Wednesday, July 11, 2012

How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom

How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom by Susan M. Broookhart describes methods for evaluating thinking skills. After defining what she means by higher order thinking skills (see the prior post), she delves into evaluating skills both formatively and summatively. Because of the information density, the text is not an easy read. It is loaded with examples at all grade levels and across the entire curriculum. Many of the examples are pulled from national tests, especially NEAP. She also dropped in teacher developed examples to round out the offerings. Rubrics and criteria accompany each example to demonstrate how a teacher can assess student work.

Many points stuck out as important reminders about higher order thinking. First, in order to be a higher order activity, it must involve some novelty. New material to think about, a request to do something in a novel way, integrating two or more things that were discussed are all examples. Paraphrasing a wikispaces entry about a deeper issue is not higher order thinking. Doing the hard work of thinking is required. Students must for example "do the analysis themselves" (p. 47). One very interesting point that the author makes is that multiple choice questions can assess higher order thinking. To use such questions formatively, students need to explain why they chose the answer selected.

Thinking level gets more complex as students need to incorporate more pieces of information and more complicated relationships among them (p. 42). Developing relationships between what is known in memory and new information is higher order thinking. Students need to develop strategies to complete these tasks, practice the strategies and internalize them so that they can independently and automatically select appropriate tools to help them. Teachers can assess the appropriateness of the selected strategy through formative assessments prior to the end point of a project. To take advantage of formative assessment, the teacher needs to provide feedback and instruction throughout the learning task. Focusing feedback on formative exercises allows learning and skill development.

Rubrics abound throughout the text. They "describe qualities rather than count things" (p.36). It is not enough to simply list three ways things are similar, students must clearly and fully explain their reasoning. Another key aspect about assessing student work is that we need to assess thinking skills, not the product neatness, colorfulness or standards of written English. If we want to use a single task to assess both writing skills and thinking skills, there should be two grades. One pitfall that many teachers fall into is the assessment of creativity. Without defining creativity, students do not know what we mean. Brookhart's definition of creativity is "putting things together in new ways..., observing things others might miss, constructing something novel, using unusual or unconventional imagery that nevertheless works to make an interesting point, and the like" (p. 124). Creativity is not colorfulness, using beautiful pictures from a high end color printer, exact and straight lines, and neatness. If that is what a teacher wants to assess on a project, identify it as such. Do not, however, fall into the trap of making prettiness a significant piece of the grade. Content and thinking should be what the grade is about.

The generic rubric on pages 80-1 demonstrates how to assess content, reasoning and evidence and clarity of written expression to evaluate a written project. The author emphasises how important it is to identify criteria for feedback prior to assigning a task. If a teacher waits until papers are submitted to decide what to look for, students are blindsided and teachers must scramble in the assessment process. If teachers are trying to assess too many things at once, none of them will be assessed well and students will gain little from the feedback.

One example that I particularly liked was her adaption of a standard country report.  To increase the level of thinking required, she recommends posing an analytical question for students to answer rather than merely listing facts such as population, climate,  major resources and industries, and so on. Her example is "How do the major industries in the country reflect opportunities afforded by the climate or geopolitical location of the country?" (p 139) I might offer additional choices such as:
  • What issues of scarcity does the country have to deal with? How does it accomplish this and how successful is the work? Suggest improvements.
  • How might the country be different if a famous figure had not existed?
  • Identify an endangered animal or plant from your country. Describe how the country is managing the population and assess how successful they are. Identify further steps that might be taken, what are the pros and cons of the steps and why you would suggest one over the others.

The criteria for feedback would include: clear, appropriate thesis answering the key question; appropriate evidence to support the thesis; and soundness of reasoning and clarity of explanation. Such criteria is consistent with the Common Core State Standards of informational literacy, text-based answers and writing from sources.

The book ends with a fantastic chart detailing what to assess, what material might be provided and questions to ask students. If a person were to have a single piece of the book, this chart would be it.

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