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  • Writer's pictureDerek Stoppels

Is this going to be on the test?

This semester has been ground breaking for me. I've been questioning and evaluating my own practice as an educator (a weapon of mass instruction) and I'm really excited about trying all kinds of new things! I'm so lucky to have an administration that is supportive of my ideas as I try to improve the learning conditions and expectations of my students.

I have been teaching for 11 years (seven of them full time and permanent), and I have never met a teacher in my life who loves marking. We do it...but we don't love it. And as I take a cursory look at my SNC2D biology unit tests, I wonder if it's a relevant and useful demonstration of my students' learning. Then I look back at all the other science tests I've given to my students and I become somewhat dismayed. I don't really feel like I've got a true understanding of what my students know. But I DO have tons of evidence about what they can memorize!

I think part of the reason I hate marking so much is because I'm not sure what the test is for. Thinking of it in philosophical terms, my "what" doesn't match up with my "why", and so now I have to ask "how".

Assessments of learning are supposed to gather evidence of what the student has learned. I don't feel like the multiple choice, matching, fill in the blanks and short answer tests that I give are as relevant as they could be when assessing what a student has learned. When a test is based purely on content recall, or the "knowledge and understanding" strand of the Ontario curriculum, I get a clear vision of what the student has memorized and been able to spew back onto a test. Prince Ea has an awesome line in his performance "What is School For?":

They cram information in your head, force feeding yuh, and then you throw it up on the test. That's not education, that's...Bulimia.

Why are written tests and exams worth so much more than the conversations we have with our students and the questions that they ask. Unit Tests and Final Exams are supposed to be the major pieces of evidence for assessment of learning, then labs and assignments and then quizzes and homework. I heard a quote once, and I don't remember who said it but it was something along the lines of:

Students spend too much time answering questions instead of asking them.

I think that when I evaluate students this way, all I have is a very superficial view of what my students have "learned". I really believe we should be trying to promote rich and deep learning in our students, but if we're trying to promote deep learning, why are we not evaluating for deep learning.

I want to know what my students know. That means more open ended questions. In order to really test for deep learning, we need to ask our students to question, to think, to reason, to analyze, and to synthesize. If there is a way to do that in a multiple choice question, I don't know it. Whether our students are "receivers" (enjoy direct instruction) or "detectives" (enjoy learning by discovery), we still need to be assessing for deep learning.

When students used to ask me "Will this be on the test?" or "What do we need to know for the test?" I would be annoyed because in my mind, why would I be teaching it if I didn't think it was important enough to put on a test. Now I get annoyed because when they ask that question, I hear "Will I need to memorize this?"

Now, I was reading Sir Ken Robinson's book Out of Our Minds, and he goes on to say that this is a fair question because students have SO much that they need to "know" in order to successfully complete high school, they need to know, not how much, but how little do they need to know to pass the test. They're not asking if they're going to have to use the information to synthesize an answer. And so, because I can't change the system, I am trying to find ways to promote the deepest learning possible for my students while they are in my class.


So my SNC2D Biology - Human Systems Unit, was based on an inquiry: How does lifestyle affect the human systems (Digestive, Circulatory and Respiratory)? They had to do some research, write some papers and produce a twitter campaign and video. The results were incredible! I taught a few lessons directly covering the information that is on the test and exam (that are "standard" at my school) and then gave them the unit test. There were a lot of open ended questions asking them to make connections between the concepts they looked at while doing their project and some multiple choice and diagrams that they had to label. It looked like a traditional test.

Going through their answers, most of them did pretty well. There wasn't anyone who did better or worse because of the Inquiry/Project Based Learning Model that I used for this unit. However, there were students whose tests I read and I thought to myself: This young person knows more, this test isn't giving me the full picture!

So I sat down with each student, gave their tests back to them, and asked them to go through it and add or change anything they wanted. I asked them questions to clarify their answers, and also to probe for understanding, but their oral responses were SO much better than their written responses. It was amazing! I took notes on the responses that they gave me and stapled it to the back of their tests and with their written work, their oral responses and their project, I really feel like I have a solid understanding of what my students KNOW about cells, tissues, organs and organ systems. It's not a perfect system...yet. I've got a lot of work to do, some kinks to smooth out and I need to learn to get more efficient at it, but it's a start and I'm getting somewhere with my new system and with my students. They seem to feel respected and valued and I hope that they are starting to realize that their performance on a test isn't what defines them.

The test is what the students show us, but we know there is SO much more beneath the surface! (Photo by Derek Stoppels)


Prince EA - What is School For?

Community Eye Health. 2000; 13(34): 30–31.Teaching and Learning, Detlef R Prozesky, MBChB MCommH PhD

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