Finish Your Final Assessment Now: A Professional Thank You to Grant Wiggins

JEP_SiriNelson-100As an educator, I love the summers not only for the vacation time and opportunity to go to baseball games, but more so for the opportunity to reflect on the past year and prepare for the upcoming year. There are not many professions that afford such opportunities for significant reflection, revision, and development, but too often we find ourselves in the midst of another busy school year grading papers like the teacher on “Mr. D”.

This is so hilarious because we have been the victim of arbitrary grading, or we have been tempted to do so out of busyness, ignorance of quality assessment techniques, and even laziness. We actually may have used this grading technique amidst the whirlwind of a school year, and I will admit to this occasional malpractice early in my career because I simply couldn’t keep up. I knew a colleague who regularly said, “I’ll teach for free, but you can’t pay me enough to grade.”

This all changed after my fifth year of teaching when I had a professional desire to be a better teacher and couldn’t help but think there was a better way. In the summer of 2003, I was introduced to the book Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, which forever changed my professional life as a teacher and administrator. Wiggins’ writing on standards, assessments, and curriculum design changed me from a slave to content coverage and activity planning to a designer of curriculum and a planner for student learning. The two major changes that took place in my mind are often the things that teachers have such a difficult time getting past in an effort to focus on learning rather than teaching.

Learning Standards Trump Content Coverage:

Like most teachers, especially history teachers, I was trained to cover material that I (or my school) believed students needed to know. When I was introduced to a more robust understanding of learning standards through Understanding by Design, I was able to clarify in my own mind and therefore in my practice the focused learning that was going to happen. Finally, I was free to NOT cover every presidential election, skirmish of the Thirty Years War, or detail in All Quiet on the Western Front. For the first time I understood that we couldn’t cover everything and that learning was so much more complex and could be significantly more fun in every aspect.

Prepare Assessments Before You Start:

Usually, I would write my final exam about two weeks before the end of the semester to make sure that I had every important thing in the test. Likewise, there was always the “trick” question that was so obscure or worded in a way that it was an actual test of how much a student actually understood me. This is still too often the case in many classrooms and schools.

Wiggins opened my mind to how assessment could actually be used to direct learning. In an article dating back to 2002, Wiggins states:

One of the challenges in teaching is designing, and to be a good designer you have to think about what you’re trying to accomplish and craft a combination of the content and the instructional methods, but also the assessment. And one of the things that we’ve done over the past years in working with teachers is share with them how important it is to say, “What are you going to assess? What’s evidence of the goals that you have in mind?” Otherwise your teaching can end up being hit-or-miss.

 We call it backward design. Instead of jumping to the activities — ‘”Oh, I could have kids do this, oh, that’d be cool” — you say, “Well, wait a minute.” Before you decide exactly what you’re going to do with them, if you achieve your objective, what does it look like? What’s the evidence that they got it? What’s the evidence that they can now do it, whatever the “it” is? So you have to think about how it’s going to end up, what it’s going to look like. And then that ripples back into your design, what activities will get you there. What teaching moves will get you there?

This thinking changed my professional work and made the process of teaching more meaningful and significant as I developed/designed the final assessment that would provide direction for the daily activity in the classroom. Some changes I made included:

  1. I provided my students with their final assessment on the first day of class.
  2. I made my assessments much more multi-dimensional including traditional testing techniques (knowledge standards), research based essay writing (analysis standards), and a semester-long performance/project based assessment (critical thinking standards).
  3. I only assigned homework that was necessary for mastery of this final assessment.
  4. I designed learning activities in the classroom that would propel students along the path of learning according to the assessment.
  5. I was more able to meet the needs of more students.

I hope that you will use your summer to get rejuvenated, but more importantly to revise how you will design student learning for the upcoming year.

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