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Assessing Thinking

Assessing Thinking

Assessment to Improve Student Thinking

In many classrooms, students’ thinking is assessed solely on the basis of the products of that thinking. In the case of multiple-choice and true-false questions, we assumed that if students came up with the right answer, they were using good thinking strategies. We know now that this is not always the case. The challenge is, of course, how to get a window on a process that goes on primarily inside the brain. Fortunately, many thinking processes leave traces behind, traces that not only help a teacher understand how a student is thinking, but also help students grow as thinkers. By examining the artifacts of students’ thinking, such as discussions, graphic organizers, and notes, teachers can learn a great deal about the thinking processes of their students, and they can use that information to make good decisions about individual and group instruction.

Andrade (1999) offers the following guidelines to help educators teach and assess the higher-order thinking skills of their students:

  • Explain to students what kinds of thinking you expect from them.
  • Frequently discuss and give examples of what good thinking looks like in different projects and subject areas.
  • Ask students to contribute to the criteria and standards you will use to assess their thinking.
  • Give students input into the kind of assessment that would be most appropriate for different projects and units of study.
  • Give students instruction and practice with assessing themselves with the assessments you will use.
  • Assess thinking processes as well as products of thinking.
  • Give students a lot of feedback on their thinking and provide them with opportunities to give feedback to each other.

Assessing any higher-order thinking skill requires careful planning and instruction. First, students must be taught how to perform the skill through explicit instruction and extensive practice. Proficiency at a thinking skill can be assessed in a number of ways, through activities which target certain thinking skills and strategies, even through paper-and-pencil exercises, as well as through observation.

The true test, however, of whether students have learned the thinking skills they have been taught is if they use them spontaneously and independently in situations that require them. To assess thinking in this context, teachers must plan learning activities which require specific higher-order thinking skills in order to be successful. With those necessary skills in mind, then, teachers can analyze written assignments and learning logs and observe large- and small-group interaction for evidence of the targeted skills. As students make their thinking visible through writing and speaking, key words or questions indicate different thinking skills and provide teachers with evidence that students are using the skills independently and effectively.

If teachers notice that students are not able to think critically or creatively, solve problems, or reflect on their own learning, then further instruction is in order. If, on the other hand, students are capable of higher-order thinking but are not choosing to exercise it unless they are asked specifically to do so, they may need either to understand more about how and when to use the skills or to recognize their value and importance. Teachers can provide more scaffolding during complex tasks that require complex thinking skills and engineer activities that help students see the value in that kind of thinking.

Teachers cannot expect their students to use higher-order thinking skills after just one, or even five lessons. These skills must be constantly reinforced and assessed throughout the year in a variety of contexts. In classrooms where higher-order thinking is valued, talk about thinking is part of every subject and every lesson. There is no, “Okay, now we’ll do our thinking lesson.” Instead there is, “Now we’re going to think scientifically,” and “Now we’re going to think like authors.”