24 March, 2010

A Sports Analogy for Assessment

On page 96 of the book "A Repair Kit for Grading", the author (Ken O'Connor) draws a useful analogy between performance-based assessment and a band or a sports team:

"It is critical that both teachers and students recognize when assessment is primarily for learning (formative) and when it is primarily of learning (summative). Students understand this in band and in sports, when practice is clearly identified and separate from an actual performance or game."

If we follow this analogy, then the final exam for a unit and/or course becomes the big game for the sports team. If you are training basketball players, don't you think that the best way to test their abilities is to have them play a game? In this way the coach sets out the big game as the final exam, and in the same way all of the activities that lead up to that game are meant to help the players prepare for that game.

The diagnostic assessment is an initial activity that puts students in a simulated game to see what their strengths and weaknesses are. Once they have been identified, the formative assessments are the practice sessions that help students refine specific technical skills, build leadership skills, raise stamina and work on team building, all necessary for each player to perform at his/her best and for the team to win.

Note that in this case,

• All of the players clearly understand what is expected of them by the time the big game comes around.
• All of them understand what their individual and collective strengths and weaknesses are and are motivated to improve their skills in order to support the team.
• The coach wants the players to do their best and pushes the players to practice hard so they can do so.
• The team knows that the practices don't give them points in the final game, and for that reason its the game that counts and not the practices, although the more they practice the better they will play in the game. After the big game, the team evaluates its performance, draws up new strategies to improve and starts practicing again.

Designing a multi-stage, complex performance task as the final exam allows teachers to identify all of the discrete skills students will need to perform well at the end so they can be practiced in low-stakes situations, tried out in scrimmage games and practiced again so that everybody feels ready for the big game.  This movement back and forth between instruction and applying, between drilling discrete skills and performance of the whole task is what helps students learn well. It also helps them learn to learn, which is a capacity that comes in handy as the students take on further personal and academic responsibilities.

Although teachers don't give the same or similar tests more than once as coaches do, we do teach more complex skills that build on what students had to learn for the previous exam. In this way the capacities teachers aim to develop in our students by the end of the semester or year are complex and broad.

This analogy has provided me with a variety of new perspectives on assessment as well as some criteria to evaluate my own assessment strategies. I have become a better teacher by practicing this concept and I hope it gives others some valuable insight too.


Irma Illonka said...

I am learning about assessment.
I think it is a total different concept and opportunity from the term used along the time I learned about it during my college years.

The movement back and forth between the instruction and the practice, and the questions and reflection that will come as a natural result was not even a thinkable thing those years.
As a teacher I cared about explaining the content of my classes, maybe help them to connect to universal history or social issue, but I have to be honest, during that time I did not see myself as a coach, nor give my students the chance to reflect on their own reasons to their answers.

It is clear to me that most of teachers did/do the same and the failures are easily seen in the famous "semana cultural" that every school has, private or public, in the country. Instead of being the time to present analysis, reflection or personal points of view about old/new topics, most of the stands are the repitition of vocabulary, or the practice of one of the most successful activities from the teacher´s guide.

The failure falls into the teachers because the students will only reproduce what they learned or were allowed to present. This "real context" activities from the semana cultural are most of the time used for assessment.

Assessment OF learning is in place, assessment FOR learning does not exist. To change this we will need not only teachers but also institutions that will like to develope their own ideas, starting for their own essential questions. We will need institutions caring for depth of knowledge, and seeking for independant learners that will be able to figure out, research and collaborate in their own learning.

Teachers, institutions and universities have a long way to go.

Karen said...

Irma has brought up a favorite topic of mine - Semana Culturales. As an English Coordinator I promoted activities like Debate, English theater and the English newspaper to try to get teachers to connect learning English to real life uses. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. The Semana Cultural was meant to share with parents the results of the program but it was usually a memorized performance and everyone knew it as they politely listened to the memorized speeches. But teachers usually teach as they were taught and the transition to formative assessment tasks to ready them for the "big game" is also a learning process that takes time.

Sonja Janousek said...

Ahhh, I am starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel...the one thing I have always disliked about giving classes at university is the evaluation part...i have absolutely no idea how to do it well and I have never gotten the results that i was looking for. Funny enough I was a swimming coach for years and I defintely understand the importance of practice. However, it seems that when we are asked to develop our course outlines based on a certain number of topics identified by the syllabus, if you don't know any better, room for practice is not explicity considered in the syllabus, and therefore can be easily forgotten. Personally, I think focus on a formative assessment is really important, and should be used to show links/connections between topics being taught. If we focus just on summative, everything gets taught separately, without showing the complexities of relationships in real life.

-Lorena- said...

I understand clearly what the article explains, but i am still not convinced that works. Am i allowed to disagree with it? :) I think that not grading the learning process puts too much weitght on one single final assessment. Even thought the analogy of a soccer game is way too clear i doubt it can be feasible in education...i`ll be thinking about this again...:)

marcelasantos13 said...

La analogía con el entrenador de deportes es sumamente ilustrativa, porque es de la vida diaria y la tenemos ante nuestros ojos. Claro, igualmente son de la vida diaria las evaluaciones del aprendizaje, las clases, las prácticas, etc, pero es una vida diaria que ha estado encerrada en su propia aula. Y una muestra de que aún saliendo del aula, la clase sigue estando encerrada, son las "semanas culturales" mencionadas antes: es solamente el aula sacada al patio y todo se reproduce igual.
Esta reflexión es para hacer énfasis en que tenemos que hacer una "limpia" de nuestras ideas acerca de diferentes tópicos relacionados con la educación.
Les comento que a mí me ha gustado permitir a los estudiantes una segunda oportunidad para mejorar su propio trabajo, pero lo he hecho como algo excepcional en ciertos casos. Y también he visto que esta opción a veces no atrae a los estudiantes (sienten que tienen que volver a trabajar). Como ya vimos en uno de los ejercicios de la semana anterior, los estudiantes no están en la misma onda nuestra acerca de cómo aprender mejor.

Jackie said...

Assessment is a word I prefer rather than evaluation. I find it less threatening. I can really understand the whole situation. I have come across with students who do well in class activities, in team work yet when it comes to exams they flunk. It has even happened to me. I really loved when teachers took open book tests, I could easily find answers that I had trouble recalling. Few teachers use this method, I use it but it is not very successful because students don't study they have this misleading idea that since it's an open book test they have need to study. So, time flies just by reading the entire chapter and nothing gets answered.
i try to have students "milk the text" read, annotate and write about what caught your attention. They are resistent to this process because I am practically forcing them to actually read, understand, react and interact with the text. I end up discouraging them from reading. Very few students get it. I think they've been conditioned all their lives to be fed bits and pieces, "simbolizando una medida arbitraria."

Justin said...

Lorena - Well, this type of assessment process only works when the teacher and the students value learning. By learning, I mean that what is gained is authentic, transferable and meaningful. This is one of the reasons that in my opinion our job as teachers is to help students to learn to learn and value that learning over the grade, which should really only be a symbol of real learning and nothing more.

Jackie - Your comment brings memories of failing final exams in high school and not caring one bit! I think that for the most part paper and pencil tests cannot encourage learning as defined above because this type of learning requires performance tasks as evidence. And this often requires several sources of evidence one of which can be a test. A test is not something that we can do and then try again to get better like a performance task, and that is one of its most important advantages.