Making Overused School Assessments More Authentic

Over the course of teachers’ careers, there are times when they find themselves in a creative rut. Whether it’s a particularly dry topic or content that just isn’t igniting that creative pedagogical spark, it can be challenging at times to create engaging assessments for students.

In these instances, it can be easy to give in to what is simple and comfortable by assigning a tired, cliché project like a book report, a poster, or a research paper. After all, these types of projects are commonplace in the educational memories of most teachers. We all scribbled down our book summaries, colored our maps, and filled out our bibliography index cards and turned out just fine, right?

Today’s students deserve more. This doesn’t mean that the old ways do not have their place. Rather, adding an extra dose of authenticity can turn flat, uninspired projects into meaningful learning experiences. Furthermore, when students know that the products of their efforts will have an actual audience, it can serve as an effective motivating tool for increased effort and focus.

Make the book report matter

When I think back to my archetypal book report, the sights and sounds of LeVar Burton and Reading Rainbow flood my mind. Every episode included clips of adorably awkward kids recommending their favorite books with short summaries of the characters and problems.

For these children, their book reports became ringing endorsements for thousands of fellow kids in TV land. Retro authenticity at its finest!

In school, my book reports didn’t have that kind of reach. Some made it onto bulletin boards or hallway displays, while others sat in the turn-in bin waiting for the teacher to be the first (and likely last) person to read them. These assignments each served their purpose (which, to the best of my knowledge, was simply to prove that I read a book), but did little to inspire my best efforts.

Book reports shouldn’t be bland reading checks.

Challenge your students (and yourself) to make the book report an authentic experience rather than a lifeless summarizing exercise. With some creative adjustments, responding to a book can become a purposeful opportunity for students to critique and evaluate what they read - much like actual literary reviews in the newspaper or online.

Whatever the format, students should be creating genuine products (digital or on paper) designed to share with the actual decision-makers who would benefit from the insights: the books’ intended audiences.

Once products have been created, use tools like SeeSaw, a class website, school social media pages, a local newspaper, or a vacant library bulletin board to get students’ reviews in front of those who are looking for a book to read. This gives students a chance for their opinions to truly be heard and lead to their intended actions.

For example, have students format their reviews into actual book jackets. Make it real by putting the creations on the corresponding books in the classroom or school library. Future book-seekers can turn to these creations when trying to make a decision about what to select.

Give the research paper an audience

Much like old-school book reports, most research papers are written for an audience of one: the assigning teacher.

To be fair, students do need to know how to research and assemble academic essays. They are common summative assessments at the higher academic levels and students must be equipped with the skillset to compose them successfully.

That said, cultivating students’ research abilities and informative writing chops does not always have to result in a stack of uninspired papers to grade.

Some authentic alternatives include:

  • Challenge students to create a children’s book designed to inform a target audience about the given topic. Then, find ways to actually put the finished products in front of said audience for feeback.
  • Give students the opportunity to create informational collages using cloud-based platforms like the Google G Suite (Slides, Drawings, Docs, Sheets, etc.). Students can collaborate or work independently to assemble, connect, and summarize research about a topic in visually appealing ways. The finished products could be shared online as instructional tools or used as formative scaffolds replacing textbooks or other boring content.
  • Have students turn their research into functional, informative brochures. When completed, display them in an area of the classroom where peers can reference them throughout the course as a content refresher. These could also be useful tools for previewing course material for the following year’s students and parents. Perhaps the research could even be shared with relevant stakeholders in the greater community.
  • Go audio/visual with multimedia presentations ranging from podcasts to full-blown video productions. Students still research and organize information, but the words go into a microphone rather than lying dormant the page. Beyond just posting the creations online, consider ways to feature the products like a student film festival or a streaming class radio station.

However you choose to breathe new life into stale assessments, keep a focus on authenticity - from process, through the product, all the way to a final audience. Students’ efforts will rise to meet the challenge!