best practices

Three Ways to Assess Without Test Stress

May 16, 2019

Quizzes, games, and short tests to measure comprehension can be helpful to the teacher and fun for the students. But, when it comes to a summative evaluation of student work we often feel stuck with a long test about facts and/or a five-paragraph essay. Long tests do nothing but measure how many facts students can jam into their heads for a day or so before everything is forgotten. Essays are better—if the student is a verbal learner. If not, they just create stress and mental pabulum dripped onto the page or screen. There are other ways to assess how well students are incorporating information and demonstrating understanding.

1. Start at the end. Give students the final exam in the beginning of the course. Make it long, make it hard, make it interesting—not just factual questions, but ideas that make them think.

For example, How would you grade John Adams’ presidency?

  1. A – because he defeated the French
  2. B – because George Washington was a tough act to follow
  3. C – because he never got control over governmental policies
  4. D – because he was incompetent and disinterested

The correct answer is C, but a student unfamiliar with the power politics behind the scenes of the Federalist era wouldn’t necessarily know that. The student would have the term or the unit, though, to research and find out.

2. Top of the Bloom. Famously, Bloom’s taxonomy of learning has remembering and understanding facts at the base, and as you climb up, you apply, analyze, and evaluate until you reach the culmination of all that climbing, you create. But what if you start with create? What if instead of slogging through the Civil War, you ask the students to create a play or a musical or a puppet show or the first chapters of historical fiction or anything that would be based in the Civil War and require them to research and climb the Bloom ladder on their own—with teacher guidance, of course. Allowing students to mine the veins of history will give them ownership over it, a real sense of incorporating history as their own.

3. Alien Report. Have the students prepare reports as if they are aliens from another planet preparing to invade Earth at the time you’re studying. Brainstorm questions with the students about what they would need to know. How is power distributed? What are the resources? How is the society organized? How have they waged war in the past? What are their values? Etcetera. A report like this gives history an immediate—and fun—context. The actual evaluation of the student work becomes a game and the object is to determine why an invasion of Earth makes sense—or not.

Techniques like this may or may not work within the framework of specific curricula, but if possible, these alternatives, and many others, give learning a refreshing sense of play and creativity for students. They offer challenges to the students in the form of organization, time management, and critical thinking development. They can be a primary—or an alternative—way for teachers to assess content retention. And, they encourage students to associate history, and all learning, with fun.

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