Tuesday, August 18, 2015


When choosing effective measures for our students' success, our focus should not be on differentiating between assignments and assessments, but on how to use them as effective and accurate tools to measure our students' learning.

There must be a purpose to all assignments and assessments. The purpose, as mentioned, is always 2 fold;
  • to bring our children back to the intended Key Learning; and 
  • to provide a platform on which to apply the Key Learning. 
And in order to accurately convey our purpose for the task, we employ the use of Command Words.

The importance of Command Words
Command Words are essentially words and phrases we use to direct our audience to the intended task. Words like ‘Describe’ and ‘Explain’ tell our audience very explicitly what we want them to do in the exercise.

There are many types of Command Words and I deal with them at length in this series of articles. But suffice to say in this discussion is that choosing the right Command Word for the task is like choosing the right tool for the job. An ‘Explain’ when the intention was really to ‘Evaluate’ will yield a very different product and hence an inaccurate reflection of the learning.

The importance of Rubric
To measure the achievement of the student in meeting the demands of the Command Word, we need an accurate and appropriate rubric. The rubric must deliberately seek out and award positive performances of the Command Word so that the score is an accurate reflection of the degree to which the student has acquired the intended Key Learning. Let me illustrate.

Go back to the root question in our earlier example;
Evaluate the success of measures to control deforestation.
In this case, the rubric must allow for the performance of an appraisal and demand that the response examines the various perspectives of the issue, coming to a conclusion based on the arguments presented. Here is a good example;

Level 1
  • Generalized answers with little support. 
  • Weak reasoning with many parts being unclear. 
Level 2
  • Only ONE SIDE of the opinion is given and supported with appropriate evidence, OR 
  • BOTH SIDES of the opinion are discussed, with weak support given for either or both. 
Level 3
  • Comprehensive answers supported by sound knowledge of theory and concepts. 
  • BOTH SIDES of the opinion are discussed and well supported with appropriate examples and evidence. 
Conversely an answer scheme like the following will not measure the intended outcome stated in the question.
  • Award 1 mark for each measure mentioned. 
  • Award 1 mark for each detail of the measure mentioned. 
  • Award 1 mark for each reason given to justify success. 
When constructing the rubric, it is also important to pay attention to where we set the minimum acceptable level of achievement, put simply, the pass grade. The same task, when put to different groups of students, at different levels of learning, should not have the same minimum level of achievement.

For example, if we are introducing titration for the first time to a class of 7th Graders, it would not be fair for us to expect them to recount all the 7 steps to the experiment. We would give ourselves a pat on the back if they could remember the most important 3.

However, if the same task was now given to a class of 12th Graders, not only would we be expecting them to know the 7 steps, we would also expect them to include in their description, the possible errors that could result from each step.

This is what being accurate and appropriate means; able to measure the desired outcome; and able to offer a meaningful reflection of learning that is appropriate to level and circumstance.

Rubrics should also be tangible in their description. We should avoid unquantifiable descriptors like ‘able to understand the audience’ or ‘able to sustain the interest of the reader’. If we can’t put a finger on the demands of the rubric, it will lead to either our children seemingly never being able to attain that level of achievement, or result in large discrepancies between raters, all of which are not healthy to the education of our children.

In the end, which assignment and assessment to use must be determined by the desired outcome. We need to be deliberate with the construction of the task so that not only can skills and knowledge be received and reinforced, the same skills and knowledge can be reviewed, revised and revisited during the post task analysis.

By leveraging on assignments and assessments, we will be able to quantifiably make learning more meaningful and hence improve long term retention for our students.

Next up: Constructing effective lessons

Understanding Education

How to promote Effective Learning

How to plan effective lessons

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