What sets the master teacher apart from the amateur? The masters have perfected assessment for understanding, rather than simply knowledge. So what is student understanding and how do we measure it?

Wiggins and Tighe, in their oft quoted book Understanding by Design, caution us to not use the word ‘understanding’ too loosely. They urge us to be “mindful of our tendency to use the words understand and know interchangeably.”

Understanding is better defined through the presence of other entities surrounding it, rather than by the object itself. So the following 5 skills are present in a student who understands.

  1. Explain
  2. Interpret
  3. Apply
  4. Have perspective
  5. Empathize
  6. Have self-knowledge

By seeing these traits, we can deduce student understanding. Using these terms, one can easily formulate thinking questions that encourage students to truly think and understand.

  • Explain the reasons for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Interpret the following data in terms of student grades, and what perspective does it give you about school population?
  • Apply what you know about our physics lesson and construct a catapult.

 Confirming Student Understanding

How do we know if a student truly understands? For one, there’s formative assessment. Lots of it. Meaningful, relevant, instant feedback. The traditional form of this has been some sort of quiz. There are other ways to assess for understanding that don’t take up much time and are a lot of fun.

These are called Alternative Formative Assessments. AFAs have little to do with traditional quizzes and more to do with a quick observational analysis of performance.

Here is a short listing of examples from Edutopia’s 53 Ways to Check for Understanding:

  1. Summary Poem Activity
    • List ten key words from an assigned text.
    • Do a free verse poem with the words you highlighted.
    • Write a summary of the reading based on these words.
  2. Invent the Quiz
    • Write ten higher-order text questions related to the content. Pick two and answer one of them in half a page.
  3. The 411
    • Describe the author’s objective.
  4. Opinion Chart
    • List opinions about the content in the left column of a T-chart, and support your opinions in the right column.
  5. So What? Journal
    • Identify the main idea of the lesson. Why is it important?

As teachers modern teachers we’ve acknowledged the insufficiency of the traditional assessment. Maybe we need to get rid of the idea of paper-and-pen assessment as the best data.

Let’s borrow from the arts. When I was a young piano student, we took tests on theory and then a test on performance. The theory test was written, which the teacher then took and graded along with countless others.

Then there was the performance. This was the real summative test. It got my nerves in a spin and my sweat pouring. The performance in front of a qualified judge was the test for understanding. Showing that I could execute the task at hand gave the judges a sense of my understanding.

Let’s put that in the context of, say, a math test. You can do your math problems on paper and have a second exam as the “performance.” It could entail a project that has to be completed using math. And for history? Write a historical fiction dramatic script about Abe Lincoln, using what you know about his Gettysburg Address.

What’s the best road to gauging student understanding? Dispensing with pedagogy and complicated jargon, testing for understanding can be summed up as “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s in the doing that we understand.

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