Empowering Students: Unleashing Creativity and Choice in Assessments!

  • 2023
  • Middle School
  • Teachers
Jo Metcalfe, Middle School Literacy Teacher

The discussions around assessment in education are ongoing and lengthy. From when and how to assess, the difference between formative and summative assessments plus the purpose of each, all the way through to the core question ‘Do we need to assess at all?’  Quizzes and exams, essays, presentations, contributions to debates and discussions, posters, slideshows, interpretive and creative pieces… so many options to choose from! Traditionally the teacher sets the parameters for assessment, deciding the challenge themselves; however there is an increasing school of thought: what if they didn't? I recently experimented with this with my Grade 7 poetry unit, a topic that gets a groan from many 13 year olds and an excited yelp from a few. 

The course examined: the definition and purpose of poetry, the craft itself and the tools a writer uses to create imagery. Together we deconstructed contemporary pieces whilst sharing some favourite classics too. The students interpreted poems, analysed poems and of course wrote poems and I hope had quite a lot of fun doing so along the way. But as the unit drew closer and closer to the end I struggled with how to quantify what each student had actually learnt? Now I personally have questions about the value of a grade at all but that is for another blog someday. For right now, a single mark to sum up all this learning was something that I needed to be able to give each student for this section of the course and their next Grade Snapshot. 

I tried really hard to name my true intention for the course. Was it to appreciate the craft and be able to articulate how it was created? Was it to explore our reactions to a poem and then to have the tools to work out why, considering the poet's intention as well as our own responses or interpretation? Maybe the students exploring their own creativity using the examples of the techniques others use to develop their own creative output was the most important thing? They needed to be able to showcase their knowledge, understanding and skills but do this in a way that was genuine and real.  All of this seemed so important as well as in places very subjective and personal too. Tricky….

This is what I came up with. I shared 3 different tasks to choose between, each with a defined intention and a marking rubric that set out clear areas for assessment. (For how can we expect people to succeed if they, and the assessor too, are not clear on the criteria for judgement?)  The range of tasks also provided the students with the option of choosing a way to demonstrate their learning that suited their personality, their thinking, and their identity.  What would you choose: Write an essay analysing and interpreting a poem?  Create a piece of art to show your understanding and interpretation of a poem?  Or demonstrate your understanding of poetic devices by crafting a poem of your own? 

The response that I got to this final assessment caught me by surprise. For the first time all year every single piece of work across the whole of Grade 7 was submitted on time and completed with a high level of effort and outcome. Yes! By giving each student ownership of how they were assessed I gained amazing engagement and level of personal response. Each was able to demonstrate their understanding in a way that suited them. And they were enjoying poetry!

Lukas Lindell - ‘Dreams’ by Lawrence Hughes 

Finished?  Not yet!  The next step was for the kids to assess themselves against their rubrics and also award themselves their effort grade - for who was I to say how hard they had worked? They even got the choice over whether to share their work with the group and those who wanted to keep their pieces private had the freedom to do so.  Only after all this had happened did I take a look and give my final feedback and grades.

Malla Eling - ‘The Summer Day’ by Mary Oliver

Now this all took increased time and effort on my behalf to set up but it honestly felt worth it. The enjoyment and achievement levels were far higher than I anticipated when I launched the course way back in December. I am aware that this level of choice isn’t possible, or even appropriate, for all of my units. If the students are studying how to write an argumentative essay for example, a written essay is what they will need to produce. It has definitely confirmed for me however, of the need for us teachers to consider increasingly broad approaches towards summative assessment. Being ever open to the reality that there may be varied ways to enable success other than having a one-size-fits-all class quiz or assignment and basing our judgement of someone's learning on a tick box of knowledge scale.

Brendan Yu - ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen 

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