One of the challenges for beginning teachers is to select and use appropriate assessment techniques. In this section we summarize the wide variety of types of assessments that classroom teachers use. First we discuss the informal techniques teachers use during instruction that typically require instantaneous decisions. Then we consider formal assessment techniques that teachers plan before instruction and allow for reflective decisions.
Teachers' observation, questioning, and record keeping
During teaching, teachers not only have to communicate the information they planned but also continuously monitor students' learning and motivation in order to determine whether modifications have to be made (Airasian, 2005). Beginning teachers find this more difficult than experienced teachers because of the complex cognitive skills required to improvise and be responsive to students needs while simultaneously keeping in mind the goals and plans of the lesson (Borko & Livingston, 1989). The informal assessment strategies teachers most often use during instruction are observation and questioning.
Effective teachers observe their students from the time they enter the classroom. Some teachers greet their students at the door not only to welcome them but also to observe their mood and motivation. Are Hannah and Naomi still not talking to each other? Does Ethan have his materials with him? Gaining information on such questions can help the teacher foster student learning more effectively (e.g. suggesting Ethan goes back to his locker to get his materials before the bell rings or avoiding assigning Hannah and Naomi to the same group).
During instruction, teachers observe students' behavior to gain information about students' level of interest and understanding of the material or activity. Observation includes looking at non-verbal behaviors as well as listening to what the students are saying. For example, a teacher may observe that a number of students are looking out of the window rather than watching the science demonstration, or a teacher may hear students making comments in their group indicating they do not understand what they are supposed to be doing. Observations also help teachers decide which student to call on next, whether to speed up or slow down the pace of the lesson, when more examples are needed, whether to begin or end an activity, how well students are performing a physical activity, and if there are potential behavior problems (Airasian, 2005). Many teachers find that moving around the classroom helps them observe more effectively because they can see more students from a variety of perspectives. However, the fast pace and complexity of most classrooms makes it difficult for teachers to gain as much information as they want.
Teachers ask questions for many instructional reasons including keeping students' attention on the lesson, highlighting important points and ideas, promoting critical thinking, allowing students' to learn from each others answers, and providing information about students' learning. Devising good appropriate questions and using students' responses to make effective instantaneous instructional decisions is very difficult. Some strategies to improve questioning include planning and writing down the instructional questions that will be asked, allowing sufficient wait time for students to respond, listening carefully to what students say rather than listening for what is expected, varying the types of questions asked, making sure some of the questions are higher level, and asking follow-up questions.
While the informal assessment based on spontaneous observation and questioning is essential for teaching there are inherent problems with the validity, reliability and bias in this information (Airasian, 2005; Stiggins 2005). We summarize these issues and some ways to reduce the problems in Table 35.
Keeping records of observations improves reliability and can be used to enhance understanding of one student, a group, or the whole class' interactions. Sometimes this requires help from other teachers. For example, Alexis, a beginning science teacher is aware of the research documenting that longer wait time enhances students' learning
(e.g. Rowe, 2003) but is unsure of her behaviors so she asks a colleague to observe and record her wait times during one class period. Alexis learns her wait times are very short for all students so she starts practicing silently counting to five whenever she asks students a question.
Teachers can keep anecdotal records about students without help from peers. These records contain descriptions of incidents of a student's behavior, the time and place the incident takes place, and a tentative interpretation of the incident. For example, the description of the incident might involve Joseph, a second grade student, who fell asleep during the mathematics class on a Monday morning. A tentative interpretation could be the student did not get enough sleep over the weekend, but alternative explanations could be the student is sick or is on medications that make him drowsy. Obviously additional information is needed and the teacher could ask Joseph why he is so sleepy and also observe him to see if he looks tired and sleepy over the next couple of weeks.
Anecdotal records often provide important information and are better than relying on one's memory but they take time to maintain and it is difficult for teachers to be objective. For example, after seeing Joseph fall asleep the teacher may now look for any signs of Joseph's sleepiness— ignoring the days he is not sleepy. Also, it is hard for teachers to sample a wide enough range of data for their observations to be highly reliable.
Teachers also conduct more formal observations especially for students with special needs who have IEP's. An example of the importance of informal and formal observations in a preschool follows:
The class of preschoolers in a suburban neighborhood of a large city has eight special needs students and four students— the peer models— who have been selected because of their well developed language and social skills. Some of the special needs students have been diagnosed with delayed language, some with behavior disorders, and several with autism. The students are sitting on the mat with the teacher who has a box with sets of three "cool" things of varying size (e.g. toy pandas) and the students are asked to put the things in order by size, big, medium and small. Students who are able are also requested to point to each item in turn and say "This is the big one", "This is the medium one" and "This is the little one". For some students, only two choices (big and little) are offered because that is appropriate for their developmental level. The teacher informally observes that one of the boys is having trouble keeping his legs still so she quietly asks the aid for a weighted pad that she places on the boy's legs to help him keep them still. The activity continues and the aide carefully observes students behaviors and records on IEP progress cards whether a child meets specific objectives such as: "When given two picture or object choices, Mark will point to the appropriate object in 80 per cent of the opportunities." The teacher and aides keep records of the relevant behavior of the special needs students during the half day they are in preschool. The daily records are summarized weekly. If there are not enough observations that have been recorded for a
specific objective, the teacher and aide focus their observations more on that child, and if necessary, try to create specific situations that relate to that objective. At end of each month the teacher calculates whether the special needs children are meeting their IEP objectives.