Myron Dueck: Smarter Assessment Means Giving Our Students a Say

The first time I reviewed John Hattie’s list of practices that have the greatest impact on student learning, I was puzzled. The largest effect, at the time, was “student self-reported grades.”

If student self-reported grades were the most impactful, I wanted to learn more.

If you are interested, let me save you some time searching for the answer. Watch the two-minute video below of Hattie explaining student self-reported grades.

Hattie says a lot in the video. I like the fact that he suggests thinking about changing the wording from “student self-reported grades” to “student expectations.” Yet he challenges us to never accept a student’s initial expectations. Far too often, Hattie notes, students set a lower bar than they are actually capable of achieving.

The teachers’ job, then, is “to help kids exceed what they think they can do.”

Making students our active partners

Kids exceeding what they think they can do. Now, more than ever, we need to think about how to help them do exactly that. And, perhaps the first step is to involve students as active partners in setting their learning goals, monitoring their progress, and evaluating their learning.

A new book by Myron Dueck, Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage (ASCD, 2021), provides a roadmap for doing exactly that.

Dueck is a well-regarded author and consultant, a former teacher who still serves in an administrative role in his British Columbia school system. As he progressed through his teaching career, Dueck began to question the current grading system and began devising alternatives with student success in mind, publishing the best-selling ASCD book Grading Smarter, Not Harder in 2014.

Dueck believes engagement and learning improve when students are provided with “an increased opportunity to show what they understand, adapt to the feedback they receive, and play a significant role in reporting their learning” (p. 185).

Hooked from the first page

John Hattie himself wrote the foreword. The first line invites us to “Come into the elevator.” Not literally, of course. Instead, Hattie uses the familiar metaphor of an elevator to describe a succinct message lasting no longer than it takes to ride an elevator to (or from) the top floor. Here’s the beginning of Hattie’s elevator pitch:

“Assessment is something we have done to students rather than with them.”

Hattie goes on to suggest that we flip our practice and make assessment something we do WITH students. To achieve that goal involves undertaking two tasks (p. x):

“First, ask your students to grade their own performance on the next test before they start it. Second, after you have graded the test and written your comments, ask your students to write a short list of statements describing what they have learned about their learning and where they need to move in light of your grade and comments.”

Hattie continues: “The results of this experiment will likely bear out what research suggests: that from about age 8 onward, students are quite accurate in determining their place in the achievement equation and predicting their scores – and that teacher grades and comments do little to help students understand what they’ve learned and where they need to go next.”

Actualizing the elevator pitch

Reflect on that point for a while and if you’re intrigued, join me in learning how we might make that happen.

Many of you reading this blog may already be well along on this journey. In our professional learning network for schools, The Powerful Conversations Network, we focused on student-engaged assessment for multiple years, using Ron Berger’s Leaders of Their Own Learning as the guiding text.

Berger’s student-engaged assessment cycle involves the following components:

Ron Berger and Myron Dueck share a very similar vision. It begins with student-friendly learning targets, extracted from a state’s standards and put in easy-to-understand and actionable terms. Dueck suggests going a step further and asking students to co-construct those learning targets. Dueck suggests using four types of targets:

  1. Knowledge targets: What I need to know
  2. Reasoning targets: What I can do with what I know
  3. Skill targets: What I can demonstrate
  4. Product targets: What I can make to show my learning

Berger adds a fifth: Character targets.

Formative assessments and checks for understanding

The next step is the use of ongoing formative assessment or checks for understanding to gauge student learning and make adjustments as necessary. As teachers make checks for understanding a routine part of classroom learning, they should pay attention to Hattie’s admonition: Include students in monitoring, reporting on, and evaluating their own learning.

Dueck suggests students can monitor their progress by responding to the following questions (seen in Dueck, p. 6, referring to McDowell’s PBL by Design):

  • Where am I going in my learning?
  • Where am I now in my learning?
  • What’s the next thing I need to improve in my learning?
  • How do I improve my learning and that of others?

Dueck also suggests the use of rubrics as one way to make this monitoring more routine and clearer, and he provides both examples and suggestions for creating them yourself or co-creating them with students. Berger agrees. In fact, his fourth component of student-engaged assessment (SEA) is models, critiques, and descriptive observation. Examples of student work –  and describing learning using a rubric – are critical parts of SEA.

