Assessment Opinion

Try a Simple Speaking Assessment to Close the Semester

By Ariel Sacks — January 06, 2018 4 min read
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The mid-point of the school year is almost here for most of us, and it’s a special time. There is a combined sense of fatigue and a tad of excitement at the chance to start again. For many schools, it’s almost time to close out the semester and finalize grades. The grading load can be overwhelming for teachers, and students feel the pressure as well.

Around the end of the semester, I like to use a simple speaking activity that accomplishes several things at once:

  • Brings the class together to review and take stock of our learning this year
  • Gives us a chance to learn about each other’s thinking
  • Breaks the tediousness of quiet seat work that characterizes most of a students’ day
  • Provides students a chance to practice public speaking
  • Provides me with an opportunity to assess students’ spoken expression
  • Does not create another paper I need to grade after school (!)
  • Emphasizes authentic learning and connecting concepts from class to the rest of our lives

The activity goes like this:

Each student has one minute to talk about something we did in class this year that they found interesting. I leave it pretty open-ended, but students can approach the task in a few different ways:

  • Explain why this learning experience or concept was interesting and stuck with them.
  • Focus on a connection they made between the learning experience and their personal lives, a concept from another discipline, or current events.
  • Share how a particular assignment or moment was significant to their development as a learner. (Warning—for this one, there kind of needs to be a story. We don’t want to simply hear a literal rehashing of what they learned from X assignment.)

I give some verbal examples of how the mini-talk might go. The tone is informal, as if you were sharing something interesting at the dinner table, not interviewing for a job.

Then to prepare, students begin by looking through their notebooks, folders, and Google Docs from the entire year. They bookmark the items that are most interesting to revisit, and weigh them as contenders for the mini-presentation. I encourage them to bounce ideas off their classmates and I also consult with students.

I limit students to one assignment, concept or learning moment as the focus for their talk. If they want to discuss a theme or skill that developed in multiple assignments, that’s fine, as long as the overall focus is clear. I’m trying to avoid a presentation that is about how much a student liked X assignment and also Y assignment. The talks are very short, and they need to go into some depth.

I tell students they may not write out their whole talk and read from the page, but they are encouraged to use notecards during their talk. I’m open to students who want to speak without any notes, because of the informal nature of the event. It’s a bit of a risk, but as long as students understand that risk and still want to try it, I like the idea of letting them see how their choice plays out. I’ve done this with 8th and 9th graders—with younger students it might not be worth it to allow that.

I generally allow two half-periods to prepare—one day to think about the topic, and one day to practice speaking. I spread it out, because I want students to have time to think about this both in and out of class, but I don’t want this to become an assignment that requires heavy preparation. I simply want them to have a good heads up in advance, and a chance to collect their thoughts before sharing. (I’ve done something similar without providing more than about 15 minutes prep time. It can be done!)

Mini-Presentations On Learning

I have students present while sitting in a chair that is in “the front” of our circle, if you will. It’s visible to everyone, and it’s where I normally sit. This gives a touch of formality to their talks, but staying seated is a reminder that the tone is of an informal sharing.

The thing I love about this activity is just sitting in a circle and hearing each student talk about their thinking and learning! It provides a window into what individual students are thinking, and the collection of talks serves as a roundup of the highlights and salient points we’ve experienced as a class this year—entirely from the students’ perspectives. I give students a chance to write down a comment for each presenter in between the talks—warm feedback or a comment on or connection to the content of the presentation.

Finally, I love that I get to grade the presentations on the spot. (Honestly, I would be happier in a no-grades classroom, but since that’s not been my reality, this process works quite well for me, without making the activity feel like it’s “about the grade.”)

My criteria for a 10-point grade is simple:

  • Students begin with five points, just for stepping up to the chair.
  • +1 for Audibility
  • +1 for Verbal Expression (as opposed to monotone)
  • +2 for Depth of Reflection and/or Critical Thinking Related to Class
  • +1 Evidence of Preparation of Ideas

= ___ /10

If a student finishes before the 60 seconds are up, I invite classmates to ask follow-up questions to give the student a chance to speak further. If they finish way below time, they might lose half a point for preparation, but they can still get credit for the content they generate in response to questions. Note cards are not required in order to show evidence of preparation.

I find students do quite well on this—it’s in no way a “gotcha” grade, but a chance to demonstrate a kind of learning that might not be reflected in other assessments. I also find that the class community strengthens through the listening. We all get to slow down, and the whole process becomes a wonderful reset for this time of year. After taking stock of what we’ve done this year, we have renewed energy to forge ahead.

[Photo 1 by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash; Photo 2 by Lennert De Ryck on Unsplash]

The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.