Assessments Without Being Buried in Paperwork – Triple A to the Rescue

Brian Oger

Brian Oger

The first year of teaching is, without a doubt, the hardest year of teaching. There is all the late night marking, all the weekends writing report cards, the early mornings planning, jotting down ideas for the next day’s class in the middle of the night, and the inevitable two-week sickness the moment winter break starts — and another sickness at spring break too. And, for good measure, one to kick off summer vacation. My wife was really glad when my first year of teaching was over.

One of the things that made this first year so difficult was that I did not really know how to do assessment. I made the assumption that if my students did something, I had to mark it. My upbringing was all about gritting your teeth and gettin’ it done, regardless of health consequences (see above paragraph), so I marked everything.

I was using a Math 6 curriculum that had a boatload of worksheets I would photocopy into neatly stapled packages every morning. I was teaching a stream of Math for gifted students, so I thought that to keep them challenged they just needed more worksheets. Big mistake! These kids were fast! They would whip through these photocopied packets I made so quickly, I couldn’t keep up with the marking deluge. I can’t prove this definitively, but I suspect that my teaching practice helped me become the biggest individual contributor to deforestation that year. The red pen division of Bic did pretty well too.

I learned my lesson in year two, but it did take a while before I really hit on an idea that revolutionized my assessment practice. I call it, “Triple A assessment.”

In this new model of teaching, I divide the work that my students do into three different categories:

I have used this model of assessment in face-to-face, blended, and online settings. It’s a simple way to keep from crashing and needing a metaphorical tow truck to pull you out from under a literal pile of papers.

Activities

Activities are tasks that students complete in the process of learning without producing a product for teacher evaluation. In student-centered approaches to pedagogy, we want students to be actively engaging in their learning, so any time a student is doing work that helps them build the foundation for their understanding of a concept, they are in the “activity” step of assessment.

Here is an example of an engaging, student-centered activity that I came across to learn about the beginning of the Great Depression: I tell my students we are studying the Roaring 20s and how people got rich using the stock market that decade. The students become stock traders, investing in radio, electricity, automobiles, and oil. I go through a series of PowerPoint slides that indicate which stocks have gone up and which have gone down, and as groups they are competing to try to have the most money at the end of the class. They get really competitive. A few will guess what I’m up to and try to pull all their money out of stocks just in time, but most of the students get so caught up trying to win that they don’t realize that 1929 is coming and things are about to crash. I usually try to take pictures of their poor, crushed, 15-year-old faces.

Schadenfreude, anyone?

My marking book is nowhere in sight during this activity. I’m just watching them learn. It’s an activity where they experience just a tiny glimpse into how much people felt like the rug was pulled out from underneath them in October of 1929, and I don’t need to worry about assessing them at this point. I can do that later in the “assignment” or “assessment” phase.

This is one of the key benefits to this type of learning: I can freely design activities where the only goal is learning, and I do not need them to produce a product that I can assess.

During the “Activity” level of assessment, there are actually two types of assessment that should be going on: self-assessment and informal teacher observation. This is sometimes called “assessment as learning” or “formative assessment.” The students should be able to check whether they are getting it or not, and as an instructor, you can be checking in with them and giving extra support to students who are struggling.

To give an online example, StudyForge Math courses have hundreds of practice questions. Students work on the problem or equation, and the answer, along with a detailed explanation of the solution, is right there to guide them. The student then flags whether they understand it, and the teacher can check in on students who are struggling. It’s still an activity: it doesn’t count toward their final grade, but self-assessment and informal assessment are still happening to support the process of learning.

Activity Examples

  • Informal discussions
  • Practice questions
  • Group topic explorations
  • Practice quizzes
  • Games

Assignment Examples

Assessment Examples

My one rule for activities is this: No final grades allowed. Gradebooks are for assignments (sometimes) and assessments. This takes the pressure off of my students while they are in the process of learning, because they can make mistakes without being penalized.

It also keeps the top of my desk much clearer.

