In What Ways Can Learning Be Assessed Without Inhibiting Learning?

Version 2Today my post is not specifically about music or music education, but about a topic in education in general. The topic is grading; how we grade our students, different kinds of assessment, including assigning grades, and what effect these different kinds of assessment and grading have on student learning.

Most teachers are apt to teach like they were taught, and for many of us, we were taught by being graded on quizzes, tests, projects, and class participation. For the most part, grades were assigned at the end of a project, unit, or chapter, and after the test was taken or the project was turned in or presented to the class, we moved on to the next chapter or topic. Over the course of the year, we accumulated a string of grades from which a final grade was calculated and placed on a report card. From there it was either an outing to the ice cream store for a job well done, or we had a lot of explaining to do.

If any or all of this sounds familiar, it might be because you remember doing these things as a student, or it might be that you have your students do these things throughout the school year. When you or they are working on projects, taking tests, reading chapters, or listening to the teacher present material, what is your goal? If you’re like me, it was mostly to get a good grade. I’d focus on what the teacher wanted and try to do that as best I could, even if it didn’t make any sense or even if I had no other interest in what I was doing than the grade. The result of this is that I, and students all over like me, would and will still do just what they think the teacher wants, just what they have to do to get the grade they want. The problem with this is that there is no room for a student finding something they wonder about or are interested in and looking into it further. All they are likely to get for this is a lowered grade for going off topic. And because the student is doing only what they need to for the grade they want, whatever learning is taking place is generic and shallow; a kind of one size fits all.

The other problem with this is that the only thing being graded is the final result. There is no assessment of how the student is progressing, and even worse of what the student is learning, or wants to learn, along the way as he or she works on the project, studies for the test, reads the chapter, or even sits in class listening to the teacher. If it’s not on the test or in the rubric, then this other potentially valuable, interesting, relevant learning falls by the wayside.

Research in the last 10 years has shown that the most effective form of assessment is MIOSMdetailed feedback specific to individual work; more effective than even this kind of feedback combined with praise (Lipnevich & Smith, 2008). Some of the “tried and true” methods of grading students have in fact been shown to inhibit learning. For example, Canada and Hotchkiss (1989) found that “taking risks is not often rewarded in school. Students need encouragement and support, not low marks, while they try new or more demanding work.” Why would a student make the extra effort and take the initiative to delve deeper into study if their extra learning was going to result in a lower grade? They also observed that “learning is not a ‘one-shot’ deal. When the products of learning are complex and sophisticated, students need a lot of teaching, practice, and feedback before the product is evaluated.” I would even go further and say that part of the evaluation should be the growth observed as the result of that practice before doing the summative evaluation.

Now let’s say a teacher has done everything right; the teacher has given detailed feedback specific to individual work, has designed challenging, rigorous learning tasks and planned ample time for extra teaching, students to practice, and feedback to be given, understood, and applied to ongoing practice, and let’s say (as is highly likely) that students are now performing at a markedly elevated proficiency level. There is still one pitfall to be overcome. If the teacher, after all this great teaching and learning, applies the same grading standards and rubrics as before, the students, inspire of all they have done, will be unpleasantly surprised by low grades. Why? Because different methods, differently designed learning tasks, and different objects of assessment will result in different results. Students, while they have learned more, been encouraged and motivated to continue on, and have triumphed over more rigorous instruction than ever before, have probably not learned some of what was on those old assessments and tests, especially if they were heavily weighted for content knowledge above understanding. This may sound obvious, (but it must not be because the opposite happens more often than it should,) but you must be sure that you are assessing students at their proficiency of doing what you asked them to do.

You gave them feedback, so how well did they receive and apply that feedback? What growth resulted from utilizing the feedback? You asked more of them and gave them extra time to practice. What growth resulted from the added practice? To measure growth, you must pre- and post- test along the way, not just at the end. Whereas formerly you were set up to assess with vocabulary quizzes, essays, and other traditional forms of student work, when your students were doing extra practice, receiving and using feedback, and other more authentic tasks,  you weren’t concerned with them writing down definitions or even writing an essay. You were concerned with them doing something authentic and using the knowledge they would have otherwise put into that essay. But you’re no longer assessing the essay, you’re assessing what they did with the acquired learning. So you need to be sure the grade reflects the positive results you observed.  That doesn’t mean you don’t test for vocabulary or that you don’t have them write an essay. It does mean that those kinds of learning tasks are done early in the process, at the stage where they are still acquiring knowledge in preparation for doing something for which they will need that knowledge.

Acquiring knowledge is a step in the learning process that proceeds acquiring understanding. There is little point in acquiring knowledge without continuing on to gain understanding. And how do we know when a student has gained understanding? When they successfully put the knowledge to use doing something authentic to the discipline, in our case, music. And that “something” they do doesn’t have to be the same thing for every student. We can let students follow their interests by having them select the repertoire, musical ideas, projects, and so forth they will use to practice and learn within the four artistic processes of creating, performing, responding, and connecting.

Lipnevich, A. A., & Smith, J. K. (2008). Response to assessment feedback: the effects of grades, praise, and source of information. Ets Research Report Series, 2008, 1.)

Canady, R. L., & Hotchkiss, P. R. (1989). It’s a Good Score! Just a Bad Grade. Phi Delta Kappan, 71, 1, 68-71.


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