• Mark Salata

5 Tips to Engage Learners through Better Assessment

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Consider how assessments can be used to engage learners as opposed to merely test them.

Provide Students with Opportunities

‍ Science is about studying the world around us and identifying meaningful patterns.  Those patterns help us take actions that help improve our lives, both individually and collectively.  So, just as scientists collect information and a variety of data from experiments and start to create predictive patterns, we must give children the opportunities to do what they can to build those skills.  They may not be fully trained scientists, but they are natural inquirers.

Consider what objects you might share to elicit student’s thinking at the beginning of a lesson. Try adding a "Wonder Table" to your classroom or having a "Wonder Table" shown on a video conference (or simply sharing a photo with students online), where there are a few objects to stimulate students asking questions and then classifying, categorizing and identifying patterns with what you provide them with the world around them - at home or at school.

Examples of questions that you may ask them  include: What do you observe? How would you classify these objects? What questions do you have about these objects?  Is there a pattern in what you see here?

In the practice of science, one must organize their knowledge.. How do you design your lessons to allow students to do this either individually or with each other? How can you encourage this while students are learning at a distance from each other or in a hybrid context of some students in school while others are working from home?  Asking them to create Venn diagrams, concept maps, and other drawings to show relationships can be very powerful to help them see a pattern.  But make sure that you do not stop there.  Have students use the patterns they identify to predict what they may see in another similar context and let them test it out.  If the pattern is or is not successfully predictive, then you can discuss how that was so.  These are the beginnings of thinking like a scientist.

Create an Ideal Learning Environment

Create a learning environment where students are comfortable sharing their ideas in their own words - science terminology can be delayed until after students explore a bit.

Scientists use concepts they have learned in different contexts. How can you apply your scientific knowledge to solve an everyday problem? For example, you can apply knowledge of forces in order to fix an unsteady dishwasher or, more simply, and unsteady chair or table. These kinds of practical, though small, applications of science are exactly what we need to encourage students to think about in order to see science in their everyday life.

When you get your students to apply such knowledge, consider methods like allowing them to express in words or a drawing on how they pieced together certain knowledge to solve something. Oftentimes, students may not express how they came to a solution and simply provide an answer. We must insist that they try to reflect on their thinking and realize that the process of critically and creatively thinking is as important as having a solution to a problem.

Being able to identify gaps in one's own knowledge is very important, especially gaps when approaching new problems. Find ways to help your students gain the ability to self-check what they know and what they need to know to solve a problem. Guide students in discerning useful from useless information, as well as reliable from unreliable sources of information.  A simple way to do that is to use a variation of a K-W-L chart and asking them to answer three questions: what do I think I know? what do i know? what do I need to know/learn?

Prior Knowledge Probes

Think about the beginning, middle, and end of a lesson. What are important factors for you to consider in order to have students learn well and you to adjust your lessons to their needs?  Clearly, their prior knowledge and experiences will greatly impact their learning.

If you begin a lesson without engaging a student's prior knowledge of a topic, then you are missing a big opportunity to leverage their experiences and internal motivation. This can be done in a variety of ways, but again a “Wonder Table” or similar variant, such as a demonstration or showing a video that provides an observation that is counterintuitive can start the conversation. They'll ask questions about the phenomenon and then you can ask them to provide past experience or understandings that relate to what they saw and why they are puzzled. 

You can simply ask them what they know about a topic, but I recommend putting more effort into this part of a lesson. Probing for prior understanding and experiences can occur throughout a lesson. 

Meaningful and Real-Life Contexts Take Time

When you ask teachers what is the one resource they don't have enough of for teaching, invariably they say, "Time." You have a list of learning objectives that is usually very long and you have lessons set for every day of the school year. If someone tells you to expend more time for any one learning objective, then you will tend to say, "I have no extra time to use." In stating that learning takes time, we remind ourselves that learning anything of importance will require multiple opportunities and meaningful contexts.

Often, those meaningful contexts are real-life situations or problems and artificially reducing the time it takes to experience a real-life example may hinder learning. When have you taught something and allowed students to explore ideas on a topic either within class time or at home for an extended period - perhaps a week or even a month? Did you teach that topic such that they kept coming back to it a little bit each day or each week and built on the previous time period on the topic? Did you use a project-based lesson?

Assessment should be thought of as more than quizzes and tests - every conversation or communication is an opportunity to understand what interests students, what they understand, and how their knowledge is organized.

Think about how assessment can alter motivation. What kinds of assessment are helpful to maintain or increase internal motivation to learn? What kinds of assessment reduce internal motivation to learn? What kind of message do you give to students about the value of the learning process and the value of a letter or number grade?

Explore (Their) Ideas

How have you incorporated students' experiences and interests into a lesson? What are the ways you have had students express their understanding? Which ways of student expression have you found to be most informative?

Model scientific thinking and curiosity - explore their ideas with your students.

Use useful tools for assessments. For example:

  • KWL Chart: Prime the learner’s thinking (What do I Know? What I Wonder about? What have I Learned?)

  • Concept Mapping: Use hierarchy (general to specific; horizontal), directional connections and cross connections

  • Venn Diagrams: List, arrange, share

  • Card Sort Task

  • Claim (connected to a question you are trying to answer) - Evidence (collected to test the claim) - Reasoning (how and why the evidence supports the claim)

  • Meaningful Paragraph: Provide terms, have students write a paragraph

  • Making a Model: Have students construct a 3D model

  • Discrepant Event: Demonstrate something that causes them to ask questions (Prediction, Observation, Explanation) 

  • Exit Ticket: What is one thing you learned? What is one thing that is unclear? 

  • Data Tables and Graphs: Encourage data representations and explanations of it

How to integrate assessment as a natural part of STEM learning? Encourage continuous reflection within learning with the BSCS 5E instructional model: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate. How would you incorporate assessment tools into each of the 5 phases? What kinds of information do you need to collect for informing the student about their learning and to allow the student to reflect on their own learning throughout the whole process?

Sign up for a free NODMA account and free trainings to apply the above points, and share your lesson creation with your colleagues as well as on the NODMA Community Facebook page.  Our team of educators look forward to providing you feedback on your creative lessons!