ECS 410

Week Eight: Looking Forward and Learning From Peers

My first key question regarding assessment that I would like to ask my cooperating teacher is: how do you decide the specific format you use for formative assessments? I would like to know how teachers know the best methods to use for formatively assessing students – especially as a new teacher. Is this something that teachers learn through trial and error? For example, if during a lesson I want my students to learn a new concept through research or information provided to them and then I want them to work through that new information with each other, would assessing them formatively work best through a jigsaw activity or a carousel? Is there a science or formula to deciding what sort of assessment to use? Or is it just something you experiment with as a new teacher and tweak as the years go on? 

My second question about assessment has to do with differentiation. Differentiation is a topic that we, as future educators, have not had a lot of practice applying. It seems to be an extremely important topic in today’s classrooms (as it should be), especially with so much diversity in the classroom and students with such varying needs. How do teachers recognize which specific students require differentiation and how do they know what the most effective types of assessment are for those students? I worry that I will not be able to figure this out until it is too late in the semester and I have let those students down by not having the expertise to identify them and recognize the types of assessment they require to be successful. Is this another trial and error scenario or is this a skill that will just come with experience?

A third question I have regarding assessment is knowing when and how to most effectively use self- and peer-assessment. Are these types of assessments used in conjunction with every summative assessment? Is there a set number of self- and peer-assessments that should accompany formative assessment? Are these assessments ever taken into consideration during summative assessment (i.e., do they factor into a final unit or lesson grade)? Or is the grade that is given on a self/peer assessment arbitrary and is the actual act of assessing and practicing assessment as a life skill the important take-away during self/peer assessment?

While watching the group presentations for the 21st Century Assessment project, I was impressed with the variety assessments that each group came up with. Technology appeared to be a running theme in every group’s assessment. From a podcast to posting on Instagram, it is clear technology is important when considering different ways to assess students. A couple of groups made sure to specify that they would provide class time for students to work on their projects. Giving ample time to work on assessment projects during class is important for not overloading students with homework and allowing them a life outside of school. There were also some really good ways to provide differentiation specified by groups. One group would give students the choice of format they could provide their infographic in, be it digital or drawn by hand. Another group suggested strategically making groups so students who may be more comfortable with coding are grouped with students who may be coding for the first time. These are simple strategies to differentiate assessment that take no time to plan but foster inclusivity and encourage success for all students.

The assessment  tools that each group used varied as well. Rubrics were quite popular with one group using a two-point rubric. Seeing how different groups decided to assess their assignment made me think about what sorts of assessment tools I would likely use in the classroom. Although choosing which assessment tool to use is a matter of trial and error combined with personal preference, I still prefer the tool my group chose which was success criteria. I like that it is a form of a checklist but also allows room for feedback in a comment section.

ECS 410

Week Seven: Differentiation

Tomlinson et al. (2008) explain that because of the increased diversity in schools, the need for differentiation is greater than ever before. Tomlinson and Moon (2013) identify the five elements of a classroom where differentiation can occur: learning environment, curriculum, assessment, instruction, and classroom leadership/management. They go on to identify that teachers can differentiate through content, process, product, and affect/environment that will vary with students’ readiness, interests, and learning profile. They break each of these elements down in order to show how each can be differentiated. The struggle related to figuring out how to differentiate each of these elements is a feeling of uncertainty regarding how differentiation looks like in practice. Even when examples are provided, the next challenge is knowing how to pinpoint which specific differentiated element is needed in each class each year. With students rotating through the school, it is impossible to reuse the same differentiated setup because students’ needs will always change as students move through the system. Even if the same few students are taught the following year, their needs may have changed from one year to the next meaning specific differentiation will again need to be identified and carried out in new ways. It’s not reinventing the wheel each year, rather it’s figuring out what wheel works best based on what medium the road is made of.

