There is no better way to get the attention of a student or an education professional than to bring up assessments and testing. Both of these terms have acquired significant baggage over the last few years. We are going to remove the pejorative connotations for assessments and discuss them as they should be discussed: as tools teachers can use to measure the progress of their students.
We all learned in education classes that there are six types of assessments: diagnostic, formative, summative, norm-referenced, criterion-referenced and interim/benchmark. Of these six, only three are applicable for artifacts: diagnostic, formative and summative. The others do not apply. Norm-referenced assessments are out because there are no “norms” for using artifacts in the classroom. Criterion-referenced assessment face the same problem. There is no goal, specific objective or standard that refers to the analysis and synthesis of artifacts. While a lesson plan might contain the objective of identifying the significant characteristics of a certain object, the assessment used will be of the formative or summative type. Finally, interim/benchmark assessments can be used with artifacts, however, they are really formative or summative in nature, so this category does not apply either.
Artifacts serve as excellent diagnostic, formative and summative assessments. As a Language Arts teacher, you can use an artifact in a diagnostic assessment of your students’ creative writing ability by placing an artifact in front of the class and asking, “Who found this and what was he/she looking for when they discovered it?” After some instruction on the five essential elements of good creative writing, the same artifact can be used in an interim/ formative assessment when the same question is presented. Checking for the inclusion of the necessary elements and their improved presentation will provide an indication of improvement or areas that need attention. As a summative assessment, present the same artifact and provide the writing prompt, “What is this and how did it get to our classroom?” Your students should be able to provide all the elements of a good creative story, character, plot, point of view and time and place, in answering your question.
Artifacts provide the same kinds of assessment opportunities for math and science teachers. Analyzing any fossil will give science teachers some idea of students’ knowledge of physical science. Simply asking, “What is this?” will offer insights into the diagnostic skills of students and their knowledge of the scientific method. Presenting an ear trumpet to a class in the midst of studying sound can offer an excellent formative assessment of their understanding of wave distribution. Asking, “How does this artifact demonstrate the principles we have been studying?” should give any teacher a firm grasp of the progress of his/her students. As a summative assessment in science, presenting a sputum cup to a class that has just finished learning about viruses, bacteria and the spread of disease and asking, “How does this demonstrate the principles we have been studying?” can offer students a creative “final” exam over the material.
Math teachers will find artifacts excellent formative and summative assessments. By using an artifact to demonstrate the application of mathematical principles in “real life,” the formulas and calculations required in class have importance and meaning outside the classroom. A Davis level shows the algebraic application involved in forestry, sailing, aeronautics and construction. Every artifact has a geometric form designed for specific purpose. Geometry is, then, central to every artifact and a candidate for all three types of assessments. For younger students, shapes, sizes, measuring, addition, subtraction, division and percentages can all be applied to artifacts. Employing artifacts of different sizes and shapes provides excellent compare and contrast opportunities for students of all ages.
For Social Studies teachers, artifacts are natural diagnostic, formative and summative assessments. “What is this and why is it significant ?” can serve as the prompt for all three. The first part of the question provides some insight into context (time and place) as well as analytical, problem-solving and decision-making abilities. When used as the formative assessment for the same topic, the same artifact will provide insight into the progressive understanding of the actors, the problems to be solved, and the methods used to resolve them during the period or place under study. “What is this and why is it significant?” is an outstanding summative assessment. After a unit of study, the emphasis here would be more on the “significance” of the object and less on the identification. Significance should incorporate the identification, the context, the problems addressed and the solutions attempted along with some evidence supported conclusion concerning the effectiveness of past action.
Artifacts provide the opportunity for a more complete assessment of students’ skills and abilities. They offer the student the freedom to answer the question using the principles under study. Rather than memorizing scientific names, mathematical formulas, times, dates, or elements of grammar, students can present their skills effectively and efficiently when artifacts are employed and simple questions are asked. A one question assessment that incorporates all the principles you have been teaching places the onus on the student to perform rather than on the teacher to create “an effective and fair exam.”
AS A BONUS: using artifacts as assessment tools allows you to practice your students in the critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, decision-making and communications skills they need to have for that national test that comes each Spring. Not too, bad, eh?
ARTIFACTS ASSESS… ARTIFACTS TEACH!