Help students demystify learning

In Leaders of Their Own Learning, Berger suggests that “the process of learning shouldn’t be a mystery” to students (p. 21). Later in the book, he notes: “Helping students understand where they currently are in the learning process and where they are going is what enables them to grow and is more important than getting it ‘right’.” (p.57)

To see this process through learners’ eyes, watch this short video of students discussing how they track their progress:

Dueck takes the student role a bit further, suggesting that “In every aspect of assessment, we will engage and empower the student by offering opportunities for student voice, choice, self-assessment, and self-reporting” (p. 79).

He suggests that teachers use assessment as a teaching tool, pointing to research that students learn and retain more after taking a test. And, rather than use a one-time test as a grade, Dueck suggests that “students should be engaged in ongoing assessment – demonstrating understanding (of a topic) on more than one occasion and in different ways” (p. 87)

Opting for mastery over one grade at one point in time, Dueck suggests using testing in at least two ways. The first test might be given to help students organize and structure their learning and surface current misunderstandings. When the “real test” is given, they are more prepared and can often demonstrate greater mastery.

Let students track their own learning

Dueck also provides tools and examples of ways that students can track their own learning. This part of his book is fascinating as he discusses “desirable difficulties,” which is a cousin to “productive struggle.”

Like productive struggles, desirable difficulties are those that “trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support learning comprehension and remembering” (p. 81). Bjork and Bjork (2014) suggest four researched ways to include desirable difficulties in instruction and improve learning:

  1. Vary the conditions of practice: Learning, practicing, and testing students using multiple formats and in different places can improve learning (p. 82)
  2. Don’t cram…space study or practice sessions: We learn better when we space our study over a longer period of time rather than cramming for a test the night before.
  3. Interleave instruction: Interleaving simply means mixing together different topics or forms of practice, in order to facilitate learning. You can read more about interleaving here.
  4. Consider the generation effect and use tests (rather than presentations) as learning events: The generation effect refers to “the long-term benefit of generating an answer, solution or procedure versus being presented that answer, solution or procedure.” (Bjork & Bjork, 2014, p. 61)

Treat grades like mileposts on the road to mastery

Much has been written about the way we evaluate student learning. Many traditional grading practices you and I experienced when we were students are currently under question by experts like Tom Guskey, Doug Reeves, Rick Wormeli, and others.

The real question here is: Are we more interested in giving student a grade based on the average of tests taken over time, or are we more interested in students mastering the content so they can be successful in the next grade, or in work, or in life? Read more about the evolution in thinking about grading here.

We are now expecting students to learn at much higher levels than ever before. It’s not just about memorizing or gaining a basic understanding. It’s about analyzing, creating and synthesizing, with lots of writing and reflection. Surface learning is critical to deeper learning, but we can’t just stop at those surface level tasks.

Furthermore, grading is often subjective, and Myron Dueck provides example after example of why we need to use a more objective scale.

A sports fan, Dueck uses many sports-related stories to illustrate his point. For example, Tom Brady, who recently won his seventh Super Bowl, received an overall rating of “F” when he participated in the NFL Scouting Combine, a prerequisite to being drafted (before Covid). If the New England Patriots had only considered that one factor – that single assessment – Brady might now be in a totally different career.

Take a minute to look at Brady’s statistics through 2019 (p. 132):

  • Most career wins by a starting quarterback (245)
  • Most touchdown passes in NFL history (603)
  • All-time leader in total yards (85,151)
  • Most Super Bowl starts of all time (9)
  • Most Super Bowl victories of any player (6)
  • Most comebacks by a quarterback after trailing by 10 or more points since 2000 (32)

Dueck’s point? Don’t pigeonhole students by using one snapshot in time or an average of grades which might not reflect where the student currently stands relative to mastery. Partner with them to ensure they learn, retain, and apply that knowledge.

It’s time to give students their say

This blog is long and only captures the essence of Berger’s and Dueck’s thinking. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for learning more about how to engage students deeply in their own learning. More than ever, as we see the possibility of a post-Covid world of learning emerge, we need to do all we can to ensure that students can bounce back and excel.

► This is the link to my review of Myron Dueck’s first book

► This is a list of the top ten influences on student learning