Another point that Tomlinson and Moon (2013) and Tomlinson et al. (2008) discuss is “teaching up”. This method answers the question of whether it’s best to plan instruction at the level of the “average” learner and differentiate for those students objectively “below” this level, or whether instruction should be at the level of those requiring extra support and differentiate instruction for those students considered above average. When “teaching up”, lessons are planned at the level of the “above average” students and then scaffolding is provided for the struggling students to work their way up to the advanced-level task. This is considered a way to respect individual students by pushing them to strive for achievement levels beyond what they consider possible for themselves. Similar to this concept, Tomlinson and Moon (2013) discuss readiness as a compass for differentiation. Readiness relates to “teaching up” as it informs not just what students can do but rather what students need to do to succeed. Like “teaching up”, it means forward thinking with a focus on where students need to get to. While the idea of “teaching up” sounds very attractive on paper, the challenge with it is structuring differentiation in a way that both challenges “gifted” students and legitimately results in struggling students achieving success. It would have to be carried out very strategically and would likely take a lot of trial and error before it’s done successfully. While “teaching up” seems like a daunting concept to carry out, Tomlinson et al. (2008) support its use by stating “struggling students don’t often benefit by doing less of what they don’t understand, and it’s not helpful for advanced learners to do more of what they already know” (Figure 1.1). This lends good support to why “teaching up” is an effective method to use that benefits both types of students.     

Applying differentiation in the classroom goes hand in hand with creating inclusive classroom culture that welcomes all learners. As Tomlinson et al. (2008) demonstrate when describing the two schools that successfully implemented differentiation, not only can it lead to increased test scores, but can “also extend to student, parent, and teacher satisfaction, [and] increased student engagement…” (para. 40). The actual application of differentiation appears intimidating, but with experience and practice should, in theory, become more natural with each passing school year.

ECS 410

Week Six: Struggling with Assessment as a Learner

The concept of transference is something I can most definitely relate to. I graduated from high school in 2000 so I was immersed in very traditional forms of education and assessment throughout the 90’s. I think the biggest experience from my past regarding assessment is the notion that grades are everything. For me, this has been the biggest hurdle to get over. I’m not referring to my future students’ grades, but my own grades in my current classes. I have had to work really hard to focus on the learning and growth that is taking place, rather than the grade I receive. I have found if I get a grade less than what I expected, my mind can very easily go to a very dark place where I begin questioning if I am cut out for this profession, if there’s something wrong with me, and other similar unproductive thoughts. I often have to talk myself off that ledge and remind myself it’s the process, not the product, that is important. Grades and the weight they carry are so ingrained in me that I can’t help but equate my self worth with them. At this point, I would almost rather just receive the feedback and not even know what my grade is. I think this mindset comes from past experience where we didn’t know what we were being graded on (no rubrics or assessment criteria avilable to us) so it felt like the grade was just some independent mark you got not based on anything.

Another part of assessment that I have really struggled with is unclear expectations for assessment. I have found myself in some classes where the instructor gives either not enough information about what is expected, or gives so much vague directions that I find really difficult to sift through to figure out exactly what I need to do. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with instructors having a constructivist philosophy or 21st century teaching, but it drives me crazy to no end! Some of our readings in this class have talked about how students shouldn’t have to guess what the assessor is thinking so I feel like that should apply in our classes as well. On the other hand, this could also go back to my expectation of being told exactly what to do. I have a longstanding personal narrative that I am naturally uncreative, so I really struggle with having to come up with anything new without being given some direction. Whether the problem lies with the instructor or if it is a problem with me, it’s very frustrating for me either way.

When I was in high school, education and assessment followed the positivist philosophy to a tee. It was very traditional – lots of exams where I would spit out all of the “knowledge” I had gained in order to make room for more knowledge. It was the very definition of Freire’s banking concept of education. I can recall very few assessment techniques outside of this. If they weren’t exams, they were essays or research assignments. There was very little collaboration with peers and not a lot of room for creativity. The odd time we did receive an assignment that allowed us some input into what the final product would look like, it seemed like such a far stretch from what I was used to and felt like sooooo much work! This past experience has been a bit of a roadblock for me with coming up with inquiry or student-led methods of assessment. It has absolutely nothing to do with personal resistance or refusal to change and everything to do with just really struggling to think outside the box. 

