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A Different Kind of Test

-by Margaret Leland, Grade 8 Humanities

Over the Spring break I was reading Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams (what is school for?)” and began to question how best I could develop the unit final for my students to finish off our Worldviews in Conflict: The Spanish 
and the Aztecs.

I was mulling over the following quotes by Seth Godin:

“The obligation of the new school is to teach reasonable doubt. Not the unreasonable doubt of the wild-eyed heckler, but the evidence-based doubt of the questioning scientist and the reason-based doubt of the skilled debater.” 

“Unfortunately, the things we desperately need (and the things that make us happy) aren’t the same things that are easy to test.”

“The industrialized, scalable, testable solution is almost never the best way to generate exceptional learning.”

“The magic of connecting dots is that once you learn the techniques, the dots can change but you’ll still be good at connecting them.” 

I wanted to address what the students had learned in this unit and how best to bring out evidence of deeper learning, rather than simply have them regurgitate the facts that they had come across in their research and exploration of the Spanish and Aztecs. As access to any and all of the information that students need today is literally at their fingertips and retrievable within minutes, if not seconds, I wanted to design a way to have them draw upon this readily available information, as well as their deepened understanding from our class discussions and peer interactions during the unit study. As we are a connected society, with an unprecedented breadth of available information, taking time to memorize and store information is no longer a useful focus in teaching. Rather, it is what we have our students do with information that should be our focus.
An issues-focused approach presents opportunities to address learning outcomes by engaging students in active inquiry and application of knowledge and critical thinking skills. These skills help students to identify the relevance of an issue by guiding them to develop informed positions and respect for the positions of others. 
 -Program Rationale and Philosophy ©Alberta Education, Alberta, Canada

Upon returning to class after the break, I found many stressed students worriedly asking about their Spanish and Aztecs unit test. They wanted to know when it would be, how long it was and everything it would cover. I even had a number of students email me over the break with questions about the test.

In an effort to change the students’ focus from temporary memorization of facts to developing and providing evidence of deeper learning, I let them know that the test would take a debate/discussion format with the following conditions:
  • It would allow access to open-book and the internet 
  • Cheat sheets, writing on arms and notes from their previous presentations would be allowed and encouraged 
  • They would be assessed based on participation and communication of their knowledge and their ability to demonstrate connections to their own world views and those of the Aztecs and Spanish 
I also let them know that there were three conditions they must adhere to:
  • Respect 
  • Reasoned Response, and 
  • Reiteration of others’ ideas and opinions should they wish to challenge others’ input 
At this point I had many surprised students questioning what this really meant. I even let them look at the questions I had put together to cover what was a broad overview of the material covered.
  • What has learning about the Aztecs taught you? 
  • Why is this (is this not) important? 
  • What way(s) does it matter to you/ your life now or later? 
Test day came and I approached the hour long test anticipating that the students would rise to the occasion, really show what they had learned and be able to articulate answers to the questions. I started the debate with intentionally provocative statements about the nature of the Spanish and the Aztecs and whether we should have even bothered studying these cultures.

To say that I was impressed with the outcome is an understatement. With both classes I was most taken aback by the in-depth debate and discussions that took place. The students clearly enjoyed the ‘test’ and the feedback I received was a ringing endorsement of this format. Many students that rarely speak up in class offered sound opinions with accurate and thoughtful support. Below is just some of the feedback that I received from my students:
  • Our last test was quite interesting, partially because of the format, and partially because of the questions. It made us rethink our points, and put them in a better light, to enhance our opinion. I liked this because the test didn't actually demand answers, more as a supported opinion. An opinion cannot be wrong, so therefore, the fundamental aspect of the test was our communication, which is sometimes, more important than the knowledge, for you cannot effectively transfer your knowledge without an adequate set of communication skills. This challenged both our facts, our opinions, and our communication. They can be your best friends, or your worst enemies, depending on your proficiency of communication and knowledge. This challenged me because I have to put my ideas into words. Those words also have to portray the idea to everybody else as well. Both need to go hand-in-hand for you to be an effective, efficient debater/critic. This format made me dig deeper, think harder, and re-question and question everything that was said. I had to review my points, and look at it in every light and perspective. All in all, this test worked for me. 
  • I liked the fact that we didn't have to study, and that we could show what we learned in the actual class not how much time we've got to study. It gave me time to think and learn as we went. Ultimately I learned rather than I was told what I did wrong. 
  • This format made me think more about what other people thought, as I found it kind've interesting to see people argue over how "barbaric" the Aztecs were. I found I was thinking less about the facts and more about the reasoning behind things. 
  • Its necessary to speak respectfully so the other person doesn't think that you're challenging them just their opinion. It’s hard to do but necessary. 
  • I liked it because it gave us an opportunity to actually think about the answers we gave as opposed to memorizing relatively useless facts. With this format, it encouraged us to find a train of thought that really encouraged us to speak and learn. It also allowed us to learn from other's responses instead of just hearing our own voice. 
  • The questions had layers. A simple multiple-choice question has one layer because there is one right answer. The questions you asked us had many, many layers. We had to think through many levels to accumulate a response we could agree with. 
  • I liked and disliked it because of the following reasons a. We did not get a grade but not knowing grade does not determine how well I did. b. We did not get a grade (therefore) relieving stress 
  • I think that the ideal test would be half a written test and half a test like our class recently had. This test would get us thinking about the deeper meaning of things and written test would test how well we understood and listened in class. 
  • There’s no "wrong answer" to this format of test. This format also really gets you thinking about WHY we learn this. With all the opinions being said you learn material that you may not have known before. 
  • We had to answer questions and know our topic, with a multiple-choice test you can sometimes guess the answers and not fully understand the topic. 
  • When you just know the material and no one questions anything else you tend to have a shallow understanding of the material. When you are forced to think about things other than the regular you will understand and know. 
Overall, I would consider this assessment format to be a resounding success for my students and me. Recognizing that this format might not be applicable to all instances of testing student learning, I would, nevertheless, use this format of assessment in many instances within a humanities class. As an educator with years of experience in formal testing situations, I strongly encourage trying this different kind of ‘test’ in humanities classrooms. I hope that others will be as encouraged as I am, having witnessed the level of deeper thinking that students are capable of, their abilities to effectively communicate their learning, and their capacity to make connections between their learning, why it matters, and how it fits within our world views.


Garry McKinnon said...

Margaret, I am impressed with how you gave life to Godin's quote and highlighted through your challenge to your students the power of the questioning mind. The students provided some excellent insights through their reflections on this unique approach to assessment.You were a risk-taker as a teacher and you should feel very good about the enthusiastic response of your students and the deep understanding they demonstrated.

Wendy Baillie said...

What a completely different paradigm from my school days! Your passion and creativity are a gift to your students. As well the insights into their own learning are remarkable. They are wise beyond their years..

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