5 Tips For Assessing What Students Know

It is not enough to teach students how to understand information and communications technology. At some point you are going to have to assess their knowledge and understanding.

Girl studying. (c) hvaldez1 (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/hvaldez1)Here are 5 broad suggestions of how to do so effectively.

1. Set open-ended tasks rather than closed tasks

For example, say: “Produce a poster” rather than “Produce a poster using Microsoft Publisher”. By the same token, don't be too prescriptive in what needs to be included. Instructions like "include 2 pieces of clip-art" do not easily lend themselves to assessment of much more than the student's ability to select appropriate illustrations. In fact, such a painting-by-numbers approach may be useful as a training exercise, but ultimately all you can really assess is how good the students are at following instructions.

The open-ended approach can be adapted for use with all age groups, in my experience. 

2. Use a problem-solving approach rather than a skills-based approach

This suggestion assumes that the course is a problem-solving one rather than once concerned purely with skills. In some circumstances it will be quite appropriate to ask students, say, to create a spreadsheet consisting of 5 worksheets and involving the use of the IF function. However, for the sorts of courses I'm thinking about, a question that requires problem-solving is much better, for these reasons:

  • It does not require there to be one right answer.

  • It provides an opportunity to discuss with the student why they opted for a particular solution -- and why they did not choose an obvious alternative.

  • It provides scope for out-of-the-box thinking. The trouble with telling students they must (to continue with the example) use an IF function precludes them from coming up with a more creative, and potentially better, solution of their own.

3. Watch what students do in the lesson

The finished product indicates very little about ICT capability. In the absence of other information, it’s the process that counts. The biggest problem with making a statement like this is that teachers and others can sometimes extrapolate from it to suggest that the process is all that matters. This is patently not the case, as a simple example will illustrate:

Your boss asks you to prepare a presentation on the subject of what the school offers by way of ed tech facilities, to be shown to prospective parents at a forthcoming Open Day. You prepare a fantastic presentation, using all the bells and whistles (appropriately, of course), on the topic of what ed tech facilities the school will offer in 5 years' time once an impending refurbishment programme has been completed.

The way you prepared it is sheer brilliance: you create an outline in a word processor, import it into a presentation program in a way that automatically creates slides and bullet points, and all your illustrations are original, created by you and your students.

Given the fact that your presentation is actually irrelevant, or at least not what the boss asked for, how likely is it that your boss will congratulate you on your presentation on the grounds that the way you went about preparing it was exemplary?

4. Avoid the temptation to atomise

Do not disassemble the Level Descriptors in the National Curriculum Programme of Study (in England and Wales), or, indeed, any set of national standards. The English and Welsh ones are intended as holistic descriptions rather than atomistic ones, and it is likely that the same is true of other countries' standards (but you will need to verify that, of course).

5. Assess what students say about the work they have done

You may find it useful to use a standardised approach, but I have always found that you can pick up a lot from a fairly open-ended discussion. It's interesting to explore, for example, if they understand why they have done something. (An answer along the lines of "Because the teacher told me to" is not good enough.)

This article was first published on 2nd January 2008.