ECS 410

Week Five: Principles that Underlie Assessment

It can be difficult to connect with and unpack thoughts on one’s educational philosophy and teaching perspectives without connecting them to personal experiences in school. Coming into an education degree, a lot of personal connection to education stems from how a person was taught. If a person was exposed primarily to positivist epistemology in both elementary and secondary school, it can be an exercise in psychology to deconstruct and reconstruct what knowledge is and how teaching should look. Even when one aligns with a constructivist approach, there can be a struggle with falling into old habits and leaning into a more traditional method. Checking in with one’s-self to intentionally change the mindset on what the best method is for students to learn can be an almost hourly chore. This can be particularly challenging for future science teachers as a lot of this type of “knowledge” in post-secondary comes from listening to lectures, memorizing facts and information, and regurgitating it on exams. Analytical thinkers, especially, are most comfortable when things are laid out linearly and neatly organized into categories. Hinchey (2010)  calls this sort of education, “traditional school practices” (p. 39) when it comes to organizing curriculum into discrete subjects and the cumulative nature of attaining knowledge – “first letters, then words, then sentences, then paragraphs, then essays” (p. 39). James (2006) likens positivism to behaviourist theories of learning and states that “learning can best be accomplished when complex performances are deconstructed and [ ] practised [ ] and subsequently built on” (p. 7). This is very similar to how science-related subjects are taught in post-secondary. It is difficult for future science teachers to ignore this method of teaching and prevent it from transferring into their teaching style once they are in the classroom. 

When trying to explain constructivism versus positivism to others who are not as immersed in education and epistemology as student-teachers are, it can be difficult to put into words why constructivism is considered the “better” way for students to learn. It might be more productive to ask whether it’s more worthwhile to learn something, write it on a test, and then forget it or more worthwhile to truly understand and apply that knowledge? Hinchey’s (2010) idea that “knowledge is constructed by human beings when they assign meaning to data” (p. 42) shows how using a constructivist approach to teaching can facilitate students connecting with content and applying it to their own worlds. What better way for them to retain what they’ve learned and draw on it in future experiences? James (2006) talks about the importance of problem solving in the constructivist theory of learning and how teachers are merely helpers to acquire an understanding of concepts. This puts students in control of learning. Not only are they acquiring knowledge about content, they are also learning how to learn. 

Hinchey (2010) responds to critics of constructivism. On the surface, science appears to be a very positivist discipline. But just as it’s important in history, language arts, and most other subjects, the consideration of what information has been deemed important enough to spend time researching and passing along is extremely critical. Asking students why we learn certain things and not others, whose agendas are being pushed, who is being privileged, and who is being silenced is key for students to grow as critical learners and thinkers. This leads into Hinchey’s definition of critical theory. In a world that so blatantly values the stories of white, heterosexual men, questions should arise regarding whose perspectives and stories are being portrayed and prioritized in education, and especially science.

ECS 410

Week Four: Tools and Strategies: Meaningful Feedback, Peer Assessment, Self-Assessment

One of the steps that Sackstein (2017) offers as a way for building a strong foundation for meaningful feedback is to “clearly spell out and communicate learning objectives or learning targets and criteria for success prior to the learning experience” (p. 37). The Edugains video supports this idea multiple times by stating that teachers should share learning goals with students using student-friendly language and that all feedback should relate to learning goals. In the video, the teacher is observed writing the target on the board, asking the students to write it in their notebooks, and then asking them to reflect on exactly what the target means. In Principles for Effective Classroom Assessment that we looked at earlier, Volante (2006) agrees by stating that teachers should communicate “the learning targets that students are expected to master” (p. 137). This transparency and clarity of both expectations and learning goals are extraordinarily valuable for students as it provides students with a reason for doing what they’re doing and helps them to understand the big picture. For students to be able to understand why they are learning something will give them purpose and direction in their learning.  

