Non-Traditional Assessments: Inspiring a Spectrum of Understanding

Laura Oeschger
Traditional exams and testing have climbed the ranks of what’s trending in education. Even President Barack Obama has weighed in on the debate over the effectiveness of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank tests. Across all disciplines and grade levels, Shipley teachers are exploring new and more effective methods of assessment to broaden the spectrum of their students’ understanding of the material being taught in the classroom.

Elizabeth Zodda, Upper School science teacher and department chair, trades pencils and papers in her Introductory Physics Honors class for challenging project-based assessments. “I may give them a bunch of circuit materials and tell them to build something,” she says. “I watch them try, fail, and reflect, until the circuit works correctly and the students really show me what they can do.” Zodda explains that not having a week of test review and a two-hour exam frees up her curriculum for a more realistic representation of the work students will have to do beyond the classroom – learning resilience and problem-solving skills.

Seniors in Sunny Greenberg’s The Here and Now interdisciplinary course, for instance, choose topics, conduct research, and craft comprehensive yet compelling TED-inspired talks to deliver to a group of peers and Shipley faculty. “Students learn how to synthesize skills of research, public speaking, and developing an argument in a new medium. They seem to really appreciate and enjoy the process,” she says.
In the modern language department, language isn't just memorization. “The focus is on the application,” explains Kim Harris, Upper School Spanish teacher and department chair. Students build on the vocabulary and grammar learned, and apply it to interpersonal and non-rehearsed conversation, supplemented by projects that challenge both students’ language skills and creativity – such as a magazine article, poem, or a video. “That's where the greater, longer-lasting learning happens,” says Harris. “It’s not just a fill-in-the-blank.”

Shipley’s fine arts department challenges students to critique the work of their peers and offer constructive criticism in an organized group discussion. “We’re teaching students to take those critical thinking and articulation skills and apply it back to their own process,” says Steve Baris, Upper School art teacher and department chair. “That is probably the greatest, most enriching aspect of the critique process, and an essential life skill.”

Not forgetting that many colleges and universities administer traditional exams and Shipley’s commitment to preparing students for all aspects of learning, students do sit for exams in some classes. Patty Lein, Upper School Academic Dean and math teacher, gives a math exam to her students, but adds a non-traditional twist by telling her students their grade in a private meeting. “It's not about the grade,” she explains. “It's about identifying the student’s strengths and the areas of improvement. I think that conversation is important.”

Supporting non-traditional assessments speaks to what Shipley stands for, Lein says, which is honoring the individual and trying to look for various ways for all individuals to be able to synthesize their knowledge differently, while learning important skills for life.

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The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.