Some of my readers may be too young to remember Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show character, The Magnificent Carnak. The comedy bit was that his sidekick, Ed McMahon would hand Carson an envelope with a question it in. Carnak’s (Carson’s) prodigious mind-reading abilities would discern the answer, after which he would open the envelope and read the question to the audience with hilarious results.
The Magnificent Carnak shtick is a lot like testing practices in schools. Students try to guess what the teacher is thinking and respond with the “correct” answer on a test, quiz, or homework assignment. They’re the Carnak’s of your classroom.
Is you are a teacher, you have undoubtedly heard students ask you questions such as:
- Is this going to be on the test? Should I be taking notes?
- How is this going to be graded?
- I give up. Won’t you please just tell me the answer?
- I really think I deserve full credit for my answer. It will make the difference between an A- and an A.
- What do you mean I have to show my work? I got the right answer, didn’t I?
An oft-repeated phrase is that “the internet has put the answer to almost any question at your fingertips.” An indeed, the answers to lower level questions may easily be found on the Internet, and unfortunately on far too many classroom tests as well. Fact-based knowledge is important, as it frees the mind for other thinking, but an over-emphasis on this sort of learning and the questions used to measure it means that students are not learning the higher order thinking skills so many schools say they value.
The ubiquitous presence of laptops and mobile devices in schools present an opportunity to completely re-think assessment practices. In schools that have adopted 1-1 laptop learning programs, teachers recognize the value of computers for student collaboration, research, writing, illustrating, recording, presenting, performing, and so on. Yet when it comes to assessment, students may be told they can’t use those tools any longer, or that the tools must be crippled in some manner (no Internet access, no spell-check, etc.) in order to be used. Teachers who are otherwise brilliant in their everyday use of technology, ask students to fill in bubbles on multiple choice (multiple guess?) tests.
There does not need to be such a disconnect between learning and assessment. Imagine what would happen if your department head was to come to you and say something like “I want you to prepare a four page essay for me on the latest practices in your academic field. You must do so completely from memory. You may not use a word processor, a computer, or reference books of any kind.” Feel a bit constrained? Think you will be able to do you best work? Is this a fair assessment of your ability?
Part of being an educated person is knowing which tools to select, whose opinions to seek out, how to analyze and synthesize disparate views into a cogent, persuasive argument. I maintain that this means full access to technology. In 2009 I wrote (Hey Teach! Can I Phone a Friend?) about how some teachers are trying to create “Google proof” test questions. Rather than cast the problem in a negative light, let’s instead think of how we can build into assessments questions that require students to perform actions such as these:
- include the perspective from two personal contacts living in other countries (or representing different age groups, ethnicities, different schools, et al.)
- include links to primary documents to support your argument.
- create a multimedia mashup of text, video, sound and animation to prove your thesis.
- summarize your argument in several different media: a 140 character Twitter post, a Wordle page, a one stanza original music composition, or a ten second animation.
- post your idea to three selected blogs or web sites and summarize and critique the response you receive.
If you are continuing to base a lot of your assessment on fact-based questions, or even asking higher-level questions but preventing preventing students from accessing the tools of their trade, then it’s time to rethink. Regardless if whether or not you are in a laptop school, you can begin to make use to technology to create richer, more meaningful assessments.