Related to providing students with the learning goals, Sackstein (2017) recommends providing them a rubric with success criteria to help guide their efforts. Edugains also suggests having exemplars or samples available to students to give them an idea of what a successful final product looks like. Sackstein (2017) expands on this that it is best not to use exemplars identical to the assignment students are completing as it may inhibit their creativity. Once again, providing students with clear and precise expectations can help relieve the burden and stress of trying to figure out exactly what is expected. This feeling of wasting time can be very frustrating and discouraging for students. Instead, students can focus their efforts on the actual work to complete the assignment. I will make an effort to provide clear expectations for every assignment so students know exactly what is expected of them. It is also important, as Sackstein (2017) points out, to “limit your feedback to the material covered” (p. 40). It is unfair and confusing for students when teachers begin commenting on or providing suggestions related to content that was not a part of the assignment. It makes expectations fuzzy for students and, again, students spend valuable time trying to decipher the teacher’s expectations instead of working towards completing the assignment.

Both Sackstein (2017) and the Edugains video stress the importance of timing and delivery of feedback to maximize students’ receptiveness to it. The Edugains video states that feedback that comes right after performance is most effective. Sackstein (2017) expands on this by stating that feedback should begin during formative assessment shortly after the skill has been taught and students have begun working on it. Sackstein (2017) goes on to state that feedback should be integrated with teaching, not separate from it. Sackstein (2017) also recommends focusing on just one or two points at a time as not to overwhelm students as well as being specific with feedback and using supportive, but honest, language. Sackstein (2017) stresses the importance of keeping feedback specific to the work that relates to the learning goals and avoiding anything regarding students’ work habits. Edugains adds that descriptive feedback should be anecdotal, describe progress towards learning goals, and suggest steps to be taken next. The most effective feedback is offered during formative assessment shortly after students have had an opportunity to begin work or right after they have completed a final assignment. The later the feedback is delivered, the less relevance it has in the students’ minds. Edugains suggests teachers structure feedback starting with what was done well, next stating what needs improvement, and lastly working through how to improve. This is a practical feedback formula that can be applied to any subject or grade level.

The Edugains video gives some useful suggestions for setting students up for success using self-assessment. They suggest modeling feedback to help students learn how to learn, using tools such as checklists for self-assessment, and also provide some practical tips like “traffic-lighting” to indicate students’ level of understanding and using feedback logs to monitor their progress. These are practical suggestions that I will use in my teaching practice. Having a checklist for self-assessment provides students with clear criteria that they can assess themselves on. It helps provide direction and prevents them from just sticking to “I did this well” or “I could do better” and instead giving specific and honest comments. Similarly, Sackstein (2017) provides practical suggestions for having students provide feedback for their peers. These suggestions include ensuring students are clear on assignment expectations, allowing them time to practice providing feedback, providing students questions to ask when assessing their peers, encouraging them to ask lots of clarifying questions, and analyzing their feedback with the class (i.e., providing feedback on their feedback). Regarding the last point, it’s one thing having students assess themselves or their peers, but if they are not provided feedback on how well they provided feedback, then the whole point of self and peer assessment can be lost. The use of a “yes-rubric” is suggested as a type of rubric that students can easily follow when providing peer feedback. It’s easy and clear for students to comprehend and encourages them to provide further explanation as to what the student they’re assessing did well or needs more work on.

