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February 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 5

The Horse Before the Cart: Assessing for Understanding

If students are to develop understanding, assessment must be an ongoing part of instruction.

Instructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
Understanding is a tricky thing to get one's mind around. We want students to be able to employ knowledge in flexible and novel ways, to develop coherent networks of concepts, to use what they learn in school to understand the world around them, and to develop an interest in lifelong intellectual pursuits. But to help students achieve such understanding is no mean feat.
To teach for understanding requires that we attend closely to assessment. We cannot assume that because we have taught a lesson “well,” students have understood it. Rather, we have to seek evidence of understanding through student performance. Going to the heart of the matter, one science teacher said that he could do amazing things in the science classroom all year long and, at the end of the year, his students would have seen amazing things. Beyond that, without clear-cut student demonstrations of understanding, he could not be sure what students had gained from his class.
Assessment is not something that we tack onto learning; it is an essential ongoing component of instruction that guides the process of learning. Ongoing assessment uses exhibitions, student explanations of concepts, the writing of a poem or a song, or any number of other thought-demanding performances to evaluate and reflect on students' work. From the beginning of our curriculum planning, we need to identify these understanding performances—the ways in which we expect students to demonstrate their understanding. In a sense, ongoing assessment is the horse that leads the cart of understanding.

Using Assessment to Build Understanding

One teacher who collaborated on the Teaching for Understanding Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education designed several understanding performances that provided the basis for ongoing assessment for a high school literature unit. Based on the generative topic, “Trials and Literature: Who Determines Justice and How?” the unit included works of literature such as Mutiny on the Bounty, To Kill a Mockingbird, Inherit the Wind, and Twelve Angry Men.
As students studied each piece of literature, they kept charts in their notebooks to identify where justice-related themes were introduced and how those themes were developed. Students shared these charts to compare viewpoints and evidence for arguments. The charts also formed the foundation for more formal debates about the outcomes of particular trials.
In addition to the charts, students kept journals in which they recorded their responses to and questions about their reading. Later, in large-group discussions, the teacher encouraged students to wrestle not only with the answers to their questions but to think through how they were answering them. Which questions could be answered definitively? Which might have several answers? Were some answers better than others? As a culminating work, students wrote papers in which they chose one aspect of justice and used two or three of the texts they had read to defend their thesis.
This example illustrates several important points concerning the methods and utility of ongoing assessment. First, the teacher helped students to understand from the outset the standards by which their work would be judged. For example, throughout the discussions, journal writing, debates, and papers, students knew that they needed to use evidence from the text to support arguments, rather than arguing from personal opinion. Where possible, they were to use metaphorical evidence as well as literal evidence from the text, a challenging but critical task in developing a deep understanding of literature.
Second, students kept track of their work throughout the course of the unit. This “record of understanding” served a variety of assessment purposes. It provided concrete evidence of work, evidence that formed the basis for ongoing feedback to students about their understanding. Students used their work-in-progress as a springboard for self-assessment and reflection on their products and processes. They also used their record to give and receive peer critique. Informal peer critique occurred during discussions arising from the student journals and as students shared their notebook charts. More formal peer critique took place in the small group debates. In addition, the record of understanding enabled the teacher to adjust the curriculum to better meet student needs as well as provide students with ongoing individual feedback and evaluation.
Third, students came to understand through the constant process of performance and feedback that some questions are not easily answered, but must be grappled with as best one can.
Finally, the culminating papers on justice served as an elaboration of the understanding performances the students had been building, demonstrating, and consolidating throughout the unit.

No More Surprises

Making the standards for good work clear to all is implicit in a classroom where students and teachers take time to reflect on and assess understanding performances. Students should know from the start the standards they are working toward. Equally important, various benchmarks of good performance can help students gauge their own understanding. Students should not be surprised by the grades they earn.
In addition, students cannot achieve deep understanding if they receive evaluation passively. Taking time and energy to reflect on and improve one's work are essential to the understanding process itself.
Both teachers and students are often wary of making criteria for good work public and involving students in assessing their own and their peers' work. In our research we have found that some teachers and students fear that students do not have the ability to assess themselves. Some students are reluctant to engage in peer- and self-assessment because they feel that such activities are the teacher's—the expert's—job and that their own work will ultimately suffer from their own or their peers' assessment. Yet, we have seen in our work that when students and teachers set forth criteria and use them as a basis for reflection on student work, both groups are often surprised at the positive outcomes.
One of our teacher-collaborators experimented with using public criteria in a unit he developed on global warming. He made the criteria for evaluation an integral part of the instruction, giving students guide sheets and discussing them with the students. These criteria included accuracy in carrying out and reporting one's work, clarity in scientific discussion and writing, appropriate use of scientific vocabulary, appropriate scientific methodology, and sound reasoning based on data and coherent arguments.
At the end of the unit, the teacher was pleased and somewhat surprised at the students' attention to the criteria. Students kept the guide sheets with them as they worked through all activities, often referring to the criteria to see if their work was meeting the proper standards. The criteria were seen as a useful tool for thinking through the quality of their work, rather than as a burden.
The public airing of criteria also empowers students. As students begin to see that they do have the capability for peer- and self-assessment, they feel a new sense of control over their work. As teachers begin to see that students can engage in peer- and self-assessment, they, too, become excited by what students can accomplish. They may also feel relieved of the burden of being responsible for every aspect of ongoing assessment in the classroom.

Back on Track

Ongoing assessment is also useful in getting students back on track when they have problems with a performance. In a geometry unit, students were to design the floor plan of a hypothetical community center as a means of exploring the area of geometrical constructions. Early in the project, student groups presented their progress. Much to the surprise (and chagrin) of the teacher and researcher who had co-constructed the unit, some groups were using the formula for perimeter rather than area in their calculations. They had gone back to the familiar—perimeter—and had forged ahead enthusiastically in the wrong direction.
One might be tempted to dismiss this as a trivial error, but this sort of error happens all the time, especially in mathematics and science where rote memorization of formulas is often the norm. Uncovering this glitch through ongoing assessment provided the teacher with an important teaching opportunity, the chance to make sure that students in the class were not just using formulas by rote, but were thinking through what they needed to do and why. By discussing this error early on, the students were able to progress in their work and ultimately succeed in their projects.
This back-and-forth between performance and ongoing assessment illustrates the essence of understanding; it is not the smooth all-or-nothing ride that students often consider it to be. Rather, developing understanding involves a series of bumps and starts that emphasizes the importance of the processes and the developing products of understanding rather than the importance of any one grade.

Rebecca Simmons has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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