By Maya Crosby
It’s midterm week at Allendale Columbia School, but around here you will see a different kind of test. End-of-semester exams measure Upper School science students’ understanding of concepts through more authentic, challenge-based assessments.
In Analytical Chemistry, a required science course, students take part of their exam in the lab, discovering the identity of an unknown. They answer questions about each reaction, focusing on “why did this reaction occur” and “what does it mean?”. In Forensics, they take on a case-based challenge, trying to understand the nature of a crime using clues provided to them and the tools in the lab. Using this kind of assessment requires much more work on the part of faculty than a traditional multiple-choice exam. However, it’s worth the extra effort in terms of the quality of the learning that the students can demonstrate and the lasting understanding that a student takes with them after the course.
Faculty member Travis Godkin explains why the science faculty designed this kind of exam for chemistry students. “We created an exam that also included a lab portion so that we could assess student skills in the lab as well as their ability to interpret data. Since the data is student-generated, it may not be perfect, so students need to figure out how it relates to their knowledge of the topic. We really think this is a realistic task, as scientists often need to parse conflicting data to come up with the best interpretation of their own work. While we are still assessing student understanding in more typical modes, this additional part really allows us to assess students’ critical thinking skills as well as their ability to communicate their conclusions in writing.”
Application of skills learned in a course is an important part of learning for students, and measuring this understanding is difficult to do in a traditional assessment. Faculty member Kelsey Lisi explains, “This type of testing allows us to gauge not only their understanding of the topics covered in the classroom but also the ability to apply the topics to a laboratory environment. Additionally, it allows students the opportunity to show their strengths in various areas. For our hands-on learners, the laboratory environment provides a place where they truly become engaged and interested in the sciences. By including this on the exam, we are showing them that these skills are also valued.”
Challenge-based assessments like these better match our experiential learning model in which the process is valued as much as the solution. They’re authentic in that they are similar to how actual scientists approach their work. They ask students to use higher-order thinking skills such as creativity, synthesis, and reflection rather than lower-order skills such as reproducing knowledge as memorized. Memorizing information can be useful, but we believe true value comes in mastering strategies for learning that extend beyond the subject area and into the real-world applications of that knowledge.
Maya CrosbyMaya earned her Bachelor of Science Degree at the University of Rochester, where she studied science and communications, and then worked in biotech and scientific publishing. While at the University of Maine for a Master of Science degree in marine microbiology, she loved being a teaching fellow so much that she shifted her focus to fostering science education and experiences for all students. After several years of teaching science, computer science, and technology, she became the Director of Innovation and Technology at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle, Maine. She also brings experience as a Developmental Biology and Microbiology Instructor at Bowdoin College, an Education Coordinator at the Gulf of Maine Foundation, a Science Editor for Blackwell Science, and a Research Technician for ImmuLogic Pharmaceuticals.
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