Assessments That Build Brain CellsAssessments
Published in Focus on Middle School, winter 2006.

Assessments That Build Brain Cells By Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Without imagination and investigation of ideas our collective fund of knowledge would languish. We do need assessments to determine what students learn and understand, but we can incorporate imagination in the creation of those assessments to insure that students’ creative thoughts and higher executive functions are incorporated into their assessment experiences. Traditional and especially standardized tests assess only a few parameters such as rote memory, ability to follow instructions, organization, and time management. Testing that emphasizes those parameters gives students the message that those are the primary qualities of thinking inside the box that are valued most. As functional neuroimaging has delved more into learning research, evidence is mounting about which brain activities are most associated with information processing and memory retention. Strategies to increase successful learning can be incorporated into the assessment process such that these go beyond passive reflections of student memory and recall and become active learning experiences that stimulate dendrite growth, neurotransmitter release, and efficiency of neuronal network communication. For dynamic educators creative problem solving and critical analysis can be given the value they merit by being part of student assessment. The National Council of Teachers of English position paper “On Testing” that stated, “ In light of continued and increasing efforts to undermine progress the profession has made toward authentic assessment of students' real and vital engagement with language and literature, NCTE needs to reassert its repeated opposition to over-simplified and narrowly conceived tests of isolated skills and decontextualized knowledge. The crux of this concern has been the tension between the breadth of the English language arts curriculum and the restrictive influence of standardized means of assessing student learning.” Assessment Over Time-From Macro to Micro Yearlong Assessment: Although assessments ideally take place during each class period and lesson, planning the year’s major unit assessments while planning curriculum builds authenticity into those assessments. Starting the year with clear communication to students about the goals of their studies and expectations for their assessments sets a pattern that gives them the security that accompanies predictability. Strategize from the start • Gauge the assumptions students have about what is expected of them and how they will be assessed. This can be an open-ended discussion including their opinions about the purpose of assessments. • When teacher expectations are accompanied by sincere acknowledgement that all students will be given the opportunity to be successful, regardless of what test scores and grades are in their records, they are inspired with self-confidence and lower anxiety. • When teachers help students feel safe and in control of their potentials for success, they reduce affective filters and reduce the test-anxiety that may have lowered test performance in previous years. • To insure that all students are aware of teacher expectations provide samples of A, B, C, and D student work from past years in a binder. The samples need to relate to assignments similar in character to theirs, but not be the same specific topics. In that way the students will have the opportunity to emulate quality and creativity, not content. • Rubrics are powerful tools for promoting successful performance and predictable assessment. Spot Errors in Comprehension With Daily Individual Assessments This is where micro assessments and ongoing accountability are important for accurate student learning. Experienced teachers usually have some idea what their students’ grade ranges (and more importantly- their subject comprehension) are after the first several weeks of school. This is not because they frequently check their grade books, but because they assess student understanding during each lesson – sometimes more than once. There is a fine line between the stress of calling on students when they are confused or uncomfortable speaking in front of the whole class and the need to frequently assess each student’s engagement and comprehension. There is also the need for students to feel comfortable asking for clarification so misinformation does not become stored in long-term memory. Children who have lower academic expectations for themselves tend to ask for help less often. When you emphasize goals of individual self-improvement, effort, creative problem solving, and risk-taking, rather than competitive comparisons of student ability, students become more engaged and less threatened about participating. When students focus on how well they personally have improved rather than on comparing themselves to others they are more comfortable asking for help. Embedding on-going assessment into everyday curriculum can be done by incorporating performance tasks into learning activities. Ways to keep students engaged, incorporate learning activities into assessments, and assure correct understanding while doing ongoing assessment include: • Students are given cards with questions when they enter the classroom. The answers to their cards’ questions are posted on answer cards that label the seats or tables where they will sit that day. For example the card might say, “What state is the northern border of Oregon?” The student will search for the seat or table labeled “Washington.” • Students simultaneously, at the count of three, hold up the colored or white side of an index card when the class is asked a yes/no or true/false question to signal their individual opinions. • Students have white boards, erasable markers, and cloths (this often a treat for students). They write answers in a few large words or numbers in response to questions and hold them up simultaneously after being given adequate time for all to write answers. This gives instant teacher feedback as to who needs further explanation as well as keeping students engaged. • When students are working independently or in small groups, teachers can move around the classroom listening to student discussions and assess what part of the material needs further explanation. • Rather than have students store incorrect information consider having students stop worksheets or math problems done in class periodically and check answers that are posted (after they first show you the paper so you see that they did the work). If students know that they will be credited for corrected errors as well as for trying the work, they can mark the their errors in a different color and later show that they made corrections in a different color. • Multiple answers: This assessment may take the form of asking several students for their answers to the same question even if the first student’s answer was correct. Similarly, once an answer is given students can raise hands if the agree or disagree. • Summarizing is a valuable memory booster and a way to assess the day’s learning. Students write down what they think was the main point or concept of the lesson on note cards. The next day, the best cards are returned to the students who wrote them and they read them aloud (for class review) and post them on a bulletin board. Students who did not receive their note cards back will understand that the may have missed part of the critical point. It is their job to rewrite notes in their notebooks or journals after listening to classmates read the best ones aloud. If most of the students’ note card summaries are incorrect it is teacher feedback that the lesson may not have been as clearly communicated as intended and should be retaught in another way to reach the objectives. When assessments are incorporated in daily instruction they become opportunities for both positive and corrective feedback and can keep all students engaged in the lessons. The addition of metacognition and post-assessment conferences will give students additional strategies to achieve success on standardized tests, and more importantly in their academic potential and positive educational experiences. The best assessments will also prepare students for success in the careers where their generation will find opportunities. These assessments are the ones that correspond to teaching that promotes creativity, analysis, judgment, expert thinking, and complex communication.

© 2007 Willis