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Designing Useful STEM Classroom Assessments

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The STEM movement remains one of the fastest growing initiatives in education. If you’re a STEM teacher, chances are you’ve searched for good instructional strategies and for help in locating and designing STEM lessons. Now comes the big question: How are you going to assess your students’ progress during and following your STEM lessons? And what, exactly, do you need to assess?

Since STEM is a relatively new way of teaching science, math, and technology, the most useful and instructive assessments often occur during the STEM lesson itself, or shortly after the lesson. I’ll give you some of my thoughts on some things you need to consider to gauge the success of STEM lessons in your classes.

The guiding questions for my assessments are fundamental: What are students learning, how are they thinking, and what understandings and skills are they gaining as a result of this STEM lesson? You may choose different things to scrutinize from lesson to lesson, but here are five areas—in no particular order—that you may want to check during all lessons.

1. Examine the quality of your STEM lessons. Are your lessons on target? What did those lessons, taken collectively, accomplish for your students? At a minimum, your lessons should help students improve their abilities to do the core STEM tasks listed here:

  • Focus attention on identifying and solving real problems.
  • Apply specific grade-level science and math concepts.
  • Use an engineering-design process to guide their thinking and problem-solving.
  • Create and test prototypes (technologies) as solutions.

Check out my article "Six Characteristics of Great STEM lessons" for additional help in thinking about your STEM lesson design.

2. Gauge students’ understanding of the science and math needed to solve the problem. Be intentional about helping students make specific math and science connections during the lesson. (That will generally not happen automatically.) As they work on their STEM challenge, observe whether they understand how to apply science and mathematics to solve a problem.

Before and after class, consider giving bell ringers (entrance questions) or exit questions to get a quick idea of whether students understand a particular aspect of the content.

Another thing you’ll want to confirm is that kids actually understand how math and science work together to create solutions for problems. Sometimes you and your students might simply talk about it. At other times this might be an exit question, or even a discussion question for a student engineering notebook or test. Since STEM lessons should take students deeper into grade-level science and math objectives, their success should also be reflected in scores on summative assessments and tests.

3. Look at student teamwork progress. Next, consider students’ progress in working as productive team members. You might keep good teamwork behaviors on students’ radar by asking them to do a brief 60-second self-assessment, individually or as teams, before each class begins. Questions might include:

What behaviors did our team do well during our last lesson?

Did all team members feel included and valued?

What teamwork behaviors do we need to improve today?

You might also check to see if team members do these things:

  • Set norms for productive teamwork behaviors they all value.
  • Respond positively and successfully to guidance when needed
  • Regularly self-assess their team behaviors.

4. Assess STEM skill development. Today’s fast-paced culture demands citizens and workers who understand how to tackle emerging problems as well as longstanding issues. STEM lessons help students build these skills. Have you seen evidence that your students are growing in their abilities to do these things?

  • Come up with several different possible solutions for a problem.
  • Combine materials and ideas in clever and imaginative ways to create a solution.
  • Design a prototype and test it to see if this device solves the problem.
  • Successfully evaluate their testing results, and analyze and interpret their data.
  • Recognize things they can do to change and improve the design of the prototype.
  • Communicate ideas in new and innovative ways.

Probably one of best indicators your STEM lesson is having an impact on students is an increase in student enjoyment and interest in learning. Hopefully they no longer feel disconnected from the real world when studying science and math. Increasingly positive responses to their subject matter, plus an increase in student engagement and understanding, are real testaments to your teaching.

5. Examine student attitudes and confidence growth. A primary goal of STEM lessons includes developing specific attitudes that will help kids be more successful students, citizens, and members of the workforce. Think about how your students react during and following their STEM lessons. Look for indicators that your students are beginning to:

  • Feel “safe” in expressing out-of-the-box imaginative ideas.
  • Believe that it’s safe to fail, and then use failure as an opportunity to improve
  • Suggest increasingly creative ideas for solving a problem.
  • Show increased persistence in sticking with finding solutions for a problem.
  • Take ownership of their projects and learning.
  • Express increasing curiosity and ask more questions.
  • Transfer STEM practices to other subject areas.

Instructional Indicators of Strong STEM Learning and Growth

STEM classes should involve students in hands-on exploration and critical thinking. If you’ve successfully taught project-based learning (PBL) in the past, then chances are you made this transition with ease. The PBL teaching approach is STEM friendly and contains the necessary ingredients for STEM instructional success.

If you had not been using PBL, you may have abandoned some old familiar practices as you taught STEM lessons; then you dove into new open-ended strategies to encourage student interaction, invention, and creativity. If so, that can’t have been comfortable. Kudos for doing that!

As you look back on your year so far, identify the areas in which you and your students are already successful. Shore up areas that need strengthening, but continue to focus on areas of success. Focusing on the strong points encourages students, creates positive attitudes, and prepares them to take on areas where they need to change and improve.

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