TG How Can I Assess Student Learning?

Assessment can be thought of as the collection of evidence to show whether or not students are achieving the objectives of the course. In deciding how to collect data it’s useful to think of the different reasons for assessment. One is for diagnostic purposes, to find out what your students know before you start, so you can decide what to emphasize or how much time to spend on certain concepts. Another is to provide feedback to students. This is commonly called grading, though letter grades provide incomplete information to students on how well they are doing, and how they can improve. A third is to evaluate your teaching. By finding out how your students’ ideas have changed during the course, you can figure out whether or not to review or to go on, or how to do a better job next year. In this section we’ll consider these different uses one at a time. 

Diagnosing student needs

An excellent strategy for beginning any science class is to first find out what your students already know about the topic you are about to teach. What do most students understand about this subject? What are their opinions? What misconceptions are common? Where should you start?  

At the beginning of each part of the Teacher’s Guide are a set of questions for assessing your students’ understanding. You’ll find that the suggested questions are open-ended. They are designed to elicit your students’ knowledge, ideas, and opinions about the issues discussed in the unit to follow. Do not score their responses as “right” or “wrong,” but instead, try to categorized responses in ways that help you recognize common viewpoints and attitudes, so you can plan accordingly. The same questions can be used after completing the unit, so that by comparing the pre- and post-tests of individuals, you can find out how your students’ knowledge and attitudes changed during the unit.

You may also want to use the questionnaires as a springboard for discussion. First, collect the students’ papers so that you can later compare their pre- and post-tests. Divide the class into small discussion groups of 3-4 students, and give each group a blank questionnaire. Ask them to try and agree on the best answers. After 15 or 20 minutes, have each group report its conclusions.  

In a large group discussion, focus on one question at a time. Do not agree or disagree with the students at this point. Ideas will flow more freely once they realize that they cannot be “wrong.” Encourage them to listen to each other and to change their minds if they think that other students’ arguments are persuasive. Take notes during the large group discussion, and use these notes as a source of assessment data.

Providing feedback to students

Frequent, low-key feedback is probably more effective in changing students’ behaviors, and helping them to become better learners, than the high stakes awarding of grades at the end of the semester. When grades are required (as they almost always are), they are far more meaningful if supplemented by a paragraph describing the student’s strengths and areas in which he or she should improve. But such comments need to be based on data. 

One approach is to collect information about desirable student behaviors during class. Create a checklist so that you can give students points for active participation in discussions, laboratories, and other in-class activities. Then use the checklist as a source of assessment data when it’s time to provide feedback to students at the end of the quarter.

A very powerful method for providing feedback to students is to require that they maintain a portfolio of work they produce during the quarter. Involving each student in the process of selecting and improving work that goes into their portfolio, and articulating how a given piece of work demonstrates understanding of a key concept can be a very effective way to communicate the criteria for success, and encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning. On the next page are reports by two GSS teachers who have found portfolios to be especially helpful in providing feedback to students.

Process Folios

by Cindy Moss, North Syracuse High SchoolSyracuse, New York

For the last 2 years we have been using “process folios.” The process folio is a folder we keep in the classroom that contains student work. The students are shown models of the types of work that receive various grades and are given help in determining what to place in their folios. Each Friday we spend approximately 15 minutes with folios allowing students time to select work to place inside. We named them “process folios” because we wanted to show a succession of work, not just the best work of each student. The students take regular objective tests and quizzes as well as essay exams. They also do labs, activities, graphic organizer assignments and homework. Each Friday a sample of any one of these assignments could go into their folio. These assignments have already been graded, but the student may choose to rewrite an assignment to improve a grade.  

