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March 15, 2021

Three Alternative Approaches to Effective Testing

Popular culture often presents school assessment in the narrowest possible fashion. Based on what we see in films and television, it would seem that assessment in schools is restricted to a narrow range of tests: How often do we watch students in fictional classes being told they have a pop quiz tomorrow or see them practicing fill-in-the-bubble SAT questions?

This might be a stereotype of teacher practice, but it speaks to a deeper issue that teachers face: It can be difficult to see the full range of options open to us when we’re trying to find the best way to assess our students.

Testing itself represents just one small subset of assessment practice, but it’s a good example of the broader problem. There are a lot of different ways to use tests to assess your students, but in the hubbub of a busy classroom, it’s easy to default to the same one or two test types and use them in the same old way.

The best way to avoid this trap is having some alternative testing strategies in your toolkit to widen your options.

Here are three practical alternatives that not only help you assess your students’ progress, but help reduce your workload, too.

Confidence Test

Instead of conducting and marking an entire review test, ask your students to go through the test and simply indicate how confident they are that they could correctly answer each question.

This simple strategy is a highly effective way to help students prepare for an upcoming test or exam. First, students find this novel approach engaging. Moreover, it’s a much quicker way to assess student development. A traditional review or revision test can take most of a lesson to complete and hours to correct. By contrast, a “confidence test,” where students give each test question a mark of 1 to 10 as to how confident they are that they can answer it correctly, can be completed in minutes, quickly flagging for both students and teachers where to concentrate their review efforts.

Closed/Open Testing

Ask students to complete a review quiz under standard test conditions using a blue pen.

Then give your students extra time under open-book conditions (they can use notes or reference materials) to review and modify their answers using a red pen. Closed/open tests are often called red/blue tests in elementary schools for this reason.

Closed/Open Tests offer two revealing pieces of data.

  • First, they make it easier to spot student misconceptions. Identifying where students “don’t know that they don’t know” is a core part of effective assessment and this is one of the easiest ways to do this.
  • Second, you learn what students can do with and without assistance. You and your students can then put your efforts into closing this gap. This means you can target where your limited time can make the most impact.

Instant Testing

In an instant test, students are asked to mark their own work for easy-to-recognize indicators of a successful response.

This approach is a quicker and more accessible form of assessment than some kinds of traditional self-marking, where students must have the sophistication to mark their own work using the criteria by which teachers assess it.

For example, the more complicated criterion a teacher would use:

  • Is the response coherently structured?

would, in an instant test, be broken down into more concrete questions:

  • Give yourself one point if your answer is in paragraphs.
  • Give yourself two points if it contains both an introduction and conclusion.

While only an approximation of performance, this is a great tool for giving students quick feedback. Instant tests are easy to conduct, require little teacher marking, and are perfect for both self- and peer review.

I like using them to get students to recognize common flaws in a piece of work:

  • Give yourself two points if you’ve shown your working out of every problem.
  • Give your partner one point if he or she has used footnotes.
  • Give yourself three points if your topic sentence refers to an idea, not an event.

It’s a mark of the effectiveness of this technique that, having assessed their own work, students will often start revising it without their teacher.

Of course, there are dozens of other alternative test types than those featured here. However, having even a few of them in your repertoire can help ensure your assessment practice is varied and effective.

For more ideas and assessment strategies for your teacher toolkit, be sure to check out Teaching Channel‘s Formative Assessment Deep Dive.

What types of alternative assessment do you use in your classroom?


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