Assessing Critical Thinking Skills


If a student aces or fails a paper/pen test, does that mean their critical thinking has been assessed? Will you really know if they truly understand the content?

The end of a lesson is, perhaps, the most nerve-wracking for a teacher. Students are typically challenged here in formal or informal assessments to demonstrate what they’ve learned. As I like to describe to fellow teachers, there’s three types of kids here: 1) the kids that get it. 2) The kids that don’t get it. 3) The kids that don’t get that they don’t get it.

Our job as educators is to get as many in that first grouping as possible. For some kids, we can see they get it; even feel it when we look at them. For many though, it’s not that easy. We can’t just rely on traditional assessments to tell us either. For a variety of reasons traditional assessments only give us a snapshot; a glimpse if you will. I know, I know….state assessments are built around these! We need and must assess students with traditional tests. However, there’s more to do.
We need to assess students at a variety of points during a lesson. Think of them as pulse checks. “Are you still alive Johnny!?” These assessments need and should be informal. They can be observations, but we can even assess in ways that are not-traditional and find out loads about what our kids know and don’t know.

Let’s say you’re knee deep on an econ lesson on how the Fed works. Sure the students have heard the lecture and taken notes from their text…but how do we know they are understand the content; and better yet…doing something with the information. You could have the students pretend to be on the Federal Reserve and present them with a historical situation. Give them some data in the fall of 1981. Have them review their notes on actions the Fed can take. Let the students work in small groups and determine a course of action the Fed should take. Should they cut the discount rate? Should they increase the money supply? Let the group report out to their class and back it up with data and rationale directly from their content understanding. Sure the students might give different answers; but as a teacher I’ll get a good idea of who really understands the material and its implication to their lives.

Much has been written (and more to come) on the trials and tribulations of assessing student knowledge. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to the right assessment either. The point is to be open to a wide array. Be dynamic and try many different types of assessments in addition to the formal, more traditional variety. Though assessments are designed to be scientific and logical; how they are applied is sometimes subjective and much more art than science.
How do you assess what students know?

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