Each quarter the students have a major project. The major projects are: a children’s book on ecology (1st quarter), researching and participating in a job shadow (2nd quarter), researching and presenting a science fair project (3rd quarter), and preparing an advertisement for the human body (4th quarter). Progress reports from these projects go into their folios. The students also have five state required labs that must be placed in their folios. At the end of the quarter I meet with each student to discuss their work and evaluate their folio. At the end of the year we select their best work which includes a writing assignment, lab, homework, journal writing, and their quarter projects. These are put into the computer as a catalog for each student, and can be accessed by teachers in following years.  

We have been pleasantly surprised by our results. We thought it would be much more difficult to do. The students are allowed time for self-assessment, peer assessment, and are given teacher assessments. They are much harder on themselves and their peers than the teachers are. 

Portfolios…One Teachers’ Experience

by Chad Husting, Bishop Fenwick High SchoolMiddletown, Ohio

First, I defined a portfolio as a collection of work over time. Secondly, I clearly defined how I would grade the portfolios. Some people call this a “rubric!” My “rubric” was as follows:
A Typed, evident that time was spent on it, creative, correctly used grammar. Evidence of outside research properly cited. Well-organized, raises questions, has applications.
B. Some of it typed, Neat, organized, and suggests how to improve activity. Few mistakes.
C Not typed. Organized and neat, but difficult to read. Reasoning is logical
D. Illogical. Does not have all requirements, messy, not typed.

Next, I told the students what had to be in their portfolios. It included:

  • Five or six pieces of the student’s best work, including art, essays, research, or suggestions for a better lesson. (Next time I may ask students to include their worst work, too.)
  • The portfolio should include a table of contents with a brief summary of each work.  
  • The work cannot be all of the same kind.  
  • It must have at least one piece of written work and a review of a chapter not covered in the text.  
  • One portfolio piece can be done with other students, but they must be given credit for their contribution.

At the end of each week, I had students select work for their portfolios. If they received a “C” they could redo the work and get an “A” or “B.” On Monday, I would show students examples of “A” work so that they would know what to look for. I liked doing portfolios and it was less work than I expected. I found that having a detailed rubric made grading simple. The best part of having portfolios was that if a student questioned their grade, all I had to do was pull out their portfolio! 

Evaluating and modifying your program

By the end of a class in Global Systems Science students’ skills, concepts, and attitudes should be different from when they started. They should not, however, all have the same ideas, if the course is taught as intended. An important aspect of scientific literacy is that students develop their own environmental ethic and make consistent choices for personal actions. To assess whether or not these outcomes have been achieved, multiple-choice tests have limited usefulness. Luckily, other tools are available.

First, there are the pre-post-tests that are included at the beginning of each part of the Teacher’s Guide. Ask students to fill these out again, possibly using colored paper so there is no mistake about which papers are pre-tests and which are post-tests. Compare individuals’ pre- and post-tests side by side to see how students have changed their knowledge, ideas, and attitudes.

The second source of data is student portfolios, if you choose to use these. Look for changes in the quality of student work over time.

The third source of data is the work that students are asked to produce at the end of each Student Guide. This generally includes a concept map, which shows the major concepts that the students identify and their understanding of how these concepts are related. It also includes an essay which invites students to pull together what they have learned. Feel free to modify the assignment and give guidelines about the length or procedure so it is appropriate for your students. Read the students’ work to see if you can make some generalizations about how their thinking in this area may have improved as a result of this part of the course. 

Understanding how your students’ ideas have changed is the first major step in evaluating and modifying your teaching. Was the course effective in changing students’ understanding and perceptions? Did the course affect their attitudes and interests? Were there certain ideas or understandings that never changed? What about the course seemed to be most effective?  

The next step is deciding what to do about it. How might you improve it next time? Which course materials will you continue to use, and which will you replace or modify? Which concepts need further reinforcement, and which should be skipped? What activities and teaching methods should be continued, and which need to be replaced? What seems to be the best use of in-class time, and what are the most effective kinds of homework assignments?

Evaluation can be made much easier and more effective if you are able to work with another teacher who might provide a fresh perspective. As a team you can look over student work and plan changes in the overall program. 

