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Collaborative Assessment Facilitates Inclusion for Students At-Risk

Tiffany L. Gallagher, Professor, Faculty of Education, Brock University
Linda Ismailos, Professor, Academic & Liberal Studies, Niagara College Canada

Standardized testing is often used in education to compare students against one another as well as against curriculum standards. For many students, standardized testing formats lead to test anxiety creating a disadvantaged circumstance under which competition with typical peers is not possible, and therefore, inequitable. Students with various forms of anxiety, mental health challenges, and special needs are disadvantaged by the rigidity of these testing formats.

Recent research involving students with exceptionalities transitioning to post-secondary education elucidate the challenges they identified when facing standardized classroom assessment practices as:

  • Stigma as being different when centred out by testing accommodations
  • Anxiety that debilitates and blocks their ability to fully represent their learning
  • Time constraints that increase their levels of anxiety and shift their focus from the content
  • Literacy challenges that interfere with their ability to properly understand the task
  • Lack of diversity to provide alternative test taking contexts for different learning styles

Given the challenges experienced by students with exceptionalities in the demonstration of their learning, strategies that align with principles of Universal Design for Learning are increasingly being viewed as beneficial for both students with exceptionalities as well as their peers.  Collaborative assessment opportunities provide students with exceptionalities the opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers, thereby leveling the playing field, removing stigma, and building confidence as well as academic self-efficacy.

Collaborative assessment is a platform that provides the opportunity for students to cooperatively discuss concepts and apply them to solve test questions.  Students are encouraged to prepare and study with a partner or in a small group and then during the test administration they work with partners or group members and discuss the test questions one-by-one.  After the group is satisfied with the conversation, each member selects and records his/her own response.  Students do not need to agree with the responses of their peers; they are free to select and record their own answer. The advantage of this collaborative communication is that each student has the opportunity to fully understand the test question, process shared and pertinent information and then apply their knowledge to their response.

A recent study took place at a community college where study participants were students at risk of non-completion of their post-secondary education diploma.  In this post-secondary transition program these students were dually enrolled as secondary and post-secondary students for a semester.  Following completion of the program, they participated in interviews to explore their experiences with collaborative assessments offered in their college course.  Secondary school teachers supporting the students in their program development were also interviewed. The following graphic, “Emergent Themes from Student and Teacher Interviews” maps the responses of both students and teachers after the completion of the transition program.  Of particular interest are the students’ perceptions of the removal of stigma and its association to increased academic self-efficacy.  Students consistently reported that the experience of inclusion and collaboration provided them with the opportunity, often for the first time in their academic history, to feel that they were not “less than” their peers in some way and that they could learn and demonstrate their learning as competently as their peers.

Both students and teachers consistently reported a decrease in anxiety in test situations accompanied by increased confidence in the students’ ability to successfully demonstrate their learning.  Also important was the finding that both students and teachers reported that the assessment had become an opportunity to extend learning, deepen understanding, and promote critical thinking.  The teachers also observed that their students were building collaborative skills through authentic experiences offered on a Universal Design for Learning platform.  Teachers consistently reported an increased confidence in knowing that the assessment was providing a more accurate indication of the students’ understanding of the concepts being evaluated.

One student participant with a diagnosis of severe anxiety, a learning disability, and a short-term memory deficit stated, “I have really bad anxiety, like, really bad.  I’m on medication for it, so before, I used to stay up and study hours and hours and hours but I wasn’t actually understanding the material – I just had to memorize it so when it came to the testing, the questions would be similar to what I studied but they wouldn’t be the same . . . and I was not able to apply the information to the test question because I didn’t really understand what I was studying.  Doing collaborative testing released a lot of the anxiety while I was studying and reduced the studying time that I would stay up late, and also I was able to know the material rather than just memorize it.”

Another student participant with severe anxiety and a head injury that manifested in short-term memory impairment remarked, “I have test anxiety so I understand the feeling of being overwhelmed walking into the test room, but knowing that it was collaborative testing, I was able to go in calmly, knowing that I have my friend here that I studied with and we had our notes prepared and were able to work on the test together. I believe I understood the material a lot better through the collaborative process . . . It will help me with long-term retention for sure.”

A third student participant who struggled with the challenges of severe depression and anxiety and had previously dropped out of school, was now attempting to return to complete a secondary school diploma. This student’s experience of collaborative assessment stressed the powerful impact of the opportunity to discuss concepts, build confidence in understanding, as well as extend and apply concepts to the test questions in a supportive and positive environment.  This student experienced increased academic self-efficacy and was now intending to apply to post-secondary education after completing the secondary school requirements in the next semester.

The following are some sample remarks from teachers who supported these students through the completion of their program:

  • “It’s a huge advantage.  Students with exceptionalities are included and no one can tell who they are.”
  • “There comes a moment of awareness for the student, ‘Oh, I know this better than I thought.’”
  • “Guessing at multiple-choice answers isn’t really showing learning, but having to have a discussion and decide, and maybe even agree upon an answer, or maybe choose a different answer but for different reasons – either way, there’s more learning and more thinking, more critical thinking going on there.”
  • “We trigger learning – something that somebody in a group might say, and it scaffolds your thinking process.”
  • “What are you trying to evaluate . . . what they can derive from the information, or what they can memorize before the test?”
  • “We are honouring different ways of learning, different ways of knowing.”
  • “It’s more authentic.  When you get into the work world that’s what you’re going to have to do.  You have a job to do and if you don’t know the answer, you’re going to have to figure it out on your own, so you have to be willing to talk to other people and work with other people in the real world.”
  • “I think it builds confidence when [student] group members acknowledge that your contribution is good.”
  • “The students are now teaching each other, not just sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t know the answer to that question.’  This is where learning is happening.”

The platform of collaborative assessment eliminates barriers for students with exceptionalities through inclusive education practices.  Teachers need to consider how to set all students up for success, build self-efficacy, collaborative skills, and extend learning through the application of collaborative assessment as a diversified assessment practice.  The findings of this study prompt teachers to consider: What ideas would need to be challenged or shifted in order to consider implementation of collaborative assessment practices in your setting? What might be the implementation challenges in your classroom?

Linda Ismailos is a Professor in the Academic & Liberal Studies Department of Niagara College, Canada where she teaches in the CICE program.  She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at Brock University preparing to defend her dissertation focused on the development of academic self-efficacy for post-secondary studies for students with exceptionalities.  Her areas of interest include inclusive education and experiential learning. For more information on the study cited above, please contact Linda Ismailos lismailos@niagaracollege.ca.

Tiffany L. Gallagher, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Educational Studies and the Director of the Brock Learning Lab.  She is recognized for her research on the learning of students with literacy learning challenges. Supporting the professional learning of teachers through coaching is also a focus of her work that seeks to inform audiences such as students, teachers, administrators, and policy makers.