Thursday, August 31, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Pre-Assessment

An old gradebook from when I taught middle school...
Time for me to practice what I preach, folks. If I tell my Education majors something is good practice for teachers, I better be doing it in my own teaching, right?

In my pedagogy-oriented courses, I often emphasize the role that assessment plays in teaching. I often talk with my students about the importance of setting objectives, aligning appropriate assessment vehicles to these objectives, and then ensuring that our instructional moves will actually support students' learning of those objectives. When I say "assessment vehicles," students often jump immediately to tests and quizzes, but there are, of course, lots of other possible ways to assess students' knowledge, understanding, and skills.

When we're talking assessment, we often distinguish between "formative" assessment and "summative" assessment. Formative assessment is sometimes called "assessment for learning"--it's assessing students while learning is in process, checking in on their developing knowledge and skills. Formative assessments are usually small-scale check-ups, things like a quick-write at the end of class, or even a thumbs-up/thumbs-down check for understanding in the middle of class ("Do you think you understood that last part? Thumbs up for 'yes,' or thumbs down for 'no.'") Summative assessment, on the other hand, is sometimes called "assessment of learning"--it's a way of summing up learning that requires them to synthesize and demonstrate what they have learned at the end of a lesson or unit of study. Chapter quizzes or unit tests might be the most familiar examples, but many times projects, papers, and presentations can be summative in nature as well. An analogy I've heard before that I think is helpful is that formative assessment is like the chef tasting the soup while it is cooking, and summative assessment is, "Dinner is served!"

Both of these forms of assessment are valuable, and I would argue necessary in a formal educational setting. Though when I say this, I should also note that I think we teachers tend to emphasize summative assessments and not give enough value to formative assessments. And this is a tragedy, because if we're not assessing our students while we are teaching, we really don't know whether or not they are learning. If we aren't assessing along the way, it's like Wiggins and McTighe said in Understanding by Design: "Teach, test, and hope for the best."

All of this said, there is another form of assessment that I think is valuable, but when I'm honest about it, I don't always use in my own teaching practice. It is called Pre-assessment. Pre-assessment is assessing what your students know, understand, and are able to do before you start teaching at all, and--this is the key--using the information you glean to guide your instruction. It's sort of like the spelling pretests I used to take in elementary school: at the beginning of the week, we took a test on our spelling words for the week. Ideally, the ones we got right on the pretest were the ones we definitely knew, and didn't have to study. But the ones we got wrong were the ones we would know that we needed to learn during the week. And then, at the end of the week, we had a posttest (summative assessment) to demonstrate that we had learned them. 

In my own teaching practice, I feel like I'm pretty good at summative assessments, and I've grown over the past years in becoming more effective at collecting formative assessment data and actually acting on it. But pre-assessment? It hasn't had much of a presence in my teaching practice.

So. Knowing that pre-assessment and acting on that assessment as a guide to my teaching are best practices for teachers...why do I not do this more regularly?

My honest answer? I'm afraid it's this: I think that I know better than my students what they already know.


I'm trying to be a more intentional pre-assessor. One example: in my Geography course, I gave students a "Geographic Awareness Quiz." (See my last post for more about this.) It was interesting to go through these and see what students know and don't know. The average score? Eighteen correct answers out of forty questions. Almost all of them knew that Moscow is the capital of Russia. Only a few of them knew that Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia. While finding places on the map is part of geographic awareness, it's not the whole story, of course. But it is an important part. So this quiz gives me a baseline, a starting point, a general picture of my students' mental maps of the world.

A few things I've already noticed: they know Europe and North America better than Africa and Asia. They know some world capitals. They know some facts and figures of population and economics and politics. 

One thing I'm thinking about right now: I'm using this pre-assessment data in the aggregate, at the whole-class level. It would be interesting for the future to track individual students' progress. I am not there yet in my pre-assessing, but I'm confidently going to do more of this in the future.

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