[Editor’s note: This post by Alan November, written exclusively for eSchool Media, is part of a series of upcoming articles by this notable education thought leader. Check back later this month for the next must-read post!]

What if we could empower our teachers to turn student assessment into a process of learning instead of a focus on measurement?  Further, what if this mindset change led to an increase in student achievement on tests?

That’s exactly what is happening at Trailside Middle School in Loudoun County, Virginia; at high schools in Gaston County Schools, North Carolina; and at a few other pioneering classrooms around the country where I have had the opportunity to work with innovative educators.

Depending on how you view the purpose and management of student assessment, this innovative process may seem counterintuitive at first—but it has led to dramatic gains in their students’ understanding.

Achievement Gains x 3

The technique involves testing students twice: once individually and once in groups. It’s something I first saw practiced by Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, who has redesigned the culture of his classroom to have students own their learning.

By making the learning a socially interactive experience, where students are discussing and debating the problems with each other, Dr. Mazur has found that his Harvard students are much more engaged in the class—and they also learn more from each other than they learned from him alone. In fact, he has seen achievement gains that are three times greater than what he experienced when he used to lecture.

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“It is an amazing experience to watch the engagement, the excitement, the energy, and the constant debate students have with one another,” he says. “There is this passion that really disseminates across the whole room.”

Professor Mazur observes, “We mostly assess students on low-level skills, like remembering, and our only way of testing them on that is to cut them off from any other source of information or each other. But that’s not how they will operate later in their careers. We all have access to the internet, books, and other people. That’s why I think it’s very important that we transition to a more authentic form of student assessment, where students do have access to this information and to each other.”

In Professor Mazur’s process, students first take an assessment alone; then, they are placed together in small groups to discuss those same questions and decide what the right answers are and why.  “They essentially get three tries to get a decreasing number of points as a team for those questions,” he says. “In a sense, it makes the assessment a learning opportunity and also a feedback opportunity, which is what it should be.”

The big question is: Will a process that shows improvement with highly motivated Harvard students work with high school students who are under motivated or middle school and elementary students who are struggling?

The answer is a resounding YES.

(Next page: How teachers are seeing incredible gains in student achievement with student assessment)


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