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On “Disrupting Class”: 6 Ways Continuous Assessment Can Help Students Learn

Posted in Teacher Tools on May 10, 2012 by

Clayton Christensen

Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class was the most recent pick for the Knewton book club. In this groundbreaking book, Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and expert on innovation, describes a world in which continuous assessment unleashes a range of productive possibilities for education: “When students learn through student-centric online technology, testing doesn’t have to be postponed until the end of an instructional module and then administered in a batch mode. Rather, we can verify mastery continually to create tight, closed feedback loops. Misunderstandings do not have to persist for weeks until the exam has been administered and the instructor has had time to grade every student’s test.”

Having worked to create Knewton Math Readiness, an adaptive course which is built on the Knewton Adaptive Learning platform and which evaluates students continuously in order to deliver personalized learning paths, I have some firsthand experience with the power and potential of continuous assessment.

As computerized systems enable us to deliver continuous assessments to students, I envision a world in which we will be able to provide the following benefits for students:

1. An increased sense of inclusiveness.

Continuous assessment provides students with a constant stream of opportunities to prove their mastery of material and sends the message that everyone can succeed if given enough time and practice. This reduces the anxiety and finality around testing and heightens the emphasis on the learning itself. When mastery instead of competition with other students becomes the point of assessment, the focus shifts from superficial competition to true understanding and personal learning goals.

2. Higher learning standards for all.

In a system of continuous assessment, advanced students can progress through material at their own pace and remain engaged by pursuing more challenging work as they pass out of the basics. In this sense, the standards for such students stretch to help each student maximize potential. Because success is defined on an absolute and individualized basis, students cannot be satisfied with their achievements relative to others; they are encouraged to seek their own course and take responsibility for their learning.

3. Clarified purpose of assessment.

The problem with administering assessments only once in a while is that the primary aim is to compare students while at the same time allowing them to “pass” to the next level. This produces a situation in which the purpose of assessment is muddled: the tendency is to let students level up (because, regardless of standards, everyone is generally expected to pass) although they may not truly grasp the material or have a very weak understanding of it. For this reason, students may start the next level at a weaker state with no opportunity to correct their misunderstandings.

4. Capacity to remediate weaknesses through strengths.

When we, as Christensen suggests, begin measuring the length of time it takes to master a concept or skill and contrast the efficacy of different approaches, we are able to gather data about the learning process and put this knowledge to work for students: “Because learning will no longer be as variable, we can compare students not by what percentage of the material they have mastered, but by comparing how far they have moved through a body of material.”

This sort of data solves another problem: the self-perpetuating cycle through which the curriculum and methods of instruction for various subjects are tailored for those who are gifted in them. Math classes, for instance, are taught by those who are gifted at math and through texts written by those who are gifted in the subject as well; and class itself is shaped by the questions and comments of gifted math students. (This leaves those who are not gifted at math feeling excluded and turns them off from the subject.)

Imagine an alternative: the confidence students develop in the areas in which they excel helps them learn subjects for which they have less proclivity. And better yet, strategies that have been proven effective for students with specific weaknesses can be used to help other students with those weaknesses. Envision a system that places a student on a proven effective learning path once he displays a learning style and proficiency level that is similar to another student in a network.

5. Increased self-awareness for students who, through continuous assessment, come to understand their proficiencies and knowledge gaps.

Time and again, we encounter evidence that self-awareness — understanding of how one feels, thinks, and learns — is one of the most significant factors in professional and personal success. The famous psychologist, Gardner argues that self-knowledge — “intrapersonal skill” — is one of the eight defining types of intelligence (the others being “linguistic,” “logical-mathematical,” “naturalist,” “bodily-kinesthetic,” “spatial,” “musical,” and “interpersonal”). The more continuously we assess students, the more knowledge they can gain about themselves — what it takes for them to master something, how they can approach problems differently, what their blind spots are, and how to eliminate them.

6. Capacity to uncover interdisciplinary relationships between subject domains and concepts.

Continuous assessment allows us to refine our understanding of the content that we are teaching students. We might discover that effective remediation in a subject requires attention to another subject or that the root of common misunderstandings within a subject is something altogether unexpected.

Through the data generated, we might, for instance, uncover a relationship between reading comprehension and math word problems — or between quantitative/logical skill and English composition. We might discover that a specific order of teaching subjects (or even concepts) is remarkably effective — that logic and foreign language or fractions and musical harmony should be taught side by side, for example.