In search of a new assessment

This year I had the privilege of teaching a History 12 class at our school. I get the course about once every three years. Our school is shrinking and this means we often don’t have enough students to run a section of the course every year.

In BC, this course is 20th Century World History. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 which brought WWI to a close and arguably launched WWII. The Russian Revolution and communism. The Depression, especially the impact in the US and Roosevelt’s New Deal. The rise of fascism and totalitarian governments. This year we focussed on the Spanish Civil War. WWII and the rise of the Cold War. Korea, Vietnam, Apartheid, India. The Middle East. The Civil Rights Movement in the US. It is great history, with little time to dig deeply into everything, so choices usually need to be made  about where to skim along the surface, and where to dive. I prefer the diving.

During the year, I provided opportunities for students to write and discuss ideas together on our class blog, to research, to do the basic textbook work, take notes, and write essay exams. But I kept thinking and thinking about the final assessment. I wasn’t sure what to do, or how to tie it all together and get a sense of how the students had really integrated the information, ideas, patterns and essential questions. I wanted to step outside the box and see what might happen.

In the end, I decided on a trial run. I couldn’t guarantee that the test would work, and I also didn’t want to throw the group into a tailspin in June of their graduating year. I ran it as a seminar conversation, but didn’t assess the students at all. I just asked them if they would help me see if the test would do what I wanted it to do.

I worried unnecessarily. I think the assessment would work, and better yet, really get at the big picture. Here’s what I did:

The essential question I asked was something along the lines of, “The 20th Century was a clash of social, political and economic ideologies.” I asked them to consider the material we had covered  and examine the Left vs Right political ideology chart from Information is Beautiful.


I centred the image on a piece of flip chart, and we sat around and discussed the image in relation to the topics we had covered. I recorded as much as I could as we chatted, but only in very brief detail as I was also facilitating the conversation.

At first, the students weren’t sure they had anything to say, but as we examined the chart, ideas started to flow. They started to see the logic of the assessment. I got some feed back that they would enjoy the style of test.

They could see both where ideology had played a role in conflicts, but also when the chart fell apart and the motivation of nations and individuals was more about nationalist or autocratic goals rather than ideology.

They were applying the chart to historical events, as well as considering again where their own ideology might best fit. Early on in the semester we had taken a political ideology test, so it tied back into that conversation as well.

I liked it. We had aha moments, and I could tell the students had learned a great deal. What I really love is to watch students see their own brains work, and to be excited by it.

If I get a chance to teach the course again, I’ll do it.

The students would know what the exam is from the beginning of the course. I would give them a two hour assessment slot, and they would be allowed to bring a sheet of notes.

I have some work to do in terms of the actual assessment rubric and the essential question needs work, but I think this would be a great final.

Here’s hoping I get to try out!

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