Thursday, March 27, 2014

Evidence of Understanding: Improving Assessment

Why do we give students vocabulary terms to learn?  What is the purpose of knowing these words?  How does our assessment of students’ knowledge of the terms reflect our purpose?

As I look around my school I see lots of vocabulary lists and vocabulary tests.  Vocabulary is at the heart of much of what we teach.  Words are in vocabulary workbooks. Lists come from reading stories in literature and from boldfaced terms in science and social studies texts.

Nearly every teacher will defend her position that students need to know these words to understand the content of the class.  Teachers who use workbooks for vocabulary study swear by the improved results on their end of year achievement.

I’m not opposed to the study of vocabulary.  Everyone, including me, needs to build a more robust vocabulary.

I’m just trying to dig deeper, to peel the layers of the onion, to move toward a more specific understanding of why we teach vocabulary so that we can assess our students’ vocabulary in the context of that purpose.

Many vocabulary tests consist of matching the word to the definition.  Others may use a multiple choice format, but that is still likely to be just a word and four definitions from which to choose (vs. ten or fifteen definitions in a matching column).

It’s sometimes difficult to understand the concept of understanding in the context of our own subject areas and standards. So I continually seek examples outside of “school” to illuminate complex ideas.

In our volunteer firefighter emergency medical responder class, we were given a list of 74 objectives.  I would expect these objectives to be the skills and knowledge we must acquire to successfully perform our responsibilities as volunteer EMRs.  In fact, most of the objectives are just that.

But there a few that puzzle me, at least in the way they are written.

One objective states, “Define abandonment.”  No problem; it’s easy enough to look up the definition in the text, write it down, memorize it, match it or select the right choice on a test. That level of work constitutes knowledge of the definition.

I’m more interested in knowing what is the purpose of the objective.  Is it really to have me define the term?  I seriously doubt it.  More likely, the instructor expects that I will understand the concept of abandonment as it applies to my responsibilities as an EMR so that I will not abandon a patient.

If the instructor does not assess my understanding of the concept, how will he know whether I get it?  Perhaps, as many teachers do, he thinks that testing my knowledge of the definition demonstrates my understanding of the term.  How do we assess for understanding?

At this juncture there is a disconnect in education. We teach and assess knowledge, often at the expense of teaching for and assessing understanding. 

We must rethink our assessments to ensure we are getting the information we need about student learning.  If I just need a weekly grade, matching vocabulary works.  If I want to know that my instruction is effective, that students are learning what I intend for them to learn, then my assessment must provide information about students’ understanding of what they have learned.  How do I do that? 

  1. Establish the purpose of the vocabulary.  Why must students know this word?  How do I expect them to use this word?  What understanding do I expect them have of this word?  Start with an Understanding by Design framework.
     Standard: Define abandonment.
The student will understand that once he begins treatment, a trained medical responder must not leave a patient until care is taken over by a person with the same or higher training.
Vocabulary (definition): abandonment
Avoid abandoning a patient

  1. Create assessment items that measure knowledge AND understanding in context.  Design multiple assessment items.  Then select the one(s) which best demonstrate the level of knowledge, skills, and understanding you expect.
Multiple Choice Item
Assessing Vocabulary Knowledge
When an EMR fails to continue providing emergency medical care to a patient until another qualified person takes over is called:
a) incompetence
b) assumed consent
c) duty to act
d) abandonment
Multiple Choice Item
Assessing Concept Knowledge
You arrive on the scene, gain permission to treat the patient, and begin treatment.  You bandage the patient’s bleeding leg, and he is stable. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, you receive a phone call and need to leave the scene. May you abandon the patient?
a) Yes, the patient has been treated and is stable.
b) Yes, the ambulance is only a few minutes away.
c) No, you have begun treatment, so you must wait for the ambulance.
d) No, the patient’s status may change if you leave.
Performance Task Assessing Concept Application
Establish a role-play scenario in which the EMR must decide whether to leave the patient. Have the responder verbalize his actions and defend them.

 Assessing for understanding is a challenge.  We are quite accustomed to assessing for knowledge, but assessing for understanding requires us to think beyond what we’ve always done.  It requires us to have a deep understanding of why we teach what we teach. Without this understanding, we cannot provide the level of instruction or assessment that our students deserve.

How do you assess understanding in your classroom?  What evidence of understanding do you require?  How does understanding the concept of understanding affect your assessments?  Share your ideas.  We learn from one another.

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