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Assessing Learning

Although there is a large amount of teaching going on in our classrooms, it doesn’t necessarily equate to a large amount of learning. Because learning is the primary purpose of educational endeavors, assessing the learning is considered just as important as the instructional methodologies and strategies educators use to convey the content area knowledge to students. So in this post, I will explore some formative and summative assessment strategies that may be used to measure student learning as well as to describe both immediate instructional adjustments that may be necessary as well as subsequent instructional adjustments based on summative assessment data collected.

The Lesson

For the purpose of contextualizing the discussion, the assessments and possible consequences will be discussed in context of a reading comprehension lesson. The lesson uses the convention of cooperative learning to teach students how to integrate cues and strategies to comprehend what they read. The students will discuss various strategies used to comprehend written text as they work in groups of four. At the start of the lesson, the instructor assessed the students orally to determine if they recall what it means to compare and contrast. After the definitions of the two terms have been reviewed, the teacher reviews a short story that includes two main characters to be compared. Using a Venn diagram, the students will demonstrate how the two characters are alike and how they are different.

During the guided practice phase of the lesson, the teacher displays a character map of the two main characters from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Together, the instructor and students list characteristics about each character and the class will use the listed characteristics in their Venn diagrams. Finally, the teacher will review the terms compare and contrast and point out how understanding character traits promote comprehension of the story. The teacher closes the lesson by asking a series of questions:

Questions Asked to Close Reading Comprehension Lesson

Tell me what it means to compare and contrast.

How were the characters alike? How were they different?

What were Lenny’s mental abilities compared to George’s?

What was the dream that both characters shared?

Explain Lenny’s nature even though he was thought of as an animal, as compared to George?


Formative and Summative Assessments

The anticipatory set entailed in the lesson is a formative assessment onto itself. Here, the teacher can gauge the extent to which he may compact some of the concepts of the lesson or further scaffold the concepts based on his initial conversation with the students regarding the terms compare and contrast. However, because the assessment is conducted in a whole group discussion, the teacher will not be able to attribute individual student’s strengths and weaknesses relative to his or her understanding of the targeted terms. What may have been more effectual is if the teacher, instead of a group discussion, conducted a private though not anonymous, penalty-free survey of the students, perhaps using electronic Personal Response Systems such as those provided by companies like eInstruction, to determine who knows what the terms mean and to what degree do they understand the terms. Alternatively, the teacher may have chosen to have the students rate their knowledge of the terms and communicate his or her rating by a show of fingers—five fingers up would signify that the student has a strong grasp of the concepts and one finger would mean that the student is quite unfamiliar with what the terms mean or how they work.

The lesson, as described, did not provide any other tacit opportunities for formative assessment. Instead, the next point of assessment was summative, occurring at the end of the lesson and involving the asking and answering of five questions presented above. Possibly the simplest formative assessment tactic, The Muddiest Point, may easily be inserted into the lesson as the students are working in their cooperative groups. This method “…provides information on what students find least clear or most confusing about a particular lesson or topic.” (Angelo & Cross, 1993, p. 154). The process involves determining what point of feedback the instructor is gauging, in this case, whether or not students understand comparing and contrasting; providing students with a way of communicating what is most confusing, or muddy, about the topic being taught such as using a Graffiti Wall wherein students use markers to write on a designated portion of a white board, commenting on a classroom blog, or using a Personal Response System; observing the feedback students provide to make instructional decisions.

Finally, the summative assessment described is appropriate as it not only gauges students’ understanding of the elements of the literature but also tasks students with conveying their understanding by using the discrete skill of comparing and contrasting. The questions are well crafted and provide the teacher with an accurate depiction of his students’ understanding and application skills relative to the lesson’s objective. However, as was the case with the anticipatory set, because the questions are asked in context of a group discussion, the teacher will not have specific data regarding individual students. Certainly, the students who do respond orally will provide workable data for the instructor but those that do not will remain a mystery. Instead of orally asking the questions in a whole-group setting, perhaps the students may complete a simple individual quiz thereby providing the teacher with incontrovertible data so that he may assess students’ learning.


Transforming student achievement data into an action plan that adjusts an instructional unit or lesson is a frustrating task for many teachers (Boudett, City, & Murnane, 2006). Moreover, making instructional adjustments while the lesson is in progress is something of an art form. However, as the purpose of formative assessments is to provide teachers with actionable data to make the learning more comprehensible for students, making these adjustments may be considered of paramount importance. In the case of the reading comprehension lesson described above, if the ascertained from the discussion at the start of the lesson during the anticipatory set revealed that a group of five to seven students did not have much of a grasp of the concept of comparing and contrasting whatsoever, it would be incumbent on the instructor to provide a mini-lesson for these students lasting perhaps no more than five minutes so that those students may catch up with their peers in understanding the concepts at hand. Often, the deficiency causing students to be confused may be a singular point of fact or conceptual reckoning (Boudett et al., 2006). Upon isolating this point or points for the various students, an instructor may clear up the confusion by patching the misconception—much like a punctured tire may be repaired by determining precisely where the air is leaking out from.

Therefore, in the case of the cooperative learning lesson discussed above, the teacher would need to identify an opportune moment just after the point of assessment to conduct this mini-lesson. While the students are working on their Venn diagrams, the teacher may ask the group of students to step outside of the classroom or to convene in an isolated section of the room wherein he may re-present the concept in the simplest manner possible. Often the strategies a teacher may use to work with English learners may suffice in these types of situations regardless of whether or not the students are limited-English proficient. These may include comparing the clothes the students in the group are wearing based on categories such as color and style or by recounting two familiar events or object that all of the students in the group may be aware of and asking specific questions about their characteristics to point out how they are different or alike.

If the summative assessment data in this case demonstrated that the majority of the students were not successful in attaining the lesson’s objective, the educator should engage in an analysis of the data to determine what, if any, trends in the assessment data may be detected to determine what course of action he should follow (Anderson & Fagerhaug, 2000). For example, the data may demonstrate that the students understand the process of comparing and contrasting characteristics but do not know the story or its elements because they have not read the assigned sections. Conversely, the data may show that the story elements are clear for the students but the lesson failed to demonstrate explicitly the process for comparing and contrasting the main characters traits. This analysis will yield what adjustments may be most beneficially for the students.

For example, if the analysis show trends that suggest the students simply don’t know the story or the characters, it may behoove the instructor to consider recapping the story—perhaps by screening sections of a recent movie depiction of Of Mice and Men to accelerate the students’ understanding of the characters. If, on the other hand, the trends show that the students simply do not understand how to compare or contrast characters, the teacher would then engage in a follow-up lesson that quite concisely reviews the process, step-by-step. The teacher may consult with special education teachers or teachers of English learners who often have materials or lessons on the linguistic functions of comparing and contrasting. The teacher may also employ a fellow instructor to engage in a collegial conversation or observation to determine what part of the lesson fails to make the content comprehensible. Based on this conversation, the teacher may approach the lesson’s objectives by another means—perhaps through deeper scaffolding or by using manipulatives or images.


Anderson, B., & Fagerhaug, T. (2000). Root cause analysis: Simplified tools and techniques. Milwaukee, WI: ASQ Quality Press.

Angelo, T., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Boudett, K. P., City, E. A., & Murnane, R. J. (Eds.). (2006). Data wise. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press.

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