Three Surefire Ways to Measure Learning

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photo credit: venspired via photopin cc

photo credit: venspired via photopin cc

Four out of five members of my household are currently engaged in extended, structured learning experiences. Otherwise known as school. I have a child in middle school, one in high school, a college sophomore, and my wife is taking a course at the local community college.

Out of the four, one of them, my college son, talks regularly and enthusiastically about the learning that he is experiencing. He describes new knowledge he’s gained, activities he has done, conversations he’s had, and relationships he’s building. Perhaps not so surprisingly, he almost never talks about the grades connected with the classes he’s taking. He is being inspired to learn more and do more to become the music teacher he wants to be.

The other learners in my life, on the other hand, typically talk more about the test that’s coming up, or the test that they just took. The emphasis in their worlds is on studying just enough to survive the test event. My wife has even said that right after the test is over, she forgets a significant portion of what she studied to pass the multiple-guess exam.

Clearly there’s a disconnect here. But if we’re going to know whether learning has happened, we need to measure it, don’t we? As professional educators, we can’t just assume. That would be irresponsible. So I offer here three surefire ways to measure learning in students.

Collect Meaningful Artifacts

Just as an archaeologist understands other cultures by the artifacts left behind, a teacher should learn about her students from the stuff they produce during the learning experience. Emphasis on during. It is the change over time that tells the story, not the end result. Watch how your students’ writing changes from their first attempt to the final result. Look at how a problem solver attacks things differently from the first problem to the last.

It’s equally important for the artifacts to be meaningful. If your “artifacts” are simply a stack of mindless drill-and-skill worksheets and multiple choice tests, you completely lose the value of the timeline. Collect things that are richly connected to the learning you want to measure. Or better yet, let the kids pick the things they want to use as artifacts. Which leads us to our next surefire way to measure learning…

Ask the Learners

Who better to tell you how much has been learned than the ones who did the learning. My wife has a really solid grasp of how much (or how little) she actually learned despite the test grades she has. When I was a classroom teacher, my students could reliably explain to me what they learned that was new and how they understood things better than they could before we started.

In fact, I’d argue that a student who can’t tell you whether they learned anything, or explain how they’ve grown in their understanding, probably hasn’t learned much of anything, even if there are test grades to the contrary. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Spend more time having conversations with your students. Talk to them about their learning. Tell them what you’re seeing and ask them for their feedback and reflection. You will probably learn more in a 5 minute conversation than you would from a 50-minute exam.

You may have noticed that neither of the measuring tools so far have resulted in anything resembling a score or a grade. That’s intentional, because the third surefire way to measure learning is to…

Quit Trying to Measure Learning!

So perhaps my original title was a bit misleading. Okay, a lot misleading. But I honestly believe the best way to measure learning is to stop trying to measure it. Or more specifically, trying to quantify it. As soon as you attach a score or grade to learning, the value to the learner shifts away from what is learned to what is earned.

My wife will likely end up with an A in the course she is taking, but how much understanding does that represent? How much of the content will she still be able to use in a meaningful way afterwards? Based on what she’s told me so far, not much. And that is no reflection of her ability as a learner either.

Two of my sons frequently tell me that what they’re studying in school is stuff they already knew. They get A’s on all their tests. What learning does that represent? None: they already knew it before the class started. But they got their A. (For a different angle on this, see this excellent post by Krissy Venosdale, who also happens to be the creator of the photo at the top of this post.)

As I sat through presentations at Back to School night the other day, a pattern emerged. Nearly every teacher had some variation of the following in their grading policy: “Late work is accepted, but only within a certain period of time (1-5 days, depending on the course), and 50% of the grade is deducted.” What’s the message here? That half of the value of the work my child does is tied not to what they learned while doing it, but how compliant they were with an arbitrary deadline. Or in other words, it’s better to do shoddy work on time (earning, say, a 65%) than to do excellent work a day late (getting you a 50%).

To get students focused back on learning instead of earning, stop quantifying it. Instead, have conversations about meaningful artifacts with the students who are creating them, and build a deep understanding of who they are as learners before, during, and after the learning.

Harder? Sure, but it’s a surefire way to know what they’ve really learned. What other ways do you measure learning without quantifying it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Gerald Aungst

Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Math at School District of Cheltenham Township
Gerald Aungst has more than 20 years experience as a professional educator, specializing in digital technology, mathematics, and gifted education. In his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, he has worked to create a rich and vibrant learning culture. He is also passionate about improving learning opportunities for all students. Gerald is a founder of and
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