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Assessment without exams

Photo from Inside3DP / original article

No one likes testing. Students don’t: some get too nervous, others don’t like to study. And their teachers and professors don’t: good exam questions are hard to come up with, hard to recycle (thanks to online exam repositories), and a huge pain to grade.

Unfortunately, students are also learners, and they need to be assessed in order to judge how well they are progressing in their learning. Testing is an obvious, time-honored, and economical form of assessment. But it’s not the only one; other examples include projects, papers, and labs. And increasingly, teachers are turning to more engaging methods of assessing learning.

One of these, the “Maker movement”, is more of a teaching philosophy than purely an assessment tool. Its goal is to teach through doing, and it has gained the attention of not only educators across a wide variety of fields (from math and science to English and history), but even President Obama. By giving students hands-on experiences via creating tools and experimentation, the thought is, teachers help them intuitively (re)discover concepts such as speed or resistance. Progress can be monitored on many levels, from technical proficiency to deeper concept comprehension.

Games also provide a way of learning without drudgery. As Linda Darcy points out, you can “gamify” your classroom just by changing attitudes — no tech required. Many of her suggestions may sit oddly with older instructors (or older students), but one stands out as both useful and productive. She writes, “it feels good to earn things and bad to lose things. Yet, our entire grading system is based on the idea of losing points for wrong answers, rather than gaining points for new learning.” In fact, this ‘start at zero’ approach is used elsewhere in the world, and is often cited in my circle of acquaintances as a way to protect against grade inflation.

Others suggest using mainstream video games as learning tools. The suitability of many games depends on the classroom context, number and age of students in particular.

As yet, such strategies too new to be proven in terms of boosting achievement. They are anecdotally effective in increasing student enthusiasm, at least in the short term.

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About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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