ECS 410

Week Three: Assessment in the 21st Century: Why Can We No Longer Rely on Traditional Forms of Assessment

Dochy and McDowell (1997) summarize the definition and importance of authentic assessment. Although this article is relatively outdated, the research and conclusions they come to are still relevant to why authentic assessment is important today. They briefly touch on the role that technology will likely play in education someday. Rowsell and Walsh (2011) tie into this point when they stress the key role that multimodality and multiliteracies play in education right now. They talk about how technology in education requires students to not only be literate in print (reading and writing), but the roles that image, sound, gesture, and movement play in digital practices. The challenge this poses for educators is, while most educators will be familiar with the technology students are currently using, with the speed technology changes, it’s important for them to consistently upgrade their technology knowledge and stay current. This is a challenge that all educators face, regardless of their age relative to their students’ age. Rowsell and Walsh (2011) point out the importance of students learning to have a critical eye on digital content so they can be aware of how the content is “promoting or silencing particular views” (p. 56). This is important for all content that students consume but especially so when it comes to online or digitally shared content because of how quickly this sort of information moves. Regarding Rowsell and Walsh’s (2011) point about how students, presumably moreso adolescents, find “solace in online communities and how online communities foster identities and communities” (p. 56), although it may not be right to discourage students from “finding their people” online, but are these young people also connecting with others face-to-face? How does social media contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues when young people are not able to develop the social skills necessary to interact with other people in the real world?

The skills that students are unknowingly developing through digital literacy are a positive aspect of new multimodality. Rowsell and Walsh (2011) touch on all the skills students need to learn when simply searching for information – in addition to all of the skills that are involved with “writing” online such as layout, graphics, photographs, and images. These non-traditional methods are an entirely new world from what most educators are familiar with and are a gateway to new and exciting forms of assessment. As Rowsell and Walsh (2011) mention, assessment has to focus not only on students’ ability to use digital technologies but also on the “cognitive processes of interpreting and communicating meaning” (p. 60). This new digital technology is a prime example of what Dochy and McDowell (1997) call “a new era of technological possibilities” (p. 280).

Dochy and McDowell (1997) describe the new and improved role that educators play: instead of teachers being all-knowing transmitters of knowledge, they are moving towards being “a key to open the door to domains of knowledge and experience” (p. 280). In other words, teachers have evolved into partners in learning with the students and facilitators of discovering and uncovering knowledge. They talk about how teachers are now expected to prepare students for the workforce by equipping them with practical and useful skills that transfer into the real world. Transmitting information and having the students memorize it to regurgitate on a written exam later is not the way to prepare students for the real world after high school. Instead, as a future educator, I will help students use what they already know to gain new knowledge on something unknown. This is achieved through inquiry-based learning, formative assessment, and authentic assessments that relate to life outside the classroom. Dochy and McDowell (1997) also predict the current state of assessment as they state that in the future, assessment and learning will be more interwoven, rather than two separate classroom practices. Part of authentic assessment is assessing for learning. Assessment should be a means of fortifying students’ learning instead of just a method of testing what they remember. They also discuss another new method of assessment that strays from the traditional: self-assessment. This method of assessment is supported by Volante’s (2006) and Brown, Race, & Smith’s (2004) articles from last week. All three articles touch on how self-assessment develops meta-cognitive skills in students.

ECS 410

Week Two: Why are we Assessing? What is it for?

Volante (2006) brings up the concept of student-centered assessment and provides some ways that teachers can help students become active participants in their own assessment. Volante (2006) expresses the importance of relying on formative assessment to promote “enhanced motivation for learning” (p. 136). He goes on to list ways that teachers can use formative assessment to succeed in motivating students such as pretests, revising instruction, reflection on the effectiveness of their teaching, communicating students’ strengths and weaknesses, using peer-tutoring, and student self-assessment. Volante (2006) states that allowing students to self-assess shifts the role of teachers from “directors to facilitators of student learning”.  Brown, Race, & Smith (2004) agree with Volante by stating that self-assessment will motivate students to learn because it contributes to students feeling as though they are facilitating their learning and steering its direction. As a future educator, this idea made me rethink my role in the classroom. The idea that the students and I will be partners in their learning is intriguing to me. How do students’ self-assessments trend; that is, how honest are students when it comes to self-assessment? Is the grade they give themselves what is important, or is the importance in the learning of life skills such as self-reflection and self-awareness? Learning how to reflect on one’s self at a young age is important for helping them grow into self-aware adolescents and adults. Being proficient at self-awareness has many benefits when it comes to mental health and empathy. 

