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Boost Student Engagement With “Show What You Know” Assessments

EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts in collaboration with Stenhouse Publishers. The following excerpt comes from Learning in Safe Schools: Creating classrooms where all students belong, Second Edition, by Faye Brownlie and Judith King (Pembroke Publishers, 2011; distributed in the U.S. by Stenhouse Publishers). The book retails for $22 ($19.99 e-book) and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.

This article offers three examples of the “Show What You Know” approach to assessing student learning outcomes in the inclusive classroom. See Try These Curriculum Adaptations and Modifications and Creating an Inclusive Classroom: 7 Key Strategies for additional excerpts from Learning in Safe Schools.

In language arts and in English, students need to continue to improve their ability to communicate through writing. However, in other content areas students are encouraged to show what they know in a variety of ways and to learn what works best for them. As long as the student can communicate knowledge of the learning outcomes in some way, he or she will be successful in the class. Read below for what this approach looks like in three different classrooms.

Building Engagement

David Hird teaches Grade 7 in a middle school. He got excited about the idea of Show What You Know several years ago and has never turned back. He says the difference in his teaching now is remarkable. David has always worked hard to create fun and exciting assignments for his students and, because his students liked him, they complied. He has said that what he didn’t understand was that some of the students really didn’t like the assignments. Since he began to incorporate choice, he has noticed in his students much more enthusiasm about learning, deeper engagement in the tasks, fun in doing classroom work, and a whole new depth of learning.

David describes how surprised he is with the new level of engagement. During an archeological unit, he described to the students six different ways they could show him their understanding of the role of the archeologist: write a song, write a poem, write a journal from the point of view of the archeologist, draw a picture that shows the role in detail, write an essay, or conduct an interview. If students had other ideas, David was open to their proposals. What surprised him was that a number of students asked if they could do multiple assignments. David found that, rather than negotiating the assignments down (not wanting to do the whole assignment or trying to make it easier), the students were now negotiating up. They wanted to try them all! David has found that the students are not only engaged in the task, they are putting in more effort and more time because they are enjoying the learning.

About Stenhouse Publishers

Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science, social studies, the arts, and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics, including classroom management, assessment, and differentiation.

Building Community

David Kupec strives to build a student-centered classroom climate that supports, connects, engages, and challenges a diverse body of students. He works to build trust, connectivity, and choice. Without trust, students will not take the risks they need to take to learn. David does many things to build trust in the classroom. He builds strong relationships with each student, and he has found that, when students are given options to represent their learning and begin to be successful, trust and respect grow.

Community is built through the connections with him as the teacher and with each other, as they struggle together to support, guide, and develop each other’s ideas. David has noticed that learning in this way builds confidence, pride, and a sense of personalized academic hope within each of the students.

In David’s classes, both at secondary and middle school, he finds that the Show What You Know practice unites his students: “Students discover the eclectic nature of the classroom population. They see that each one of them can effectively learn, create, and show their knowledge of topical units in individualistic, powerful, and engaging ways.” The students begin to see the talents of other students. When this happens, they are drawn to working with students they may never have spent time with previously. Sometimes they choose to work with someone to learn something new from them, other times it’s because they have found they have a shared interest. No matter, each time it happens the classroom community becomes stronger.

Building Academic Confidence

Erica Foote teaches English, communications, and social studies in a secondary school. Her communications class is populated with students who feel they are not good at school in general and at English in particular. Erica has worked hard to show these students that they can learn and that many of them learn differently. She uses interesting teaching techniques — including the use of such technology as cell phones, video, and comic-creation tools — to garner their commitment to the class.

What Erica has seen is that success breeds success. As part of the communications class, her students create comics from their reading of The Iliad by Homer. Because they work on this project in groups, she asks them to commit to being there every day so that they don’t let their group down. The students dress up in role, take digital pictures of themselves acting out the plot, then add words and create a comic book of the play.

The students realize they actually understand a complex play and can easily summarize it for others. Erica finds that many of these students have talents that simply have not been accessed in their classrooms. The very first time she offered the students a choice in how to summarize a short story they had read, one student, who had never written a word in class, wrote a poem. He met all the criteria and received a higher mark than he had ever received in school. This same student asked her what the next assignment was going to be, as he wanted to get a head start on it.

In Erica’s class, as in other classes that are using students’ strengths, teachers are hearing comments that question students’ new conceptions of themselves and their learning: “I got an 80! I don’t get 80s, I am a 50.” “You must be marking easy ’cause I don’t get marks like this.” As teachers show the students that they have indeed met the criteria of the task, the students start to see that they actually do know the material. It is through these experiences that academic confidence begins to grow. This confidence can also spread to other classes. It is not uncommon for students to ask other teachers in the secondary school questions like “Can I show you what I know in a different way?” “Can I do a rap instead of a paragraph?” “Could I draw the answer instead of writing this essay?” These students are feeling empowered. They are beginning to understand their own personal strengths, and they know that they should not always have to use writing to communicate their knowledge.


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