Assignments

The next level up from “activities” are “assignments.” An assignment is a learning task where students are asked to produce a product as part of the learning process. This stage is vital within the Triple A Assessment practice because of when it occurs in the learning process. During the assignment phase, students are still developing their understanding of key concepts. They are doing tasks that will further their learning, and they need to show what they have learned. The teacher can then assess a student’s progress in learning and give specific feedback that can help a student grow. Depending on the age of the learner, a grade can be given or a proficiency level can be indicated.

Activity Examples

  • Informal discussions
  • Practice questions
  • Group topic explorations
  • Practice quizzes
  • Games

Assignment Examples

  • Reflection paragraphs
  • Practical projects
  • Formal, marked discussions
  • In-class presentations

Assessment Examples

An assignment to follow up on the Great Crash activity might be to get students to do additional research to find a story of a person who experienced unemployment and extreme poverty during the Great Depression, and create a Go-Fund-Me page to seek financial support. Or, get them to write a personal reflection about their experience during the Great Crash game. An assignment in a Math class might be to have students learn to use a clinometer to measure tall objects in the neighborhood, putting their trigonometry to practical use. Do assignments count towards a student’s final grade? There is room for debate about this, and there are solid arguments on both sides. In my own opinion, the answer to this question is like the answer to a lot of good questions: It depends. Assignments can be part of what is sometimes referred to as “assessment as learning” or “formative assessment.” Learning is still in process, so students can receive formative feedback. Whether you count it towards the final grade or not would depend on the nature of the activity.

Assessment

The biggest difference between “assignments” and “assessments” in the Triple-A Assessment model is when the task happens and, potentially, the size of the task. Assessments are final, summative tasks that demonstrate student achievement at the end of a unit of study. For assessments, we want to know where a student has arrived in their learning journey and the level of achievement they have attained. This is sometimes called “assessment of learning” or “summative assessment.”

The key to a well-designed unit and the creation of assessment tasks is to be sure that all of a unit’s tasks are oriented toward specific learning goals. The assessment needs to be aligned with the activities and assignments to be effective. There is no place for trick questions, surprise tasks, or new topics during a final assessment.

Activity Examples

  • Informal discussions
  • Practice questions
  • Group topic explorations
  • Practice quizzes
  • Games

Assignment Examples

  • Reflection paragraphs
  • Practical projects
  • Formal, marked discussions
  • In-class presentations

Assessment Examples

  • Final exams
  • Unit tests
  • Research projects
  • Formal essays
  • Persuasive speech
  • Science fair

Assessments can be final exams and unit tests, but tests are not the only way (or perhaps they are not even the best way) to assess student achievement in a unit of study. Research projects, presentations, persuasive speeches, formal debates, or essays can all be summative assessments. Mix it up! Get students to play the part of a news anchor to deliver an op-ed about a current event. Have them create an instructional vlog that teaches a particular task to its audience. Host a “Shark Tank” competition where learners present a three-minute pitch to an expert panel.

What’s the goldilocks (just right) amount of assessments? I generally aim for one per unit, with perhaps a culminating project at the end of a course.

Triple A

As teachers, we need to work smarter, not harder. Taking the pressure off of ourselves by limiting the number of assignments and assessments can make a huge difference in student’s lives and in our job satisfaction. After all, you didn’t get into teaching because you like using red pens. Or crashing.

Put the gradebook away, and just enjoy the learning.

About the Author

Brian Oger, B.A., MDiv

Humanities Curriculum Specialist at StudyForge Digital Curriculum

Brian lives in White Rock, British Columbia with his wife, four children, a dog, and six chickens. Don’t worry — the chickens stay in the backyard. He has been teaching for slightly less than half of his life, including several years in a blended classroom, but still has not achieved his professional ambition of having his class stand on their desks at the end of the year and say, “Oh captain, my captain.” He currently spends much of his working life writing online courses that he hopes will inspire the younger generation to love literature, language, history, and philosophy.

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