Skip to content

This post is a follow up to the one I published last week about planning an in-class assessment of what students had learned so far this semester. We are about at the half-way mark, so it seemed to be a good time to do it.

I had six total topics, and six groups of four students. They had to come up with a question based on one of the topics the course has covered so far.

Hiccup #1. Some of their questions were really mundane or way too specific. So, I had to help them develop more nuanced questions about the material to allow answers to dig more deeply into examples.

Then I gave two of the six questions, randomly, to each group. Of course some of them said, "Can we answer our own question?" Um. No. They had to come up with a presentation for their question, and two groups answered/presented per question.

Hiccup #2. Some made Powerpoint presentations and we had email and a Blackboard meltdown last week so I was scrambling a bit to project the PPTs in the class. But we managed. But it was a lot to manage.

Each group that had developed the question had to assess which group answered better and why. I think this was the best part, and one that I came up with on the fly. If they are going to be responsible for their own learning, then they have to be responsible for assessing who answers better. I'd like to try something else on this in the future. Those who answered the best will get an extra point (or something) in the Reacting to the Past game we play later in the semester. By and large, I agreed with their assessment of which groups answered better. I was keeping notes.

Then, each student had to answer individually the remaining three questions and turn them in the next class. I just reviewed them and there were some great answers, and some not great answers. Some confusion, and some real understanding.

I had hoped that they would all answer everything correctly and it would show me that my commitment to active learning was giving even better results than traditional lecture-only based instruction. I can't go that far. However, I do think they are learning at least as much when I used to teach this course more traditionally. And I gave this assessment as a surprise. In the future I may try to find ways to circle back to what they are learning more often - not just with the last five minutes "What did you learn today?" reflections, but something to connect concepts more holistically. Because some of them were not doing that.

What are other ways that you can assess the learning in an active classroom without relying on traditional memorization exams? How can you "get at" the overall learning that is taking place over the course of the semester, and not just class-by-class assessment? And how can we see if and how they are managing to make sense of the course as a whole?


I have been vexed all weekend by a class that I don't think is remembering enough of what I have been teaching them. I was frustrated in class on Thursday when many of them could not recall basic concepts that we had covered previously. And when we had in-class exercises to explore the concepts, it appeared that they had learned it, at least at that immediate point in time. But later, recall was not happening. I do not have high-stakes exams, because I don't believe that the students will remember very much after an exercise that is about memorization for a one-time event. If they just memorize and forget, what is the point?

Tonight I started Ira Zepp's book, Pedagogy of the Heart: A Teacher's Credo. I read about 10 pages of it, but it already zapped me like lightening. He said something in the book about not wanting to teach in a way that "lords it over the students," like he possesses all the knowledge that they lack and that students should feel lucky to get. I don't want that kind of classroom. I want students to feel empowered, even as they learn new things, because right now, no: they do not know much about medieval art. They are there to learn.

I pondered this all weekend: how to come up with a way to assess my students' learning in the 30-person Medieval Art course without a high-stakes test all while keeping to my principles and commitment to active learning. I finally came up with the answer (for now):

They will decide what they should know.

I will have students sitting at tables of four in this class. There are seven tables (plus two chairs). Each table will be assigned a topic that we have covered so far in the course. They will develop a question for the other tables, possibly including an image or images to accompany their question. They will share the questions and the tables will all have to answer the different questions. I want them to do the grading/assessment, too, so I am trying to figure out if I can have every table answer each question, and have the question creators also assess the answers, all in the 90 minute time-frame. We'll see.

Ira Zepp left us in 2009. He is a legend on The Hill, at McDaniel College where he taught for many years. In 2015 I was awarded our college's highest honor: the Ira Zepp Distinguished Teaching Award. The more I learn about the man in whose name the award is bestowed, the more I want to do him proud, and be the kind of teacher he would want me to be.

I want to give my students the power: the power of being in charge of their own learning and their own education. It's a pedagogy of the heart, after all.