Student Assessment at Wilton High

Jim Lucey and Tom Wellington have formed such a team at Wilton High School, in Wilton, Connecticut, where Tom has taught biology and environmental science, and Jim has taught physics and physical science. They were thinking about changing their high school program when they heard about the GSS Summer Institutes. They applied and both were accepted as a team. They now teach Global Systems Science and assist each other in evaluating and improving the course.

Recently, Tom responded to our request for sample pre- and post-test results, and also shared some papers from his students’ portfolios. In his cover letter he wrote: 

I can’t tell you how well the GSS materials have fit into our constantly evolving curriculum in grade 10. We actually had need of this kind of material when Jim Lucey and I first heard of your project…. I’m really into the “Climate Change” module, and was anxious to run it again with the level-2 kids this year. This went well and was a focus of study for about 3 weeks, with suitable supplements and labs….

The student papers that Tom sent us were very revealing, showing what students learned from the course, and which misconceptions persisted. On the plus side was this set of student responses: 

Question: How do you think knowledge of the way life and climate have interacted in the past might be of use today? Pre-test answer: We could learn from them or compare them to today as sort of a goal for what we’d like to go back to. Post-test answer (same student): I think we can learn from the past by looking at the good and bad things humans did back then and we can determine if all the earth’s problems are man-made. Also by using information from the past we can tell if global warming has already begun.

This pair of responses reveals that the student learned a great deal about why scientists study past climates, although he is still somewhat unclear about the period of time when humans existed.

On the other hand, Tom was surprised to find that several students who started out with the misconception that the “hole” in the ozone layer causes global warming, still had the same misconception after they spent several weeks studying Closing the Ozone Hole! It’s pretty clear that he will need to help the students unravel that misconception rather than just tell them it isn’t so.  

Following is a student paper from an activity in the Changing Climate module entitled “Discovering Evidence of Change.” The purpose of the activity was to discover evidence of how people have changed the environment. Photos of an area taken at two different times, or interviews with older people were suggested as acceptable kinds of evidence. How would you evaluate the effectiveness of this activity for this student? 

“Discovering Evidence of Change”

by Jason Petre

For this project I interviewed my father about Buffalo, New York. My parents are from Buffalo and I’ve visited many of my relatives who remain there today. From the year 1955 to the year 1995 many changes occurred in Buffalo which affected the Earth’s atmosphere.

In 1955 large steel plants were a common sight in Buffalo. Two of the largest plants were on the shore of Lake Erie west of Buffalo’s populated areas. The strong prevailing westerly winds would blow the pollution all over the city of Buffalo which had a population of about 1,000,000.

Newer modern steel making facilities built after World War II in other parts of the U.S. and in Germany and Japan forced Buffalo’s older inefficient mills to close down in the 1960s and 1970s. This produced massive loss of jobs. Now in 1996 the population of Buffalo is only 600,000 due to the loss of jobs. For the above stated reasons, the atmosphere in Buffalo is now much cleaner than it was in 1955.

Buffalo’s change over the last 40 years is an exception to the general rule. My father told me of a beautiful, small trout lake in the Adirondacks which was teeming with life in the 1950s. My father fished this lake an entire day in 1973 and the entire lake was lifeless. There were no frogs, no water insects, and no fish of any kind; even though the water was crystal clear in appearance. This lake was a victim of acid rain produced by an increasingly polluted atmosphere blown to the Adirondacks from Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.

As shown above, humans are changing the atmosphere. Studies show the general trend of increasingly polluted air over the last 140 years, with many harmful consequences as described above. Instead of being discouraged by the general trend, we must be encouraged by local successes such as Buffalo, which now has cleaner air. 

At the end of each Student Book is an essay assignment you can modify and give guidelines that are appropriate for your students. Read the students’ work to see if you can make some generalizations about how your students’ thinking in this area may have improved as a result of the course.