One educator issues a challenge to all: skip the Scantron and discover what students really know

PLCs-communitiesEd. note: This year the editors selected ten stories we believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016 (look for No. 1 on Dec. 31). This April piece, on the difference between testing vs. assessing, was published as part of Innovation In Action, a monthly column from the International Society of Technology in Education focused on exemplary practices in education.

testing-studentsDuring the first day of the semester, one of my students commented: “Your class is the easiest class I have this semester. You don’t have any tests.” I laughed, but the student was serious.

I teach graduate level courses about educational technology, such as Online Tools for Teaching and Learning. The thought of asking students to take tests to show their knowledge had never crossed my mind. My goal has always been to design courses that capture the interest of the students and inspire them to take charge of their learning. I just don’t think that tests can capture my students’ true learning experiences.

Don’t get me wrong, I still assess learning. I just do it in a way in which students often don’t realize that they are being assessed. For ongoing, formative assessment, I ask my students to design, discuss, build, create, present, reflect, and share. My students create videos, interactive timelines, 3D models, animations, tutorials, websites, wikis, blogs, interactive images, digital stories, podcasts, screencasts, presentations, mindmaps, and collaborative essays, to name a few examples.

These “creative products,” as I call them, allow my students to demonstrate their mastery in a variety of ways and provide me with a way to assess what my students are learning during class and make adjustments to my instruction.

Next: How to change assessment practices

Both the ISTE Standards for Teachers (2008) and CAST’s Universal Design for Learning principles recommend allowing students to express their ideas and knowledge in a variety of ways. Yet, too often, students are asked to sit at a desk for hours on end to take the exact same multiple choice, short answer, or essay test to demonstrate what they learned. In the TED Talk “The Myth of the Average,” Todd Rose made an invaluable point: “Even though we have one of the most diverse countries in the history of the world, and even though it’s the 21st century, we still design our learning environments like textbooks for the average student.” According to Todd, when you design for the average (e.g., one-size-fits-all tests), you design for no one.

With widespread access to the internet and thousands of free online tools, students can express their knowledge and demonstrate their skills in a variety of ways. In February 2015, I was an observer-participant in the SOOC4Learning, a Small Open Online Course about Universal Design for Learning. The entire course exemplified the principles of designing equitable learning opportunities, activities, and assessments. Each week, course participants were asked to complete one task from a list of six options and post it in the Google+ Community. It was amazing to see how many ways there were to demonstrate competency. Take a look at the Week 1 course products and you will see that every single assignment is different.

It is time for teachers of all levels to start thinking about assessment in a different way. “Assessment” does not have to mean: “test.” So, I’d like to challenge all teachers to start thinking outside the scantron bubble and design more effective and equitable assessment tools. One-size-fits-all multiple choice exams may save you time during grading, but can students really demonstrate the depth of their understanding by filling in a bubble? Essay exams allow students to show their depth of knowledge, but does every student have to respond to the same prompt in the same way? That’s like assessing a monkey, penguin, and elephant by asking them to climb the same tree (Google “standardized testing” if you’re not familiar with this reference).

Before you design your next assessment, think about how you could create multiple options for students to show what they have learned (see the SOOC4Learning Tasks pages for examples). The ISTE Standards for Teachers (2008) recommend using new technologies and digital tools to design varied assessments, and fortunately, there are hundreds of free digital tools that students can use to demonstrate their knowledge. Here are a few curated lists of tools to help you get started:
•    Top 100 Tools for Learning 2014
•    321 Free Tools for Teachers
•    Web 2.0 Teaching Tools

It is important to note that providing students with more options for expressing their ideas does not equate with making exams (or classes) easier. You can still ask challenging, thought-provoking questions, but instead of requiring your students to sit in a classroom and demonstrate expertise in the skill of recalling information, allow them to choose their own way to express their knowledge. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

About the Author:

Torrey Trust, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Learning Technology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.