Assessment and Instruction!

From Bell Curve to J Curve

Did you ever feel like your teachers or professors were never reading your work and just giving you a random grade? I know I definitely have. There have been times were I put my best effort only to be given a mediocre grade meanwhile the person beside me handed in essentially nothing and managed a high grade. There have been times even the opposite happened – I get stressed, hand in mediocre work (strategically choosing assignments) but getting an amazing grade.

We’ve all heard of it, the infamous “bell curve” or “grading on curve”. What this meant was certain amount of percentages or letter grades were reserved for a specific amount of students. “In a system of pure curve grading, the number of students who will receive each grade is already determined at the beginning of a course” (K12 Academics). You probably notice this more in university. I mean, did anyone else ever notice the class average was primarily in the 70s? Overall, some of us probably got higher or lower than that but getting above 79 was definitely something to celebrate.


The bell curve, for obvious reasons, is an unfair method of assessment. Predetermining how a student is going to achieve before they even step through the door of your classroom is clearly not the right way to do things!

So what then, have most educators started to head toward? There’s this little theory that was developed originally for economic purposes but has been adapted to many other fields including education. This curve is what some people are referring to as the Jcurve.

The J Curve

This model is not limiting toward student success rather, it focuses on the belief that “with proper instructional practices over time, there is an unlimited capacity for successful students” (ASQ). obamaholdup

Let me put it another way:


That means, that no matter what the odds are against the student, they can still do well and still be successful. What can we do, as teachers, to make sure we are following this model over the bell curve?

Connecting Assessment and Instruction

Please follow the link and watch the short video 🙂

So what did that little video tell us?


That everything we assess guides our instruction and everything we use as instruction will be assessed in some way (pre, formative, summative).

If the video didn’t really explain the Big Ideas well enough, you can follow think link to an article that will clarify some ideas 🙂

So how do we design assessment and instruction together?

1. Connect to the learning goals and evidence

2. Integrate continuous assessment seamlessly the instruction (pre, formative, summative)

Students need to be able to understand what they are learning and what they are doing, which means all learning experiences need to be connected to curriculum expectations and learning goals.

Students Need to Become Independent Learners

In order for students to become independent learners, there are a few things that we can do as teachers

1. When we ask questions, we need to give them more think time

2. Give students a chance for self assessment by providing them with the success criteria (I can, I have… statements)

3. Provide ongoing assessment (formative) and descriptive feedback.


In order to become more independent, students also need to learn through peer and self assessments. As noted in the video, self and peer assessments are not going to happen overnight. Students don’t just magically know how to do assessments. I mean, we’re taught how to do it and even some of us struggle!

The purpose of these types of assessments is allows students to

1. clarify learning goals

2. co-develop success criteria.

When and How do we decide to include students?

1. Plan Ahead – What do they need to remember/review?

2. Have them think about the big ideas from previous activities to activate prior knowledge.

Why is Involving Students a Good Thing?

1. It connects the learning and the instruction.

2. The students are required to gather information about their learning.

3. It provides the teacher with the opportunity to employ alternative groupings (mixed over similar ability)

4. Activities revolve around the knowledge and skills of ALL students.

5. Students become resources for learning – they help struggling students.

6. It provides the teacher with multiple opportunities for feedback.

7. Students can engage in peer and self assessments regularly.

“assessment that is consistent with principles of learning and understanding should:

  1. mirror good instruction
  2. happen continuously but not intrusively as a part of instruction
  3. provide information about the level of understanding that students are reaching.” – Bransford, Brown and Cocking (2000).

Fair and Authentic Assessment 

I know, there’s probably someone thinking “okay thanks for the long post on assessment, but can you tell me what I can do to be fair?”

First of all, you want to plan tasks that can be connected to real life. If students cannot see the connection to their lives, they’re not likely to learn it.

Second, you need to create tasks where students are challenged but it’s not too difficult. You need to figure out what they can do on their own and what they can’t. There’s that Zone of Proximal Thinking again.

Finally, you need to plan backwards. Think about the end first and work your way back. I’m pretty sure this was all in my little video but just in case you decided to skip out on it, there it is again!

In other words – you need to focus on the student not the studentS. You need to capture your student when they are learning their best. Take their most recent, well-polished work to define them. When kids are in school those letter grades, levels or percentages become all they represent and they feel like that is all that they’re worth. But isn’t it interesting that once you get out into the real world the marks you got in school are no longer really that relevant?

So what’s the difference between the traditional methods and this “authentic” I speak of?

Traditional Assessment ——————————— Authentic Assessment

Selecting a Response ———————————— Performing a Task

Contrived ————————————————————— Real-life

Recall/Recognition ——————————- Construction/Application

Teacher-structured ————————————- Student-structured

Indirect Evidence ——————————————– Direct Evidence

If you click on the link, you’ll get a detailed description of each difference!

If you’re still interested in different types of assessment and how they link to instruction (which I’m sure you are!), you might want to check out this article that discusses the shift from high standard tests to games! The basic idea is that instruction and assessment can take place at the same time through the use of games.

“game-based learning provides moment-to-moment opportunities for learners to apply their knowledge and demonstrate competency while solving problems in a relevant context. Assessment data reflecting player decision-making can be used to present a personalized learning experience as the game adapts to the learner’s strengths and weaknesses.” – Dave McCool.

Sidenote: Anyone with the last name McCool is obviously someone we really need to be listening to! His name has COOL in it!

But in all seriousness, this concept isn’t too far off from what we already do in the classroom as teachers. I highly recommend you read the article.

Questions for You

  1. How have you previously connected assessment and instruction in your classroom?
  2. What does authentic assessment look like for you and your students (hypothetical or real)?
  3. What are the pros and cons of having game-based learning in the classroom?
  4. How do you decide to assign a grade to your students? What pieces of evidence do you collect?


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