This guest post is written by Kara Hageman, a PhD student in Educational Psychology at the University of Iowa and former high school science teacher. She blogs at www.spiralingassessment.com. Kara can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @hageman97
A poem is learned by heart and then not again repeated. We will suppose that after a half year it has been forgotten: no effort of recollection is able to call it back again into consciousness (Hermann Ebbinghaus, 1885, p. 8).
In my classroom, I regularly applied research-based strategies for teaching science and incorporated inquiry into my lessons. Students designed experiments and collaborated about the results. They wrote extensive lab-reports with content-related analyses. They were engaged daily in the learner-centered environment I worked so hard to create. However, the students’ test scores were often lower than expected. Even with the use of best practices, information in their minds seemed to get sucked into a cerebral black hole. Why were the students underperforming on tests when the class format fostered learning? Why could they not articulate the foundational concepts required for higher-order thinking? Had they failed at encoding the information, or was there a retrieval problem? Maybe, the problem was not with the students at all.
The use of tests in the classroom declined among my peers throughout my teaching career. The negative connotation associated with testing along with poor student performance affected their willingness to use exams as an assessment method. I struggled with eliminating exams in college-prep classes. Preparing students for the future and what they could encounter in their post-high school education weighed heavily on my conscience. Perhaps there was another option, one that was more aligned with how students learn. Conceivably, there had to be a way to minimize the disconnect between success in the classroom and on tests.
Prior to the third trimester of my eighth year teaching, I created a novel testing method called SPARK (Spiraling Assessment to Reinforce Knowledge) that addresses many of these concerns. The method follows a weekly testing format but adds a comprehensive component with a unique spiraling design. It is a complete overhaul of conventional testing. The format of the tests include questions categorized according to revisions of the cognitive process dimension from Bloom’s taxonomy as shown in Figure 1 (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). New content learned is assessed weekly by low-level, knowledge-based questions. At the same time, students are tested over previously taught material with more cognitively demanding items. Throughout a course, the assessments evolve from recalling facts and concepts to making judgments and combining information in different ways. The tests are typically taken on the same day every week and are returned to the students during the next regularly scheduled class. The teacher can adjust lesson plans based on student performance, questions, or misconceptions.
When I first explained the testing method to my students, they were apprehensive. It was a drastic change from the first two trimesters. I used relevant examples to help them understand the importance of the cumulative and comprehensive format. I discussed how it would be unheard of to practice free-throws in the first week of basketball season and then not again until the day before the championship game. Or how absurd it would be to only run short-distance sprints in preparation for a marathon. In reality, basketball players practice dribbling, shooting, and passing continuously throughout the season. They typically have weekly games that challenge their abilities and require a synthesis of fundamental skills and complex strategies. A marathon runner follows a specific training program that involves short and long distance running. These examples helped the students understand the potential effects the revised testing method could have on their learning.
Consider an example from Mr. Gregory’s high school chemistry class. He teaches a year of chemistry in two semesters. He changes nothing related to pedagogy, but implements SPARK as his primary means of assessment. He starts the year as he usually does, by performing a few impressive demonstrations on lab safety, sharing classroom rules, and starting his first lesson on the nature of science. Mr. Gregory gives the first test on the first Thursday of the term and includes approximately two remember questions (Figure 2). These are simple questions designed to highlight foundational concepts learned that week. The lesson plans stop only for the few minutes it takes to complete the two-question test. Mr. Gregory proceeds with his regularly planned lesson introducing atoms. When grading the tests, he notes that many students missed the question related to theories and laws. He provides feedback from the test in class the next day and talks with a few individuals that seem especially puzzled. He chooses to tweak his plans to address the students’ misunderstandings. He adds an atomic theory timeline activity so the students can further explore theory development. The students continue learning about atomic structure until the second test. This test is given on the same day of the week as the first test and it includes two remember questions about the nature of science and two remember questions about atoms. He reiterates to the students that knowing the information in these questions is imperative for developing in-depth understanding in chemistry.
Mr. Gregory repeats the grading and feedback process. This time, he identifies the students that he thinks need additional practice and/or help. He questions them during the lab that week and works to resolve their mistakes. Additionally, several students visit him during his office hours with questions. He resumes the unit on atoms with a discussion of the periodic table. The students conduct an experiment related to periodic table trends and share their findings with peers. On the third test, there are two understand questions about the nature of science, two remember questions on atomic structure, and two remember questions on the periodic table. The same post-test process ensues, resulting in the formation of small study groups and the availability of additional online resources. Notice that Mr. Gregory decided it was appropriate to move the nature of science questions up the cognitive hierarchy, changing them from remember to understand level questions. In week four, the format is even more apparent with the addition of a new topic. This customizable spiral design continues throughout the semester until the comprehensive final. By the end of the term, Mr. Gregory’s students answer questions at the top of the hierarchy (evaluate and create) for many of the topics learned in class.
This is just one example of how SPARK can be used in the classroom to enhance the learning experience. The specific format (i.e. number of items, item-type, grading, etc.) of the tests are customizable based on the instructor, course needs, and student progress. Some teachers adopt a bi-weekly format, whereas others maintain the weekly structure but they reduce the number of questions as students reach the top of the hierarchy. The method can also be used in any discipline. The cumulative and comprehensive nature of the tests align well with courses like science and math, however, versions of the method are used in foreign language and language arts. SPARK is applicable for teachers that use standards-based grading in their classroom. The method allows the teacher to drop low scores on previously tested material once a student reaches the desired level of proficiency.
Since the conception of this testing method, I have researched extensively on the use of classroom assessments as learning tools. Many teachers still view tests as being separate from teaching and learning, which sheds some light on the disconnect mentioned earlier. A growing body of research, however, suggests tests themselves are learning events that can enrich and alter memory (Halamish & Bjork, 2011). The effect of testing on mental processes is different from that of studying, which may have a beneficial impact on learning. The frequency of tests may also contribute to learning. Tests given more often can help students focus their attention on what is important. They can repeatedly practice and link what they have learned. They have more opportunities to review and to address misconceptions. Together with timely and constructive feedback following a test, students can potentially persevere in ways not possible given fewer or no tests. Discovering the benefits of classroom assessment has the potential to impact learning in remarkable ways. Perhaps, the SPARK testing method is one tool that can provide evidence of these benefits and contribute to student success.