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Digging Beneath the Surface of Assessment
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in the Education World Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Brenda Dyck reflects on a recent study that she tried to mimic with her own students. The study used students' drawings of themselves in test-taking situations to gather information about how the students feel about math, tests, and themselves. Dyck has collected the data, but the most important question remains: How will she use this information to create positive math experiences for her students? Included: Tips for creating a classroom climate of care and respect.


Updating my education paradigm has kept me hopping! Just when I am confident that I am certain about what I know, someone challenges my thinking. This time it happened in math class.

One thing I've always liked about teaching math is the concrete nature of the subject. There are definite skills to teach, tests to give, and quantitative test results to record. Equipped with this cognitive data, I am usually confident that I have an accurate handle on the learning profile of each of my students. This overconfidence lasted until I read the investigative article What Can Student Drawings Tell Us About High-Stakes Testing in Massachusetts?, by Anne Wheelock, Damian Bebell, and Walt Haney.

Student artwork provides information about students' math anxiety and themselves. (Photo courtesy of Brenda Dyck)


The premise of Wheelock's study was that anxiety can interfere with student learning. The study used a drawing activity as the jumping-off point to access students' affective learning -- their feelings, emotions, and perceptions related to high-stakes testing. Students in grades 4, 8, and 10 were asked to draw themselves in a test-taking situation. Teachers then applied a coding scheme and analyzed the content of the drawings. They were looking for reactions to test content, format, length, and difficulty. Indicators of feeling, emotions, or hints to how students viewed themselves as mathematical learners were observed as well.

Most educators are aware that math anxiety is alive and well in the classroom. My own mathematical learning was full of stress and embarrassment. As a math teacher, I am very cognizant that many students enter my class each year dragging a great deal of mathematical baggage. Aware that fear and anxiety can short circuit learning, I decided to replicate the drawing activity documented in Wheelock's study. My objective was to observe the affective side of learning so I could add an enhanced dimension of accuracy and depth to my math students' learning profiles.

My students' artwork provided a diverse view of their experiences in mathematical testing settings. Every picture told a story. Some interesting elements jumped out of their test-taking art.

  • I saw a wide variety of body postures -- I saw students sitting up straight and confident, sprawling desperately across the top of the desk in a face-plant position, jumping for joy, with sagging shoulders, and sitting passively with hands folded.
  • I observed an assortment of facial expressions -- I saw a look of glee, a furrowed brow, a smug look, rolling eyes, and perplexed, pained, or spacey expressions.
  • Many students included thought bubbles in the drawings. The test-taking thoughts included "That was easy!" "What is 39 X 24?! Oh waitit is 930noit is 936!" "Think, think, think! How much time do I have left??" "I hope I do good!" and "Help!"
  • I spotted an abundance of question marks on student artwork. One girl completely covered the background of her page with question marks.
  • A number of students placed a clock in a prominent place in their pictures.
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The first step in any assessment process is gathering cognitive data -- but the art activity was only the first step toward building student learning profiles. The next, equally important, step is to take the time to explore the significance of emotions and feelings that students bring to their learning. Where should I go from here? That is the question that should be asked at the end of any assessment process. What changes could be made in my classroom climate that will take into consideration the stresses expressed in my students' pictures? Dealing with those questions may be just as important as how I teach the curriculum skills.


Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.