Students as evaluators in inquiry-based classrooms

In a previous post entitled Who do our students consider the audience?, I advocated that by providing rich, complex, authentic classroom tasks, we open the door to expanding the role of students. They move from producers to evaluators of their classmates' solutions. I shared that we need more environments like this because they enable students to be engaged in creating content, and the resulting products are far more meaningful in fostering learning that will stick.

I would like to add a Part 2: These environments are far more powerful and effective in fostering reflection and growth about each child’s learning process.

To be clear, students can and should be reflective learners in any environment. Many would agree that the most important skill we can teach is that of learning how to learn. But when we transform traditional units of study into truly rich environments, we allow many cognitive activities to take place.

Students as evaluators

Traditional environments ask students to turn in work to the teacher for evaluation; students are seldom placed in the role of evaluating quality of their own work, let alone another classmate. Because traditional assessments rely heavily on the recall of knowledge or demonstrating longer forms of recall through the synthesis of producing essay responses, involving students in evaluations of a question like “What were the three main causes of World War II?",  likely provides minimal benefit. It can be argued that students might learn how to write a better essay, but it’s highly doubtful they will learn much more about World War II by reading peers' essays.

However, when we provide open-ended, authentic tasks, students are placed in the role of evaluators, thus allowing them to see the varied ways that these problems can be solved. What resources did this student consider? Which parts of her solution were effective? Which parts have not been addressed? Inevitably, students who are placed in this role are asking themselves" "How is this student’s solution and rationale different than my own?" Assessments -- and the diversity of solutions that they bring about -- enable students to learn as they evaluate. To be clear, I am not saying that the idea of students as evaluators has to play a role in the actual grading. It could. But if we are truly leveraging authentic learning tasks, then we need to recognize that by empowering students as evaluators, we create a powerful learning tool.

Students reflect on their learning process more meaningfully

Again, within a traditional classroom, we can and should ask students to reflect on their process. However, these reflections can lack depth because the student was seldom in control of the product itself. Asking students to reflect on their learning in a traditional assessment usually garners answers such as:

  • “I should have worked harder / started earlier.
  • “I should have focused more on Chapter 2.” (Usually, this is because the assessment had more Chapter 2 questions than the student envisioned.)
  • “I should have taken better notes along the way.”

None of these responses are bad, but they are limited because the tasks tend to be limited. Students are missing out on the chance to create a solution by using content. When these types of PBL tasks are used in the classroom, student reflections can include the statements above, but they will also open up deeper reflections including:

  • "I should have considered more viewpoints before I came to my conclusion."
  • "I knew my research/facts well, but I wasn’t very effective at communicating my plan to my audience. I forgot that my audience is more concerned about ____,  ____, and ____ ."
  • "I would have been more effective by acknowledging the weaker aspects of my plan in advance."
  • "I had a strong, well-thought out message, but I chose the wrong medium for how to present it to my audience."

Students tap into the power of social learning

If our learning tasks are asking students to (hopefully) produce the same type of answers, there is little incentive for students to want to learn from each other than trying to ensure that each of them has the “right” answer. When we open up problems with multiple pathways toward different solutions, we not only can see the pathways they take; we provide an environment where they seek out and learn from one another along the way.

When student work has an authentic audience (and especially if that audience can be students themselves) within our inquiry based, PBL classrooms, we not only end up with student work at a higher quality. We open up avenues for learning and reflection that simply aren’t possible if the teacher monopolizes the role.

Derek Luebbe has worked in American international schools for the past 20 years. He is currently the Head of School at the Shanghai Community International School. He blogs about education innovation at Does It Catch Mice? and is the creator of the simulation simCEO, winner of the SIIA award for Most Innovative Ed Tech Product 2013. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C., and Budapest, Hungary. Follow him on Twitter at @dluebbe.

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