Brown, Race, & Smith (2004) stress the importance of transparency in assessment and Volante (2006) supports this by stating that teachers should communicate “the learning targets that students are expected to master” (p. 137). This statement has challenged me to incorporate transparency and openness with expectations in my future classroom. Some teachers indicate the curriculum outcomes being covered at the tops of exams or writing them on the board during lessons. This is an effective way for students to understand and make the connection between what they are learning and why they are learning it. It helps them to see the big picture and where the lesson is headed. Some students may not care one way or the other, but for some students, it will give their learning purpose and meaning that may translate into motivation to learn. Being transparent with expectations and “demystifying the assessment process” (Volante, 2006, p. 137) in the form of marking criteria or a rubric not only benefits the student, but gives teachers a consistent plan to follow when marking and concrete evidence to back up the mark they have given.

Volante (2006) addresses the issue of bias when it comes to assessment.  He lists some of the ways teachers can reduce bias during assessment. These include using gender-neutral terms in assessment, incorporating multicultural content into test questions, and concealing names when marking. Brown, Race, & Smith (2004) add that in order to make assessment equitable, a variety of different kinds of assessments should be used. Keeping assessments anonymous when possible (such as exams) and varying types of assessment to tailor to everyone’s assessment preferences are two strategies I will consider incorporating into my classroom. 

ECS 410

Week One: Assessment Philosophy

Although some people would define assessment as determining how much information students have retained or knowledge they have gained through the use of tests, there is so much more to it than that. Assessment involves many different methods, techniques, and tools to measure and determine not only information retained during and after lessons, but also knowledge level before a lesson, engagement and retention during/after lessons, and teacher success in equipping students with the tools necessary to succeed and proceed in their studies. Assessment can be diagnostic, formative, or summative. Diagnostic assessment is for determining students’ knowledge on a topic before the lesson. Formative assessment helps teachers understand where students are at during a lesson and helps guide future teaching. Summative assessment is to determine and measure student success in engaging with lesson content. Many assessment techniques fall into two or even all three of these categories. Assessment can take many forms. Tests and exams are the most traditional forms of summative assessment, but now there are a multitude of techniques used for all of the categories of assessment. Assessment is an important tool for teachers to use that provides them feedback on how successful they and their students are in the classroom. Although there is some controversy around the need for summative assessment, the jury is still out on my own personal philosophy regarding summative assessment. I can see the value in summative assessment, especially as far as helping teachers determine whether students are ready to move on and for motivating students to succeed, but I can also understand how it can discourage some students.

With backward design being the primary method of designing lessons, assessment directly influences instructional practices. Methods of carrying out instruction are determined by how teachers decide to assess the final goals of the unit or lesson. This method helps focus instruction to ensure lesson goals are met. Assessment can also have a large impact on classroom environment. If teachers create a culture whereby assessment is viewed as a means of obtaining grades, then students will act in part and will put their energy into memorizing and regurgitating information. If teachers place an emphasis on engagement and immersion in lesson content with assessment guiding student learning, students will hopefully participate in deep learning and care more about what and how to apply what they’re learning, and less about grades.

When designing assessments, it’s important to make them meaningful and authentic. Assessments shouldn’t be used just for the sake of using them, they should have a purpose and a logical place in the lesson. There is no point making extra work for the teacher and students by assessing something that has already been assessed, mismatching the depth or size of assessment with the content, or assessing too early / too late. It’s important not to over assess students as this may lead to some students becoming discouraged and giving up. It’s also important to provide alternative methods of assessment to accommodate students who may need them. Giving students choice in assessment can be helpful at times. Students should also have an understanding of what is expected of them through clear directions and a transparent marking rubric.