Using your summary sheet on an exam? I know, I know, it is a big leap… One I still have to explain (read: justify) on the regular. But stick with me for a bit.
If we’d had this discussion in 2012, I would have told you assessment is what comes at the end of a learning sequence. That pedagogical place where I sit with red pen in hand (I say that symbolically… I prefer green or purple, myself) assessing work and determining scores. Maybe we did corrections after but that was kind of it, you know? We’d end that unit of study and move on to the next. Full disclosure: did we continue to embed prior material throughout the year? Yes. Did some of the material serve as a foundation for the next unit? Yes. But my point is that the final assessment at the end of the unit was IT. Like you did well on the Space Science Unit or you didn’t and hopefully, we’d circled back to redress it during the year when we could so you would be successful on that topic on the Regents.
That was then. Over the last several years, I’ve undergone something of a metamorphosis in how I view teaching, learning, and assessment in my classroom. In this case, I underwent a shift from being locked into a teach and assesses pattern to a more holistic view of the learning process. I had to ask myself: what was the goal of my assessment? Traditional me would have told you it was to measure what the students knew about a particular topic at that time and assign a score. New me thinks the assessment is another opportunity for students to apply what they have learned and deepen their understanding. In other words, I began playing the long-game as I embraced the fact that my assessments were actually PART of the learning process and not the END of it.
This idea of what many would call cheating originated with a conversation I had with a student. It had been our practice to annotate our New York State Reference Tables with additional clarifying notes. For example, I would have my students write in “recent, organic” next to Carbon-14 on page 1, “4.6 billion” next to 4600 million on page 8, the list goes on. We would use this annotated ‘Class Copy’ of the Reference Tables during our lessons and labs, and then I’d provide my students with a ‘Clean Copy’ for the assessment. So anyway, I was having a chat with some of the kids after an exam a few years ago and one of my girls said, “Yeah, it was like I didn’t even need the Class Copy for the test. I could just SEE the notes! It felt like cheating!”
Think about it. We’ve all experienced this: If you see something often enough, isn’t it easier to picture in your mind? For example, a golfer can recall the fifth hole of their home course in vivid detail compared to someone who has only played it once or twice. A school bus driver can recall the color and style of each house along with their route when compared to someone whose purpose is less specific (driving to work). Both of these examples relate to how we transfer information and images from our working memory to our long-term memory. Repetition and elaboration influence this.
In this case, the students became so accustomed to seeing and using our additional information, they were able to recall it even when it wasn’t there.
This led me to consider whether using our summary sheets during the actual assessment might lead to lower test anxiety, greater perseverance, improved retention of material, and long-term success with the content. In doing so I considered three factors:
- When faced with a difficult question, would a student be less likely to give up on it if they had access to information that would provide a foundation for answering the question? I hypothesized they would be less likely to give up.
- Would applying the information in a test setting make them more likely to retain and be able to retrieve the information in the future? Based on my reading of the Psychology of Errors in the book Learn Better by Ulrich Boser, I hypothesized if the students were not giving up, and attempting to answer the question, the information would stay with them, even if it was wrong initially. They key was to get them to commit to the answer.
- The assessment must be structured so the information would help students answer questions, not necessarily answer the questions.
As we neared the end of our next unit and began the process of creating summary sheets, I told my students they could use their new sheet on that exam. Let me tell you, these were some of the BEST, most comprehensive, organized, and detailed sheets my kids ever produced! But here’s the funny thing, when the assessment was over, a fair number of my students were disappointed. I was met with multiple comments like, “I put all that work into my summary sheet and I hardly used it!” Cue the students’ pouty faces and my celly.
So what happened? Why did so many of my students not use the summary sheet very much on the exam? Well, through the process of creating the summary sheet (organizing, prioritizing and chunking information, connecting ideas, constructing graphs and diagrams, thinking about their thinking) my students were able to transfer their learning into long-term memory and make their learning “stick”!
The creation of the summary sheet itself was an act of learning and using the information on the assessment further embedded the ideas through their application.
Over the course of the year, this is what I found:
- Students stated they felt more confident and less anxious leading up to and during exams when they could use the summary sheet. Call it the security blanket effect.
- Fewer questions were left blank. This told me the students were not giving up so easily.
- More students demonstrated proficiency or mastery on assessments. This told me students had either learned the information better going into the exam or through the use of the sheet during the exam.
- Further, more students demonstrated proficiency or mastery on exams where they could not use the summary sheets (benchmarks, mid-term and Regents).
Naturally, I have encountered a few questions. The most common being “What if the answer to a question is right on the summary sheet? Where is the thinking there?” It’s a valid question. I believe you counter this by using or constructing questions that require higher order thinking skills.
However, students will be required to answer some questions that are factual (or using Bloom’s Taxonomy, “Remembering”). Here’s an example:
From NYS Regents From a student summary sheet
Personally, I don’t have a problem with this and here’s why: The student either A) already knew the information B) Didn’t know the information or C) Used TTS to eliminate choices and increase the odds of a correct answer. Let’s say it is B. Here, the student could either guess or give up. The summary sheet provides motivation to not give up. And to be honest? I would rather have my student find and solidify that correct information here and increase the chances of it becoming long-term than have them give up and not think about it at all…or again. It is playing the long-game. And I guess this is the heart of my shift:
When I moved from viewing assessment as the endpoint to using assessment as deliberate practice student outcomes improved.
Assessment at the end of a learning cycle should not signify the end of learning on that topic. When we view the assessment as another opportunity to enhance, embed, and continue the learning we open up opportunities for our students.
Thanks for reading through this long post. I look forward to your comments and questions! Even if you never change a thing and think I am completely wrong, maybe this post made you stop for a moment and examine your own practice. I am a believer that having a deep and clear understanding of why we do what we do in our classrooms and being able to articulate that is paramount for reflective practitioners. I look forward to continuing this conversation in my next post called Letting Go & Taking Control: Re-Takes.
Some reading that influenced this post:
Picture Memory Improves with Longer On Time and Off Time, Tversky & Sherman, 1975
The Effects of Exposure Time on Memory of Display Advertisements, Goldstein, McAfee, Suri, 2011
Expectancy of an open-book test decreases performance on a delayed closed-book test Pooja K. Agarwal and Henry L. Roediger III
Brown, Peter C. (2014). Make it Stick: the science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,
Boser, Ulrich (2017). Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, Or, How to Become an Expert in Just about Anything. Rodale Books