How do we assess understanding?

Part of my role as Teaching and Learning Coordinator involves facilitating and supporting the planning of units of inquiry.

Planning for inquiry can be difficult.

On the one hand, over planning limits the potential for inquiry.

On the other hand, we have desired outcomes and understandings, as well as the demands of a national curriculum.

We used to plan a range of learning experiences in advance. You can read here about how we have improved our planning process.

Nowadays, we start by identifying the desired conceptual understandings and carefully considering what evidence will indicate that our learners have achieved them. Then we plan some provocations that engage the learners in the big ideas and wait to see where the learning takes us.

Keeping an eye on the conceptual understandings allows us to add further targeted provocations as the inquiry unfolds.

Creating a rubric helps clarify where our units are heading. Depending on the age of the learners, some teachers use the rubric with their students, others don’t, but either way, the process helps teachers focus on how to look for evidence of the understandings.

Here’s an example for a Prep (5 year olds) inquiry into how family life has changed over time:

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Here’s one for a Year 4 inquiry into how taking ownership of our learning can empower us:
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Here’s a Year 5 example that’s more content based:
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We learned this technique from Sam Sherratt and are still practising it, so I’m sure these rubrics are not perfect. One thing of which I am certain is the value of phrasing the understandings in simple child friendly language, rather than the usual, sometimes unintelligible, jargon of assessment standards. As always, we welcome feedback (or rather ‘feedforward’) on the rubrics themselves as well as the process.

Can you hear the learner’s voice?

Do conventional report cards give parents a true description of a child’s learning? If not, what would improve them?

This was the driving question behind yesterday’s #edchat conversation. I assume that ‘conventional report cards’ vary in different educational contexts around the globe. And I’m sure they have much in common in the attempt to reduce the exciting, messy, complex process of learning to something tiny and uniform that fits into an envelope.

Report card

Can you hear the learner’s voice in your reports?

It never ceases to amaze me how many people think that teachers can ’cause learning without the student’s help,’ as Dylan William says in this great little clip about metacognition. 


The most telling part of my school’s reports is the student reflection. It reveals a great deal, not just about the learner but  about how the learning takes place…

Some snippets from our current Year 5 and 6 report reflections:

Compare these, which focus on ‘work’ and ‘results’…

‘I worked really hard… and in the end it all paid off because I got an A.’

‘I have improved immensely in spelling. I got 41 out of 50 however, I still think there is room for improvement.’

‘In maths I don’t think I am living up to my potential, as I am not getting the results I would have liked to.’

‘I think I need to work on listening to instructions more carefully.’

… to these, which focus on learning…

‘This year I have extended my knowledge, matured and have shown that I can overcome anything if I really focus and concentrate on all the obstacles that are in the way of my destination – succeeding and doing my utmost. I think that I am a curious and open minded learner. ‘

‘In Inquiry, I’m like someone running and picking up speed and momentum. Last year, finding a big question was so baffling but now it’s simple. These last three inquiries have been so absorbing, I have been like a sponge waiting for more knowledge to absorb into my brain.’

‘Throughout primary school you do units of inquiry. At the beginning of this semester, I thought that I was locating facts and presenting them. In this semester, I have learned not just facts but deeper understandings and meanings. I have also improved my creativity in linking ideas in units of inquiry’.

‘I have learnt many skills about writing speeches and how they are not just a read-out narrative, how to raise my voice when talking about something important, speak in a different tone or to move my hands in certain way to get people’s attention. I still think I need to improve on my writing skills and how to convert thoughts into words and get them on the paper.’

Can you hear the learner’s voice?

Related post: 10 ways to encourage student reflection

Do I get a C?

The government likes us to rate each learner as A-E on their semester reports, so that parents know where their children stand in relation to an arbitrary set of expectations. A ‘C’ means the student is ‘performing at the expected standard’ for that grade level.

How do we make sure the grading is uniform? How do we eliminate subjectivity?

I sit in on a meeting where the teachers discuss how to moderate writing. They select a topic for a narrative piece all students will write on a specified day. They create a rubric with criteria against which to grade. The teachers will mark each others’ classes to eliminate subjectivity. Then they will meet as a group to moderate. Do they agree on which piece is an A or a D?

