Make Assessments Fun with these Four Tips

7 Min Read  •  Alternative Assessments

The first day of school! Do you remember your “first” days? The fall air as you head to the bus, the crispness of new clothes and book bags. School supplies still in the wrapping, seeing your friends again and sitting in a new classroom surrounded by the newness and excitement!

I vividly remember organizing my desk or locker, discussing the summer, and looking around a newly decorated classroom with anticipation of what was to come. Okay, maybe that doesn’t describe all of us, but as a young girl in the midwest, that was me. I remember how my teachers made me feel those first days, welcome, happy and excited that I was there. A part of something more than simply an establishment of learning. 

I do not remember worrying about the rigor of testing, or how I would keep up with the demands of the year in front of me. Even in high school, my teachers had a smile that made me feel part of a ‘home away from home’. I guess I was fortunate to always have teachers who were as excited to be there as I was. Doesn’t this sound like the perfect way to start a school year? 

Meeting Students Where They Are

Our students come from many diverse backgrounds and experiences after our hybrid of learning last year. As educators, we need to find their current level of understanding in order to structure our year. I know what you are thinking!  The thought of testing students as they walk into the classroom will cause anxiety for not only students, but teachers as well! So how do we find our new student’s current level of understanding without beginning diagnostic tests? We know assessments identify strengths and weaknesses and guide our teaching. They provide the data to create learning objectives for the year! Is it possible to assess our students without them knowing? How do we keep the joy and excitement of the “first days” yet still accomplish our assessment goals? How do we make assessments not so… assessment-y? Keep the following tips in mind to make assessments fun.

Assessments are Necessary

A word most of us dread at the beginning of a school year.

The connection between teaching and testing. Yes, it is needed and valuable! But how do we find that starting point?  Learning occurs from doing, right? We need to find those activities that are engaging yet still provide the data collection we need to guide learning. Activities that make our students feel the same way I did as a child, welcomed and joyful! The arts have been flagged over and over as an integral part of learning. In fact, the first system of memory is sensory. Information absorbed via touch, sight, sound, smell, or taste at that moment. Arts Integrated strategies are just that. A perfect tool for diagnostic assessment strategies with active engagement to guide learning and allow students to “show” their current level of understanding, without the ritual paper and pencil monotony.

Keep It Simple

Remember, many students have not entered a classroom in the last 18 months. Your students will have various learning styles, and since you really do not know what they are, keeping them engaged through activities that are challenging yet achievable is key. We do not want students to feel overwhelmed, especially at the start of a school year. Early diagnostic assessments should try to address various access points of learning. Once you find what motivates each child and the class, you can monitor and modify your teaching. You then will be able to successfully address the standards with the interest of the students to create meaningful lessons.

A great deal of a student’s current level of understanding can be established through actions. Students may answer questions using simple laminated cards, hand signals or gestures.  Allowing students to draw, doodle or create small structures allows you to see attention to details and familiarity on a concept. Stations and group work allow students to discuss, clarify, problem-solve, and connect with one another. All of these small assessments allow you to find your classroom’s starting point without  paper and pencil. You can collect the pre-assessment data you need as you simultaneously establish an environment of community and comfort.

Everyone Makes Mistakes

Making mistakes is how we learn, how we improve, and how we understand application of knowledge. Using arts integrated strategies for your assessment needs will build the foundation for your students to take risks in small ways that you can further develop later in the classroom. In an article by Dr. Amy L. Eva, she discusses the fear of failure and it’s direct link to self-worth. The article discusses student acceptance of their errors and failures, particularly in school, so they might later translate these skills into the real world. She discusses 38 different studies of resilience in response to errors, mistakes, and stresses efforts teachers should make to focus on skills and strategies of resilience to develop self worth in the classroom.

Strategies you establish from the beginning will allow your students to feel safe when making mistakes. Through active engagement,individually or in small or large groups, students develop a sense of worth in the design process. That continuous cycle of creating, testing, and revising allows students to take ownership of their own work, as we work to foster a culture of failure as a part of improvement and success. 

In David Donahue and Jennifer Stuart’s book “Artful Teaching”, they discuss Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs. Students need to feel safe before they will “successfully engage in problem solving and critical thinking”. Arts integrated approaches and strategies set the stage for creating opportunities for student understanding and the development of confidence. If you begin with small Arts Integrated activities now, during this pre-assessment stage, you will create a place for where students will  develop confidence, positive attitudes in engagement, application of skills and exploration for the remainder of the year and the future, in and out of school (pp.112-113). 

Collect the Data

As you begin engaging students, make sure you have an easy method to record your data. Many times, we as teachers become so involved in watching our students interact and learn. We want to be in the moment with them and forget to monitor our data collection. If you are like me, you may want to consider video recording your classes or have a friend come to help you record the data so you don’t miss out on this important process. The more you record, the better you can emphasize the concepts that need further understanding, and develop strong learning objectives that will engage all learners.

Now that you have completed your initial activities and identified strengths and weaknesses of each student and the class, you may want to include pre and post data tracking sheets so you may visually see the progress made over time. When reflecting on data, you might even provide students with self assessment and/or goal setting to promote ownership of learning and progress so they may tangibly see progress from the start.  Creating student action plans from initial data will also help students develop a growth mindset for the year.

Strategies to Make Assessments Fun

If you’re a member of our Accelerator program, be sure to check out this month’s workshop where I dive into more detail and provide 20 assessments you can use in your classroom that provide you with the assessment data you need, with little to no prep time. In the Accelerator, you will also find over 300 amazing arts integrated lessons and hundreds of resources. These activities will not only set up your classroom for success, but allow students to build a community and connections through engagement. If you’re not a member of the Accelerator, no worries – there are plenty of articles from over the years that focus on assessments.

As we begin the 2021-22 school year, we have the ability to embrace a positive, active and engaging classroom. We can make a true difference by fostering and encouraging open doors of communication and relationship-building between our students and our school community. Enjoy getting to know your students, their background, family, passions. If you make assessments fun, they won’t even realize what’s going on! And through arts integration, students apply what they know to create something new and have the courage, confidence and critical thinking skills to do so! Keep the joy, excitement and awe in your classrooms. I wish you all the best as we embark on a new year of excitement and learning!