Matt Shannon

The Assessment Issue – Matt

Matt Shannon

I Like Big Assessment And I Cannot Lie
  – Matt Shannon


I’m going to make the case for qualitative assessment in your classroom, and in yourself. Let’s start with what assessment (in this context) isn’t: grades. I don’t really have much heartfelt appreciation for numbers on a scale, even if we make nice graphs out of them. What I do see as valuable are self-assessments, peer-assessments, “can-do” assessments, and all the healthy habits formed for teachers and students alike when one chooses to pursue a reflective culture in the classroom.


Results from the easiest assessment I know  – “Did we make it?”

In the early days of our city’s experimental curriculum, we tried a number of things to build up a variety of scales suitable for discussing a given student’s performance. Some schools

released a checklist in which a lesson was broken down into how many boys and girls we talked to, if we spoke with a smile, and if it was “fun.” A white space was given to capture other comments, which more often than got were written with a translation of “it was fun” in the L2. It wasn’t really inspiring stuff.

However, other schools found footing on a structure simple to the point of elegance: in the context of a specifically-stated and understood goal, ask if the students were able to  reach it. Responses to “were you able to achieve our goal?” and follow-ups “Yeah? Why or why not? How did that feel?” started to fill the pages, and with them grew a new and frankly surprising culture of feedback for all learners and educators involved.


Fruits of critical, qualitative, (and positive) assessment 

A note – all of our classes and processes are conducted exclusively with positive feedback. There is no failing score, no red ink, and no tests. In being asked to base our own assessments on the self-assessments of students, many teachers saw this as a head-scratcher with way too much trust placed in the hands of our charges. But here’s what happened: we quickly found that students could handle the task when our goals were easily laid out, and as teacher we found out a lot about our own lessons and teaching. Responses helped us understand what went right – the presentation steps were clear and helpful; it was cool to try on another country’s school uniform, etc, as well as our missteps. A tremendous amount of information can be transferred in something as formally simple as a “self-assessment.”

Moreover, directly linking to what students might says about themselves in regards to achieving goals and activities done well, we might ask students to praise their peers. “We saw a lot of great performers today, and a lot of people working hard. Who put in the effort today? Who was a little nervous, but fought hard anyhow?” In a really open classroom, students might volunteer their responses and praise publicly – and in line with a response that explains how, why, and of course by whom our goals were met or exceeded. In a quieter class, it allowed me to view the learning logs of students, garner a piece of sincere feedback from one student to another, and become the agent of shared praise. Finishing classes like that quickly grows on you.

Finally, we encountered emergent forms of feedback early on in the student assessments. These were comments in which the students linked the content and goal to another class, an experience outside of the classroom, or their own interests, opinions, experiences, or future. It’s these comments that were most likely to help my ESL courses as something implicitly within the community, despite also being easy to generate follow-ups to the did-we-make-it prompt. “Right, today we discussed the merits of two different places, and we talked a lot about what made each place special. Were you able to see both the positive and negative qualities of each? What’s good and bad about our town?”


Easy to understand and apply: Can-Do Assessments

When we look at the rubrics for major tests and skill batteries, we find items like, “student is able to solve for XYZ using a _____” – and then these get lumped into some composite score, most likely digested in the form of a number or letter. For anyone less than a maximum score, this can be sort of a bummer. As Japan has in writing for its future English curricula, we can make use of “can-do” assessments, achievement of which provides nothing less than a series of targets for which we can break through, and then use as a foundation for the future. Can-Do assessments offer systematic difference from more typical scores, at which only the very top should feel entirely proud of themselves. Think of a speech contest in which thirty skilled participants of roughly equal ability have entered, and only three prizes can be awarded, versus an organization like the Girl Scouts in which each individual’s merits are recognized and treasured.


The effects of long-term assessment use

As someone who has been employing self, peer, and can-do assessments for a while, I can tell you that there are finally some benefits unique to the teacher that I would never want to be without. As the establishment of objectives in the beginning directly effects how we may enjoy our assessments, I now implicitly plan my lessons as wholes, keeping an eye on the clarity of the contents, another eye on time or project management, and apparently a third eye on how clear it is that we are there with a chance to truly learn. I am absolutely interested in my students and what they have to say, and this attention is pretty contagious, and I make use of what I learn, and I’m doing this while being witness to people talk about themselves and their cohorts in a positive, healthy, and constructive manner. That’s a great feeling.


And now for a little self-assessment of my own.

I believe I’ve made the case for qualitative assessment in your classroom. I provided several examples in different contexts, and I was able to talk about it in a way directly incorporating my experience in the classroom. I talked a little bit about Can-Do assessments, which I’m still learning about, as well as self- and peer-assessments. It felt great doing so, because it reminded me of how I’ve grown as a teacher, and definitely as a listener. Whether it is the attention given to my students, my self, or the world around us, using this manner of assessment makes me feel wonderful. I hope you can feel it, too.


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Matt Shannon

Matt Shannon is an educator, cultivator and curriculum developer who works with elementary and junior high school students in Saitama, Japan. His goal is to provide real-world opportunities for EFL learners, specifically in the areas of debate, journalism, and science. Some of his students will have an experiment launched into space soon. He enjoys cooking, gardening, and the life sciences. He likes to build things.

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