“Stop having babies”. An eleven year old shocked the entire class on a teacher’s question “How can we save forests from destruction?”. Another student responded in a similar manner, “we should decrease the population”. Both the students meant we should control the population. Just that they conveyed the ideas differently.
In another class, a teacher asked 12 year-olds “What are vaccines?” Several students mentioned that “vaccines are antibiotics that kill a disease-causing organism.” Clearly, students had got confused between the terms ‘antibodies’ and ‘antibiotics’. They also had misunderstood the fact that vaccines ‘cause’ antibodies to be produced and do not ‘contain’ antibodies. What if these were answers to a 2-marks question on an exam? How many marks would these responses get can be anyone’s guess.
When such questions are asked in exams, typically, the answers are graded per the examiner’s discretion and marks are given. How about the teacher also looking at what the responses tell him/her beyond them being right or wrong? Assessments can be considered as golden opportunities to use the responses as a ‘window into the students’ world’. After all, their responses truly indicate how well they have understood a concept and interpreted their teacher’s ideas. Students’ responses reflect their perspective on a certain issue, if students are allowed to express themselves freely.
Marks are just a metric to be promoted to the next level. As teachers and educators, we should aim at planning assessments with the intention of looking into students’ ideas. It is equally important for students to know why they are being examined. Unless students respond fearlessly, their responses would never reflect their true understanding of a subject. This will also allow students to use language as a powerful tool to express their emotions and concerns about the natural world, particularly, when their responses are descriptive. As teachers and educators, we possess the ability to look beyond errors. Now is the time to look beyond grades and marks, right and wrong. A well-memorized and reproduced answer can also earn full marks for a certain question, but tells little if the student has truly understood a concept and can apply it correctly.
Thankfully, the questions on ‘forest destruction’ and ‘vaccines’ in the examples above were not asked on an exam. The teacher not only got to know how students thought, but also made an effort to change the way they thought and expressed. Can we envision such assessments where students don’t have to carry the baggage of nervousness, memorized notes and anxiety around their performance? Only then will students be open to feedback and to change in their thoughts. Only then will teachers be able to identify gaps or leaps in their instruction. All of this may sound idealistic, but let us take one step at a time and turn assessments into opportunities that bring out a change in learning rather than instill fear, complexes and competition.
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