We recently turned the calendar to begin a new year. For many of us, we now face the second half of our academic year. These annual milestones offer an opportunity for us to pause and take stock of practices and routines on which we rely as we instruct and assess the learning of our students.
It can be easy to assume that longstanding practices must be effective. Yet, some things that used to seem like good practice may look different as we consider their contribution to our students’ learning. Similarly, it may be time to re-examine some of our assessment practices to be sure they’re generating accurate and reliable information about the learning progress of our students. Here are five common instruction and assessment practices that are worth our attention as we move into the second half of the academic year.
Let’s begin with the practice of assigning unit, quarterly, or end-of-course grades based on the average of grades given throughout the grading period. Students who enter our classes with limited background knowledge and experience related to the content often score poorly on early assessments. Even though these students may perform well as their learning grows, averaging scores risks under reporting the extent of their learning growth and may not reflect their current learning status. Conversely, students who enter our classes with extensive background knowledge and experience may score well early in the learning process and receive an advantage in the assignment of grades. In fact, students who begin with significant knowledge and experience may not learn as much as their less advantaged classmates and still be awarded higher grades. We do better when we assign grades based on what students have learned than on how much they knew when they began.
Another practice worth examining is the use of timed tests to measure whether students have learned a concept or skill. Unfortunately, timed tests create a level of anxiety that can impede students’ ability to think clearly and show the full extent of their learning. This impact is most common among young students, those more likely to be subjected to timed tests. The ability to perform quickly under pressure can be a measure of memorization and reflexivity; it does not necessarily represent deep learning or full understanding.
Yet another practice worth review is relying on a pre-set pace for instruction to ensure curriculum content coverage rather than allowing the pace of student learning to drive the nature and pace of instruction. Pacing guides and quarterly instructional plans can be beneficial, but they’re not measures of student learning and don’t guarantee that students will be ready to learn at the pace we might expect. What matters most isn’t whether we have “covered” the curriculum. In fact, coverage means nothing to students who failed to learn what they were taught. If we must choose between coverage and student learning, learning is the only responsible choice.
Still another practice worthy of review is treating students who are fast learners as though they also must be good learners. We often use the terms “fast learners” and “good learners” almost interchangeably. In fact, fast learning students often are blessed with strong short-term memories. They’re capable of absorbing and repeating information quickly and accurately. However, they often forget almost as quickly as they learn, especially once their learning has been assessed. On the other hand, students who may struggle to grasp a concept or take more time to develop and demonstrate a skill may learn more deeply and retain what they learn much longer. We do well to coach “fast learners” to move their learning to long term memory and resist assuming students who require more time to learn aren’t good learners.
A fifth practice that, while embedded in the traditional design of schools, warrants review is the grouping of students for instruction by age. While it is a convenient way of deciding how to organize for instruction, we know that students grow at different rates and learn in different ways. In fact, the average American classroom includes students with academic and learning readiness levels spanning 3.5 years. Nevertheless, most classes are formed based on students’ years of birth rather than their readiness to learn what is taught. While it may not be practical to immediately and completely dismantle age-based grouping practices, any modifications and adjustments that can be made to better recognize learning development and readiness as a basis for instruction will be helpful to young learners.
You may have additional practices you want to reexamine. There may never be a better time to make the commitment than now. Of course, making changes in relied-on practices can be challenging, but your students and their learning deserve your best.