Assessment that works

Anyone who has read my blog or spoken to me for any period of time will learn that I do not believe in examinations or tests (at least in their traditional guise). I won’t bore you with repeating my views again, but it’s a necessary departure point for this post: tests and examinations do not achieve anything of educational value whatsoever.

At the school where I work, we have moved to following a new curriculum in Grades 8 and 9. The subject I teach within this new curriculum is Psychology. While this subject is loosely based on the IGCSE Psychology curriculum, I have, for the most part, followed students’ interests. The difficult part of the course initially was having to establish a foundation of knowledge on which the class could build later, because the students had no prior experience of the subject. However, after getting students to a point where they had a frame of reference for the new information, we were able to achieve some truly remarkable results.

The first of these remarkable results is that young students had no problems managing and engaging with content that many thought would be too complicated for them to grasp. We dealt with (amongst other topics) Freudian defence mechanisms, Jungian archetypes, conditioning (one of the most entertaining lessons of my career), Neuroscience and Neuroplasticity and the students managed to grapple with these complex topics with little trouble at all. When they did encounter difficulties, my class took the initiative to investigate the topics on their own, and we often began lessons with students feeding back on something they had gone to research.

Already this told me that my classes were engaging with the knowledge. More than simply rote learning details and facts, these students were developing a working, practical knowledge of the topics. During one lesson on conditioning, I had students try to ‘train’ their classmates by giving them sweets if and when they performed a random set of behaviours (e.g. walk backwards while patting your head and sticking your tongue out). No verbal instructions were allowed. After a bit of uncertainty, students were soon training their peers to do the most ridiculous things, and no one could believe how easy it was to get people to behave a certain way. This paved the way for lessons on Social Psychology where we covered how prejudice and racism develop, but more on that another time.

A strategy which I employed throughout the course is to have multiple-choice tests at the end of each section. These tests are not controlled condition tests. Instead, students follow a link on Google Classroom to a form that self-grades. At the end of completing the test (which can be done anywhere and any time during the window the test is open), students get immediate feedback which they can use to have another go. Students can take each test 3 times, and I only record the best mark. As this all takes place outside of the classroom, students can use whatever resources they want to answer the questions.

The result of this? I can see my students engaging with the content. Each attempt has a timestamp alongside it, and I can watch how a student who scores 4 on attempt one tries again after 20 minutes and gets 7, and then after another 10 minutes gets 10. This shows me that the student has gone back to look over their notes again, that they have re-engaged with the content. In this format, the test works beautifully, and I use the frequently missed questions as a guide for what I need to go over again when I next teach the class.

What I most want to write about here is how the course ended. All subject in Grade 8 and 9 were given a ‘day’ (during the examination period, school ends at 12:00) to complete a big block of assessment with their classes. Over the past two weeks, instead of simply sitting in classrooms waiting to write exams, students have been all over the campus working in groups, building models, designing apps, and, in my class’s case, completing a Psychological analysis of a ‘patient’.

I wrote a series of biographical profiles which I gave to my students two weeks before our assessment day. They were then given the following instructions:

Instructions

On the day of the assessment, I gave the groups another 2 hours to complete their work, and then they needed to present their findings to the class. In addition, they needed to submit everything that was presented as a document and I requested records of meetings and correspondence. Finally, they were asked to complete a peer assessment survey which I used to award individual grades based on the group’s overall result.

To say that my students exceeded my expectations is to put it very mildly indeed. I was absolutely astounded by the level of insight my students showed. They went into more depth than I expected, and found more situations to solve than I actually wrote into the characters. I had students formulate their own systematic desensitisation schedules to treat phobias, they made links between patients’ pasts and their present state of mind, they suggested brain scans I had not even taught them and they did this all with a level of professionalism that I would expect from students far older than them.

No test or examination could ever have given my students the platform to demonstrate the level of understanding and engagement that this assignment afforded them. As a teacher, I am so gratified and fulfilled knowing that my students get it. Whether they can recite all the areas of the limbic system or analyse whether a situation demonstrates classical or operant conditioning is irrelevant to me, because I saw their knowledge being applied. I also saw how they collaborated with each other to solve the problems, and their final presentations were, without fail, excellent.

The final feather in my cap is the fact that most of the class asked to continue with the subject. I had originally intended to offer only ‘The Fundamentals of Psychology’, but now I will be teaching Psychology 101 and Psychology 201 next semester.

More than being an ego boost, this tells me that students are interested in what they are learning, which inspires me to work harder on the lessons I prepare, which my students notice and appreciate. They have all shown what they are capable of doing, and I plan to extend and develop this as much as I can.

I couldn’t help but share my feelings with the class after the day:

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This has been an extraordinary journey so far, and I cannot wait to see where it leads next.

Below are some snippets from what the students produced: