By Melissa Maypole

Assessments are no longer simply tests that students fret about or neglect to study for. As you may well know, today’s environment of heightened accountability for educators has made assessments stressful for not only students, but for teachers as well. Not to worry, though. Assessments can actually be powerful (and even fun!) tools to evaluate how well your students are mastering the material you’re covering in class and how well you’re doing covering said material. Just follow these 6 simple tips:

1) Begin with the end in mind.

For years, teachers have planned their lessons in a linear fashion. First, we create daily lessons aligned with objectives followed by tests to assess the objectives each lesson addresses. Logical, right? Sure, but this traditional method of teaching and assessing learning may not necessarily be the most effective way to go about things. Instead, try creating an objectives-based assessment first, and then plan activities that target the learning goals the assessment evaluates. This not only ensures that the assessment aligns to your students’ learning objectives, but it also allows the assessment to help drive your instruction, meaning you’ll know for sure that you’ve actually taught the material and skills that require mastery.

2) Communicate your purpose.

The purpose of a traditional pencil and paper test may be fairly cut and dry to your students—I answer a bunch of questions and it tells the teacher if I’ve learned the material—but this may not be the case for a more open-ended assessment such as a project or essay that a student may see as busy work. In order to get the outcome you want from your students, it’s important to let them know why they are doing something, including what skills and knowledge you’re expecting them to demonstrate mastery of. One of the best ways to do this is to create a clear rubric and give your students a copy prior to beginning work on the assignment. This way, there will be no question as to what you expect your students to demonstrate, and it may even motivate many to perform.

3) Blend assessments into your teaching.

Highly effective educators use assessments to adapt and enhance instruction. Instead of treating assessments as intimidating bookends to curriculum units, successful teachers assess learning more frequently and less formally with the intention of using the results of the assessment as an arrow toward the next steps in the learning process. Create opportunities for non-threatening, formative checkpoints in your instruction. Give deliberate and targeted mini-quizzes that allow you to assess common misconceptions and truly know in real-time where your students are tracking. Craft your quiz by following assessment-writing best practices outlined in this article.

4) Identify and avoid bias.

Since assessments are such an important tool in your teaching toolbox, it’s important to ensure that they are as authentic and targeted as possible. This means making an intentional effort to check for any biases that may affect students’ performance or invalidate your results. An assessment should be designed in parts that specifically test single, targeted skills, and unintended bias will quickly invalidate your efforts. Although it may seem impossible to create an assessment with zero bias, we can still do our due diligence to identify and remove bias.

The most common types of bias in assessments are those that inadvertently assume knowledge other than the specific skill being tested. This bias can be blatant such as assuming knowledge of a certain cultural group, for instance, or it could be hidden. Hidden biases are often found in the language of the assessment. Teachers must be especially careful not to create written assessments that are on a higher reading level than their students, so that a mathematics assessment, for example, doesn’t unintentionally assess how well the student can read the problem as well as the specific skills.

5) Consider non-traditional assessments.

Nothing crushes classroom morale faster than announcing a pop quiz or traditional paper and pencil test. In order to incorporate some fun into your assessment repertoire and keep your students engaged in their learning, you’ll need to think outside of the box. Create a game or activity based on specific learning objectives to mix things up while bringing out the very best in your students. Or consider tying in a cross-curricular semester-long project that connects the material together and forces a higher level application of skills. You can pepper in traditional mini-assessments throughout the span of the project to determine where your students are, but the journey here is much more fun.

6) Follow up.

We all know that assessments provide feedback to us teachers—they let us know which material students have mastered and which material they still need to work on. They also tell us how well we’re delivering the necessary information and facilitating learning in our classrooms. Don’t forget, though, that assessments can and should provide vital feedback for your students as well. After all, if we want them to be in charge of their learning (and we do!), then we must give them the necessary information to make and reach their learning goals. Reviewing the results of a quiz or test has the potential to help students realize their deficits and detect meaningful patterns in their errors. These are discoveries that are crucial to correcting misconceptions and directing future learning. When planning a review or follow-up on an assessment, keep in mind that sooner is always better. The quicker you provide learners with feedback on their performance, the more meaningful this information will be.

When crafted carefully, assessments can be incredibly powerful tools for learning. Well-planned assessments provide teachers and students with the necessary information to gauge progress and plan the next steps in the learning process. When we assess learning clearly, frequently and without bias, we get a better picture of how well we’re doing with instruction and how to best serve our students in the future.

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Melissa Maypole is an English Teacher with a Master’s of Science in Education, and is a contributor at Wisewire.

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