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Aurora Institute

No Laughing Matter: Productive Assessment and the Value of Taking a Pulse

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Justin Ballou

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments

Chris Rock
Chris Rock. Photo from Wikimedia.

Growing up, I was always a fan of standup comedy. From the comics of my father’s age, (Billy Crystal, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison….) to those that cut their teeth more recently, (Dane Cook, Chris Rock, etc…) the comedic skills that these players demonstrate is not always natural. It takes countless hours to develop material, back stories, delivery methods, articulation, and other tools of communication that help put the audience right where the comic wants them.

In practice, the content and the strategy develop over time. Mainly, this is due to the fact that they are consistently assessing where the audience presently is and they are adapting their show to get the most engagement. This engagement becomes the fuel for the comic and helps to build the relationship between the showman and the audience that are hopefully hanging on every last drop of the experience.

In our classrooms, we have tools of the trade that let us do the same. We work to develop and finetune the curriculum, ensuring differentiated instruction and scaffolding. We organize resources and ensure that our rubrics and assessments are ready to go.  And then it is show time. Whether working with the whole class, a small group or an individual we begin to adapt to our students to get the most out of the learning experience. Sometimes we embellish a little… get more detailed, or elongate our pregnant pauses… all for the hoped-for positive effect that the elements combine into to make a worthwhile experience. Whether we like it or not, these changes are based upon our constant assessment of the group. Making decisions either in calculated fashion or on the fly.

When we talk about “constantly assessing” in competency education, we often hear the questions “Aren’t you just testing them all the time? What kind of learning experience is that for them to have to just do test after test?”

The answer: The best one we can get!

Testing itself is not the issue with many educators. It is the use of the test and the validity of the data that is achieved through the experience. The assessments need to be meaningful to helping students learn and to helping teachers improve their instruction. If you are looking to transition over to a competency based classroom, the following are a few tips I have received from colleagues and a bit of trial and error that may help you move forward.

1.      Provide purpose

We all try to build out a classroom culture that supports growth and learning. Two of the best things that you can do are: 1) Work with your students to develop a shared value system that provides context for your activities; and 2) Talk with your students about the importance of the instructional activities and how they are going to demonstrate their learning. This is a great opportunity to define assessment in a way that shows value to your students and gets buy-in from day one.

2.      It’s not the size that counts

The stereotypical view of the hour-long test is no longer a necessity due to higher levels of efficiency in delivery and correcting available in the modern classroom, as well as the opportunities present for students to show you what they know and are able to do. The quality of the data we collect is what is important in the activity, not just keeping students busy. This means that we can gain quite a bit from rapid deployment, which leads to…

3.      The faster, the better

Just like comedians and businesses, we develop, assess, interpret, and repeat. The faster we can do this, the better off we are for two reasons: First, this allows us to make adjustments quicker and provide feedback and more instructional support for our students. Second, we remove the stigma with assessment and reinforce the ideas that it is important to know what we do and do not understand in order to know where to focus our time and energy.

Whether a comedian or educator, audience or student, the name of the game is getting the most benefit out of our experience. In order to do so, we need to erase some of the ideas of the past to make room for the future. It is the only way that we are going to be able to create a show that everyone will never forget.


Justin Ballou is a high-school social studies teacher in New Hampshire. Besides teaching, he is active building/running an education startup called Socrademy, several business ventures, and enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife. With competency-based systems, edtech, and authentic learning as his go-to topics, you can reach him at [email protected] to ask questions or leave comments, and follow him on twitter (@socrademy).