaks often about the limits of current grading structures. For example, he asserts that an isolated grade cannot give a student the feedback they need to get better. Students often look at the grade, do very little metacognitive work on the areas to improve, stuff it into their backpacks and leave feeling good, mediocre or bad about their mark. He also asserts that no grading system is perfect, least of all the 100% grading scale. Rubrics hold promise but they too have their limitations. Let’s face it, all assessment is limiting without feedback. Assessment is about giving students the chance to improve, get better, and kick it up a notch. It is about giving more than one chance to show what they know. It is about valuing the process of learning. In other words, it is about the journey, not the destination. In Daniel Pink’s book entitled, “Drive”, he talks about the limiting motivating powers of extrinsic rewards (and I believe that grades fall in the aforementioned category). A more preferred state is to have students in an intrinsic motivational state or what Pink refers to as, “Motivation 3.0”. As educators, we want to give students the opportunity to move beyond extrinsic reward. And, in the digital age, there is so much more available to us to make the learning experience, in which assessment plays a front and center role, a more valuable experience. Without it, how can we improve?

In order to asses deep learning, the teacher must be skillful in figuring out just what they are assessing. After all, according to Wiggins and McTighe, that is where we need to begin. Skillful assessment begins with skillful planning. In fact, it requires backwards planning. While there is an “art” to teaching, there is also a “science” to it (Marzano). Effective assessment is a combination of those two.

Assessment must move beyond the traditional methods. If the choice is consistently written assignments, tests, quizzes, we miss out on the opportunity to engage students in their learning. We build passivity in learning when we assess this way. Margo Guilott, in “A Value Added Decision”, tells us that traditional assessment is like a platter. We fill it up from Monday to Thursday, and get our kids to “dump it” (on a test) on Friday. This is limiting the potential for students to have what they learn “stick”. It limits them to acquisition of knowledge. We want students to make meaning leading to transfer. We don’t want them to know the material for a minute. We want it to be useful to them for a long time.

Assessment in the Digital age should be about giving students choice, i.e. personalized. What I know and how can I represent what I can be multi-model. Allow creativity, as this is the very core of motivation for all of us. Allowing students the opportunity to be flexible in showing what they know can unleash the potential for greater engagement and creativity. Technology is a powerful tool that unleashes this potential. Students in the 21st century often use “technology by consumption”. We want students to use “technology by content creation”. Simply put, the ability to use technology to assess what students know can be a creative and original experience for them. It can take them from passivity to an active and engaging state.
Allow creativity, as this is the very core of motivation for all of us. If you want students to create, Googledocs is a fantastic tool that allows document sharing whereby students can co-create in real time. In fact, you don’t even have to be in the space and time to co-create which gives students flexibility. If they share it with the teacher, the end product does not have to be “handed in”, but rather available to the teacher to provide feedback. If your learning institution doesn’t have it, this feature is free with a Google email account. I have watched students who are working together on a project use the video conferencing feature of Google (or Skype) to work on a document for homework. Gone are the days where parents have to drive their kids to a group member’s house to do a project.

Project-based learning is a wonderful way for students to make meaning leading to transfer. However, the teacher must be skillful in how to assess this kind of learning. Deep learning requires a multi-modal approach. One must think holistically; how can I value the process of this learning experience? How can I give students the chance to improve? How can I make it an engaging experience? In project based learning, there exists the potential for students to learn from one another. This process can be a powerful way for students to make meaning of the material leading to transfer (the preferred state of learning). However, students often complain that they are bound by the constraints of their group. They say, “This person didn’t get their work done. I did it all”. It often gives this most powerful teaching experience a bad rap. Janice Hyshka, a master teacher, explains that, if the teacher sets up the process of learning thoughtfully, it can be a powerful learning experience. In her Socratic seminars, which she uses in all of her English classes, she builds individual assessment into the workflow with guideposts along the way. She asks, is the student on the right track? How can I give timely and constructive feedback? Does this student know what they are supposed to do? After all, we want our students to succeed. A skillful teacher, like Mrs. Hyshka can take the power of the group and create a rich learning experience. We also need to realize the value of observation and conversation as a powerful assessment tool. Another promising practice in the digital age is the use of Eportfolios. Portfolios are not new, however, the E-portfolio is a powerful way to assess a student body of work, of their choosing that reflects what they are proud of. Let’s face it: We can’t mark everything. And, how accurate is a percentage? We are fooled into thinking that it is an objective mark. It isn’t. We just perceive that it is and it is widely accepted as the marker for success/failure, but is that what our end goal is?

Assessment in the Digital age should be about giving students choice and voice. What do I know and how can I represent this can be multi-model. Allow creativity, as this is the very core of motivation for all of us. Students appreciate choice and making multi-modal a choice for students is powerful. It gives them the opportunity to be participants in the assessment. I have often given students control over aspects of their assessment. Asking them, what do you value? How would you assess this? Janice Hyshka talks about the need to build metacognition into the process. They must be able to reflect on the incremental feedback you give. Activities where you build this in are essential. Do not assess everything (that’s what most experts in the field term “formative”). Give students the opportunity to learn the material without penalty. Phil Heidebrecht, a high school Physics teacher, uses the power of the quiz feature in Moodle to get a sense of who is getting the concepts. And, he does it by giving it an intrinsic value. There are no grades for these quizzes, however he can tell a great deal from the outcome of the quiz as well as the process students use in approaching the problems presented. Particularly interesting is his observation regarding effort. He can tell who persevered and who gave up. He uses that to have a conversation with his students about trying more than once. He lets them know that this phase of the learning is just as important as the end result. “You are learning this and doing this today because it will lead to a better understanding later”. In other words, it has value, but not the extrinsic kind. It is important because it is important. Intrinsically motivating students through choice, creativity, autonomy builds better and more engaged learners. It is also amazingly motivating for the teachers to be in a classroom where the students vibrate with excitement because they are engaged.

There are some very good products out there for giving effective feedback. IAnnotate is an App that allows the instructor to give effective feedback in multi-modal ways. You can use it the typical way, with highlighting text, written feedback or you can use the speech capability to give voice feedback on the exact text you are looking at. It feels like a conversation with that student.

I don’t think we can have a conversation about assessment without discussing zeroes. A colleague of mind, Dr. Heather Fansher says the following about the hotly debated topic of whether zeroes have a place in assessment. She writes, “If assessment is evidence of student learning then what does a ‘zero’ tell us? Assessment is about demonstrated evidence of learning – of internalizing the outcomes that have been identified about transferring the knowledge and skills into other areas of our experience. When we give a ‘zero’ does it measure learning gains or is it a form of punishment to address behavior(s)? What is the purpose of zeros”? The challenge lies in holding students accountable. Work must be completed to know if the student is learning the material.

Finally, in the digital age, we must re-define the concept of cheating. We are not the purveyors of information any longer as teachers; but rather, we are the architects of creating the conditions for higher level thinking through the vehicle of information. Students can simply find information that once was learned through rote. They can get that information off the Internet. However, all students need to understand the concept of intellectual property and giving credit where credit is due. It is what they do with it that has become our primary focus. Building and designing the conditions for creativity, collaboration that leads students to a deeper understanding should be our focus. This should compel us as educators to design better and more meaningful ways to assess where students are at in their learning. Assessment should be engaging, instructive, helpful and filled with direction. It should give students the tools to think for themselves, think critically about their own work and be motivated to improve. Using the power of technology to augment these processes is essential; it creates the conditions for students to realize the potential of this tool and move themselves beyond passive consumers to engagement in content creation.


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