Monday, October 15, 2012

The Importance of Informal Assessment

Image via CC license, by jrhode

Ever since I took a library conference workshop years ago by the always engaging Stephan Macaluso, my awareness of and use of informal assessment methods has continued to grow. This kind of non-quantitative assessment is especially invaluable when teaching live, online workshops.

What exactly is informal assessment? A more exact term, at least as I use it, might be observational assessment. As that name implies, it consists of observing your students as they interact with the learning, with you, and with each other. What are they asking or saying or typing? What aren't they asking? What does their voice and body language convey? How are they reacting to/interacting with a given activity or piece of information? What do these and any other observations (and even intuitions) you have tell you about the effectiveness of the teaching/learning? What adjustments need to be made given this?

The tough part isn't the observations - every teacher does that instinctively. The tough part is recognizing what to do with that constant stream of often very subtle and sometimes even contradictory information. Also, when to do it.

Of course, this is even more complicated when it comes to teaching online. Missing are the most commonly used observational tools of facial expression and body language. It can be very nerve-wracking when you teach those first few live online sessions, or give a webinar presentation. You're flying blind, with what at first seems like little to no way of gauging how things are going. There are, however, ways around this.

The key, in my opinion, is building your lesson plans (or your presentations, etc.) so that non-visual observations come to the fore. In my own environment, using the Blackboard Collaborate webinar software, there are actually lots of ways to do this beyond the more formal active learning activities. Almost all of it, of course, involves building in constant interaction and encouraging student input. I go out of my way to encourage (even beg!) students to engage me and each other and the content through asking open questions and posting observations and answers to questions throughout my workshops in the text chat area (most of my students don't have a headset, but when they do I also encourage that). I also give students access to the whiteboard drawing tools and use Collaborate's breakout rooms feature to build small group activities and make sure I go in and observe the activity of each group.

These simple steps help me in overcoming the loss of visual observation. They help me constantly tweak and improve my lesson plans and teaching methods both during the sessions themselves, and afterwards (a perk of webinar software is it's all recorded) so that learning objectives are met as effectively as possible. Whether face to face or online, it takes time to juggle these things with the formal teaching and assessment processes, but once you get used to it, it becomes another invaluable skill to add to your teaching tool belt.

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