These are educators who value learning. It’s a shame government requirements bring it down to this.

I write.

My writing has improved through writing. And reading what other people write. And thinking. And writing some more. I write about what matters to me. I write because I want to. I write what I think and what I learn. Sometimes I start a piece and it writes itself in ten minutes. Some posts take many revisits over a series of days. Sometimes I start one and it goes nowhere and I scrap it. Sometimes I write a piece that I love and I read it over and over again myself.

My writing would be inhibited by…
being assigned a topic.
having a time limit.
being told when to write.
receiving a letter grade for my writing.
knowing I was being compared to other writers.
being told to plan and draft my writing in a particular way.
writing to fit a list of criteria decided by someone else.
having no choice.

I like to use ellipses….
I don’t like to use capital letters in the headings of my posts.
I often deliberately oversimplify big ideas in my writing.
I choose simple words even though I know more elaborate, sophisticated, ostentatious, prodigious, impressive, obfuscating ones
And sometimes I start sentences with ‘and’.

So is there consensus? Do I get a C?

10 ways to assess learning without tests…

A tweet by @wmchamberlain which caught my eye the other day,  was the catalyst for this 10 ways post.

Today’s #edchat discussion about the arts got me thinking further (as always).  The arts can be integrated across other disciplines and can add another powerful layer to learning, be it history, maths, literature or bible! (but that can be another post). For now, why not replace some traditional testing with opportunities for creative expression? I’ve included some such options in my list of alternative assessments.

Every one of these tasks includes natural differentiation for different levels of ability. They are written in general terms and can be adapted and applied as required. Use the ideas individually or combine aspects of different ones.

1. Create a cartoon.

Use the online cartoon creator, ToonDoo, to create a cartoon (or toonbook) which demonstrates your knowledge, explains your thinking about a topic or illustrates your understanding of a concept.

2. Produce a play.

Work with your group to produce and present a play which demonstrates what you have learnt. Make sure to include your own interpretation and analysis. Show how your new knowledge can be applied in other contexts.

3. Make a video.

Make a video to demonstrate your learning. Your video can include acting or singing. You might create an animation or a documentary. Show what your have understood and add your own interpretation.

4. Create a slideshow.

Select a series of images that relate to your learning. Take your own photographs to include in your slideshow. Include your own paintings. Make connections between the images and what you have learned. Add text that explains why you have chosen (or created) these particular images.

5. Thinking routines.

Create a headline that shows your understanding of the topic. Choose a colour, symbol and image to represent the essence of what you have learned. Explain how your thinking has developed using the ‘I used to think, now I think’ routine. (More options at PZ Visible Thinking )

6. Write a blog post.

Write a blog post that shows your learning, or clarifies your thinking. You might choose to express yourself  through poetry or narrative, or any genre of your choice. Remember you are writing for an authentic audience who might respond and ask questions. Add appropriate images. Include a reflection on your learning.

7. Compose a song.

Compose a song that expresses your learning, understanding or opinions. Compose your own music or write new lyrics that can be sung to the melody of an existing song. Collaborate with other musicians to compose and present your piece.

8. Solve a problem.

Use your skills and knowledge to provide a solution (or solutions) to a real life problem posed by your teacher. Show how you can apply your learning in a different context. Or create your own problem. Exchange with a peer and solve each others’.

9. Concept mapping.

Show your understanding of how the different parts of your learning are connected using a graphic organizer. Use a thinking map from Exploratree, one provided by your teacheror create one of your own.  Show the development of your ideas by creating a concept map in Spicynodes.

10. Student choice.

Best of all. Present your understandings/ learning/ findings/analysis… in any way you like.

I know this post is an over-simplification. It depends on what you’re assessing. It might depend on who you’re assessing. And the purpose of the assessment. But irrespective of the age or ability of your students, whether you’re assessing skills, knowledge, understanding, technique or application of knowledge to other contexts… all of the above are valid, more engaging, more meaningful alternative to tests.

More posts in the ’10 ways’ series