No More Final Exams?

Adaptive systems and continuous assessment puts testing to the test.

GUEST COLUMN | by Christina Yu

CREDIT KnewtonTesting today can be anything from a mere bureaucratic hurdle to a nerve-wracking, future-determining experience for students. As computerized adaptive systems enable us to deliver truly continuous assessment, how will testing change? How will we use it to improve educational outcomes? In Disrupting Class, Harvard Business School professor and expert on innovation Clayton Christensen provides an answer: “When students learn through student-centric online technology, testing doesn’t have to be postponed until the end of an

“Misunderstandings do not have to persist for weeks until the exam has been administered and the instructor has had time to grade every student’s test.” 

instructional module and then administered in a batch mode. Rather, we can verify mastery continually to create tight, closed feedback loops. Misunderstandings do not have to persist for weeks until the exam has been administered and the instructor has had time to grade every student’s test.”

1. Clarified purpose of assessment for students

What exactly is the point of testing in the first place? To compare students? To facilitate their passing to another level? To assess their proficiency and award them a corresponding grade? Too often, the social context and negative emotions involved in assessment can get muddled with its purpose — generally to assess student proficiency and document it in some way. How often, for instance, are students allowed to pass, regardless of whether they truly demonstrate proficiency in a subject? And how often are they bored waiting for the next opportunity to level up and tackle new challenges? What percentage of school time is spent around academic anxieties and insecurities — and what percentage is spent actually doing the cognitive work of mastering new concepts, demonstrating mastery of that material, and developing a love of learning?

When assessment becomes continuous, students are given a constant stream of opportunities to prove their mastery. Assessment becomes embedded into the “flow” of learning, and students can demonstrate mastery as quickly as they choose to. The path to actual progress becomes clear and students’ lives become increasingly oriented toward real learning.

2. Mastery-based learning in action

Continuous assessment allows mastery-based learning — a teaching methodology premised on the idea that progress should be based on mastery instead of seat time — to be implemented.

Students who are struggling will not automatically advance before they have a chance to master the material at hand. On the other hand, advanced students can progress through material at their own pace and remain engaged by pursuing more challenging work as they pass out of the basics. In this sense, students cannot be satisfied with their achievements relative to others; they are encouraged to seek their own course and take responsibility for their learning.

3. Increased self-awareness for students

Time and again, we encounter evidence that self-awareness — understanding of how one feels, thinks, and learns (also known as metacognition) — is one of the most significant factors in professional and personal success. Howard Gardner has argued that self-knowledge — “intrapersonal skill” — is one of the eight defining types of intelligence (the others being “linguistic,” “logical-mathematical,” “naturalist,” “bodily-kinesthetic,” “spatial,” “musical,” and “interpersonal”). The more continuously we assess students and provide feedback, the more knowledge they can gain about themselves — what it takes for them to master something, how they can approach problems differently, what their blind spots are, and how to eliminate them.

4. Greater insight into student needs for teachers

One challenge facing schools and administrators today is the growing diversity of the students within their population–and a correspondingly increased diversity of needs to consider. Some struggle because English is not their first language; others have difficulty with focus or organization. Others may be particularly weak in some area but possess unusual strengths in another (which the existing curriculum may not take into account).

As every teacher knows, classroom management is a consummate juggling act. To remain attentive to the needs of all students, teachers must engage the more advanced students while helping the struggling ones catch up. At any given point in a lesson, a teacher must decide whether to move through the material aggressively and add more challenges and twists to the problems presented, or build in more of cushion for those who are confused. Any one of these strategies, including “teaching to the middle,” is bound to leave some students bored or confused.

Blended learning solutions that offer an analytics dashboard supported by continuous assessment give both students and teachers more freedom in this respect: students move through coursework at their own pace and teachers retain control over the classroom while gaining insight into the learning process. A teacher might discover through analytics that a student who is weak with math word problems is struggling because he has difficulty with reading comprehension; that teacher can then coach him through material that improves his grasp of syntax and vocabulary. Another student who understands mathematical concepts but has trouble with carelessness in arithmetic can receive feedback about how to develop stronger estimation abilities or check work once completed.

5. Discovery of the interrelatedness of concepts and subject domains for content creators

Continuous assessment generates a good deal of data around the efficacy of learning content and methodology. When we are able to analyze learning patterns around various concepts in a granular way, teachers, publishers, and administrators can uncover interdisciplinary relationships between subject domains and concepts. We might discover that effective remediation in a subject requires attention to another subject or that the root of common misunderstandings within a subject is something altogether unexpected.

For instance, we might uncover a relationship between quantitative/logical skill and English composition. We might discover that a specific order of teaching subjects (or even concepts) is remarkably effective — that logic and foreign language or fractions and musical harmony should be taught side by side, for example.

Christina Yu is on the marketing team at Knewton. She holds an A.B in English from Dartmouth and an M.F.A in creative writing from Notre Dame. In recent years, her fiction has appeared in various literary journals nationwide and has been nominated and cited for several Best American anthologies. Previously, she worked as a lecturer in English & Literature at Kean University and Southern Connecticut State. She is currently an M.B.A candidate at the NYU Stern School of Business.

One comment

  1. Great post. This is true–scary exams aren’t necessary. We have the technology in place to make assessment fun and continual. Why won’t we use it?

Leave a Reply