'It's time for an assessment revolution: give students access to the internet in exams and scrap traditional grades'

25th October 2016 at 11:28
internet, exams, assessment, students, teachers
Students should commit some facts to memory to develop their critical thinking skills, but tests need to reflect the real world

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If a goal of education is to make students career ready, why do we assess them in ways that have little or nothing to do with what people do on the job? If anyone at work realizes a need for information, be it isolated facts or how to do something, they probably won't wait too long to look it up on the internet.

In their book Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for The Innovation ERA, Tony Wagner and Ten Dintersmith argue that students should be able to use real-world tools as the take on any task that their teachers pose. They also point out that Denmark started doing this with some exams way back in 2009. I couldn't agree more.

With internet search, facts are sitting ducks. Yet, many teachers base their student grades on tests that require recall of facts and procedures without access to the tools students will use once they leave school. Also, in the real world, no one uses the math routines learned in school to do computations that can't be done quickly in their head. 

As principal, I once caught the school secretary using a pocket calculator to add a list of numbers. I told her that the device on her desk was called a computer in part because it was really good at computing. I then gave her lesson one on how to use a spreadsheet and told her I didn't want to see the pocket calculator in use as long as she was at her desk.

My point with this story is that our assessment of students shouldn't focus on things they will never do when they hit the world of work. In my mind there is little reason to give tests that aren't open internet tests just as in my day when teachers would occasionally give open book tests. My advanced organic chemistry test in grad school (1970) was an open world test that allowed asking experts. 

I'm not saying that students shouldn't commit some facts and procedures to long-term memory. I also think there is a place for working on the recall of the basic facts, concepts, and principles associated with the disciplines at hand. 

As Benedict Carey points out in How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, working on recall of what you are trying to learn is more effective than additional efforts to memorize it. Self-testing then is far more important than more study.

Even though you can look up just about anything, your long-term memory is vital to any kind of critical thinking and problem solving. The reason for having knowledge in long-term memory is that when you try to solve a problem, all you have access to is long-term memory and information from the environment. Having to look everything up therefore, would be inefficient to the point where little would get done.

As students encounter information in multiple real-world contexts, they will internalize important items. Self-testing can be facilitated by computer-based question banks. Mastered content reported to teachers will allow them to help students decide what to work on next.

When it comes to assessing student competence, there is a serious trend that I agree with toward using real-world open-ended projects that allow for unlimited use of any tools students can get their hands on such as internet search and spreadsheets. 

You can even get the internet to do calculus homework with Wolfram Alpha. I haven't used calculus in decades but I'm sure I could pass just about any calc test using this resource.

The results of student efforts should also be made available to a larger audience. Many teachers are starting to publish student work on class blogs for the world to see. Some also require students to view and comment on each other's work, and some students have their own blogs.

It is also vital that students evaluate their own work. This thinking about one's thinking is called metacognition and is widely considered a powerful aide to effective learning. 

If you think that getting rid of traditional grades based largely on fact-based closed internet tests will be a problem when it comes to college acceptance, think again. Colleges already require and evaluate portfolios for art students and home schooled students. In my daughter's case, her art portfolio contained her best work from all four years of her high school career. 

Portfolios of student work would also let employers see what a student is capable of doing. This beats a list of courses and grades as far as I'm concerned. It also demonstrates a connection with the real world that regurgitated facts and procedures and the grades they generate can't. 

Douglas Green is a former school principal, administrator and university lecturer, who runs the www.drdrouggreen.com website and can be found tweeting at @drdouggreen

Read more:

Adams Becker, S., Freeman, A., Giesinger Hall, C., Cummins, M., and Yuhnke, B. The Examination of Emerging Technologies for Their Potential Impact on and Use in Teaching, Learning, and Creative Inquiry in Schools, NMC/CoSN Horizon Report: K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium, 2016, http://bit.ly/2dmDEWY.

Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey, Random House: New York, NY, 2014.

Michaelsen, Ann. Connected Test-Taking: Is It Cheating? Powerful Learning Practice Blog, May 3, 2012, http://bit.ly/2eC8hbB 

Wagner, Tony and Dintersmith, Ted. Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for The Innovation Era. Scribner: New York, NY, 2015.

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