How to Quickly and Successfully Measure Learners' Understanding

The most effective and quickest pathway might surprise you.

How do we measure learners' understanding? What sets the master teacher apart from the amateur? The masters have perfected assessment for understanding, rather than simply knowledge.

However, in their oft-quoted book Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe caution us to not use the word "understanding" too loosely. They urge us to be "mindful of our tendency to use the words understand and know interchangeably."

Rather than by the object itself, understanding is better defined through the presence of the entities surrounding it. The following 5 skills are present in a student who understands.

  1. Explaining
  2. Interpreting
  3. Applying
  4. Having perspective
  5. Empathizing
  6. Having self-knowledge

By seeing these traits, we can effectively measure learners' understanding. Additionally, we can easily formulate thinking questions that encourage students to truly think and understand using these terms:

  • Explain the reasons for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Interpret the following data in terms of student grades, and what perspective does it give you about school population?
  • Apply what you know about our physics lesson and construct a catapult.

 Confirming Student Understanding

How do we know if a student truly understands? For one, there’s formative assessment, and lots of it. There's also the matter of ensuring we provide meaningful and relevant ongoing feedback. There are other ways to measure learners' understanding that don’t take up much time and are a lot of fun. These are called alternative formative assessments.

AFAs have little to do with traditional quizzes and more to do with a quick observational analysis of performance. Here is a short listing of examples that are fast and fun.

  • Peer Quizzes: Students can write their own questions about the content and then quiz each other. They would also spend time going through the incorrect answers with each other to heighten their understanding.
  • 5x5 Journal: Journalling has been proven to be one of the best reflection tools around for learning. Have students journal about the five most interesting ideas they discover during a lesson. Next, they identify five things that resonate with them about each one and explain why.
  • Past Postcards: Have students adopt the personality of a historical figure and write a postcard to another historical figure from the same era. They can discuss a significant event from history that has just occurred.
  • Cool Collages: Ask students to make a collage or poster from magazine photos for demonstrating their understanding of a concept. They can use standard art materials or use apps designed for drawing.
  • Talk it Out: Students can host their own talk show and discuss the important points of any lesson. They write their own questions and answers, and can even play characters of their own creation.
  • Daring Doodles: Challenge students to use a drawing rather than words to show understanding of a concept. This is the perfect exercise for those kids who have difficulty speaking out in class.
  • Exploration Table: At the end of class, each student answers the following questions presented to them on index cards:
    • What did we do in class?
    • Why did we do it?
    • What did I learn today?
    • How can I apply it?
    • What questions do I have about it?

As modern teachers, we've acknowledged the insufficiency of the traditional assessment. Maybe we need to get rid of the idea of paper-and-pen assessment as the best data.

An Example of How to Measure Student Understanding

Let's borrow an example from the arts. A young piano student will take tests on theory and then a test on performance. The theory test is written, which the teacher then takes and grades along with countless others. Next, there is the performance which is the real summative test. Nerves get in a spin and the student's sweat begins pouring. The performance in front of a qualified judge is the test for understanding. Showing that they can execute the task at hand gives the judges a sense of the student's understanding.

Let’s put that in the context of a math test. You can do your math problems on paper and have a second exam as the "performance." It could entail a project that has to be completed using math. What about history? Write a historical fiction dramatic script about Abe Lincoln using what you know about his Gettysburg Address.

So ultimately, what's the best road to take to measure learners' understandingDispensing with pedagogy and complicated jargon, testing for understanding can be summed up as “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s in the doing that we understand.

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