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Essential Readings

Assessment in a Social Contructivist Classroom
by Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy

Recognizing the need for accountability, but concerned about the narrowing effect on the curriculum that current versions of high-stakes testing might have, National Council for the Social Studies and leading scholars have been arguing for social studies assessment that reflects major social studies goals, a wide range of objectives, and more authentic tasks. NCSS guidelines call for systematic and rigorous evaluation of social studies instruction that

  1. Bases the criteria for effectiveness primarily on the school's own stated objectives;
  2. Includes assessment of progress not only in knowledge, but in thinking skills, valuing, and social participation;
  3. Includes data from many sources in addition to paper-and-pencil tests; and
  4. Is useful not only for assessing student progress but in planning curriculum improvements.1

Comprehensive Social Studies Assessment
To evaluate learning in the social studies, teachers must relate their curriculum goals to effective methods of assessing student progress. Three curriculum goals-understanding, appreciation, and life application-lie at the core of constructivism as a social studies methodology.

Understanding means that students grasp both the individual elements in a network of related content and the connections among them, so that they can explain the content in their own words. Appreciation means that students value the content because they recognize that there are many good reasons for learning it. Life-application means that students retain their learning in a form useable in other contexts. To address this range of goals, assessment must be what scholars refer to as authentic. 2

Traditionally, assessment has been tailored primarily for the individual student and designed to elicit reflections of transmitted information. The kind of assessment implied by constructivism flows from the belief that students develop new knowledge and make it their own through an active process of "meaning making.” While constructivists may differ in their philosophical beliefs regarding the nature of knowledge, all favor moving from transmission models of teaching toward models that involve crafting reflective discussions scaffolded around networks of powerful ideas.

Social constructivists emphasize that the teaching-learning process works best in social settings in which individuals engage in discourse about a topic. Participants advance their own thinking through exposure to the views and insights of others. Communicating their own beliefs and understandings forces them to articulate their ideas more clearly, which sharpens their conceptions and frequently helps them make new connections.

Challenges in Planning Constructivist Assessment
One challenge for teachers using the social constructivist model is to ensure that students collaborate thoughtfully as they strive to construct new understandings. Newmann identified six key indicators of thoughtfulness observed in high school classes that are useful to the assessment of discourse at all levels:

  1. Classroom discourse focuses on sustained examination of a few topics rather than superficial coverage of many.
  2. The discourse is characterized by substantive coherence and continuity.
  3. Students are given sufficient time to think before being required to answer questions,
  4. The teacher presses students to clarify or justify their assertions, rather than accepting and reinforcing them indiscriminately.
  5. The teacher models the characteristics of a thoughtful person by, for example, showing interest in students' ideas and suggestions for solving problems, modeling problem-solving processes rather than just giving answers, and acknowledging the difficulties involved in gaining clear understandings of problematical topics.
  6. Students generate original and unconventional ideas in the course of their interaction.3

Good constructivist teaching should yield high scores on thoughtfulness indicators as compared with (a) transmission approaches that emphasize lecture, recitation, and seatwork, and (b) less desirable forms of constructivist teaching that feature participatory discussion but lack intellectual discipline; for example, the teacher leaps from topic to topic or accepts all student contributions-even irrelevant comments, ill-informed opinions, and outright misconceptions.

Teachers can assess other aspects of student discourse stimulated by the constructivist approach. Observation tools that focus on variables within discussions can help both students and the teacher to get a "reading" on how well the group process is working.

A second challenge for teachers using social constructivist methods is how to measure individual effort as each student builds his or her own unique representation of what was constructed in a group setting. Research on cooperative learning indicates that student achievement is maximized using models that combine group goals with individual accountability.4 We expect that similar findings will emerge from research on social constructivist teaching methods.

Table 1 provides a framework for teachers to measure the contributions of individual students to group discussion. Table 2 suggests how students working in a group can themselves measure the quality of their discourse, while Table 3 calls for individual students to assess their own role in group discussion.

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