It’s How You Play the Game

I am sure that at some point, we have all heard the phrase, “It doesn’t matter if we win our lose, it’s how we play the game.” As a child, and as a coach, I wasn’t always receptive to the saying, because the reality was that I wanted to win the game. Now that I’m a bit older and wiser, I am starting to see the value of the statement, especially in the educational context of assessment.

On a recent walkabout, I wandered into a classroom and the students were engaged in an examination. Yes I do believe that working on an exam is a form of engagement; not to be overused, but there is a lot to learn from writing an exam. I didn’t stay long as I didn’t want to disturb the class, but the follow-up conversation I had with the teacher was absolutely amazing.

One of the first emotions I sensed from the teacher was a bit of guilt. I had had a previous conversation with the same teacher about designing assessments. We talked about the reality that we need to build better assessments that are a better reflection of student learning. The focus of the conversation was on the building of “new”, but we unfortunately didn’t have a chance to affirm the reality that many of the assessments that currently has and uses are really quite good. I don’t want my teachers to ever feel guilty for what they do in their classes, I have an amazing staff and I have the utmost trust in their professional practice.

The conversation did get me thinking of that old phrase, but in a new context. It’s not so much what we use to assess, but it’s how we play the assessment game. We too often focus on assessment the noun (the actual test), and not as much on assessment the verb (what is happening before, during, and after the assessment). Students have a lot of trouble looking past the immediate task at hand. When I walk into classrooms, I always ask the question, “Whatcha doin’?” More often than not, the answer is around the noun, or the task. I’m writing a quiz, doing a lab, writing a report, reading a play, writing a poem. After a bit of probing, the students will start talking about the learning outcomes the tasks are designed to meet, but it definitely doesn’t come naturally. Are tests any different? How many students just see a test as a noun, something I do today, and get a mark on tomorrow?

Our conversation shifted to how we can breath new life into an old document. Do we need to necessarily change the document or change how we use the document? What kinds of things can we do before and after an exam (the noun) to make the process of assessment more meaningful to the students (the verb)? What can we do prior to the exam to link all of those previous tasks back to the learning outcomes? How can we use those experiences to prepare for the exam in new and novel ways? After the exam, how can we use the exam as a productive tool to move learning forward? How can we get students to look past the mark and truly reflect on learning? What questions can we ask students about their performance to link the exam back to the learning outcomes? Can we facilitate conversations between students on the same topic?

If we just look at the exam as a task to generate a mark, it will ultimately become about winning and losing both for our students and ourselves. If we embrace the intended process around that task, before, during, and after, it will become about how we play the game. We ended our conversation agreeing that it’s not a bad thing to have students write an exam (even some of those “old faithfuls”), so long as we don’t treat them as a finite task and event. Assessment needs to be a verb, and as educators we need to ensure that process.

We all have file folders filled to the brim with assessment tasks that we may no longer use because they seem obsolete. Have a look at them, think of the true purpose behind them, and think about how you can breath some new life into them to fulfill the assessment needs of our students.

I would love to hear from people that have come up with novel activities and processes that they do with their students before and after exams. What are you doing to make exams a genuine learning process? Please feel free to leave your stories in the comment section.


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