Showing What They Know

Alternative ways to gauge students’ abilities.

Showing What They Know


Jis a bright, creative, sensitive girl who loves nature, skating and playing imaginative games with her friends. So her parents were a bit surprised when her first report card came home without a single “A”.

K’s Mom, on the other hand, anticipated and received a report laden with Cs and Ds: her son had always preferred spending his free time inventing, planning and building in the garage rather than sitting in class. Nevertheless, she too feels disappointment.

Though each child and family is unique, they have something significant in common: despite their innate intelligence, both these children consistently fail to achieve high grades at school.

Traditional methods of assessing our kids’ academic progress – written testing on the curriculum followed by grading on report cards – is what most of us grew up with. And while traditional testing and letter grading are cost-efficient ways of communicating to parents their child’s rank amongst their classmates, they are not a particularly great way for many kids to ‘show what they know’. Many teachers and schools across Canada are using alternative forms of assessment that support their students’ love of learning while motivating them to continually strive for their own personal best.

Poor indicators of success

A few years ago, a B.C. parent wrote into a magazine saying, “Grading children is a means of training them to be functional within our modern economic system, to fit in as part of the machinery.” Though many might argue that grading prepares children for the tough real world in which they will need to know how to be better than their competition if they hope to succeed in life, experts disagree. In fact, grades are known to be an extremely poor indicator of how successful a student will grow up to be in the working world. Rather, “people skills” – the ability to effectively work with others – are far more important to real world success.

No matter how rebellious we were in our youth, becoming parents tends to make us increasingly conservative. Knowing where our child stands relative to the average may make us comfortable, but it may also make our kids into approval junkies – seeking to please us by giving the ‘right’ answer rather than engaging in imaginative inquiry that can result in failure. Education experts suggest that teaching kids how to ‘fail’ successfully – trying many different incorrect approaches that can lead to new discoveries – is the best way of empowering them to take responsibility for their own learning, success and happiness. Making mistakes okay gives all kids the confidence to try, try again, until they become resilient learners. Redefining the ways they can succeed – by inherently valuing a greater variety of skills – encourages them along that road of discovery.

Rethinking motivation

Poet William Yeats wrote that true learning is not about “filling a bucket”, but rather about “lighting a fire.” In order for us to effectively light the fire of inquiry in our kids, we need to know what inspires them to learn. It turns out that working to achieve good grades isn’t it. Numerous studies show that not only is grading an ineffective tool for motivating kids to succeed, it can actually undermine their desire to produce anything of value at all. Children who consistently receive low grades get the message that they cannot thrive in school, and so stop trying, while students who get top marks are being conditioned to seek outside rewards for their efforts, rather than simply learning for its own sake. Educators also feel pressured to ‘teach to the test’, providing less flexibility and fewer innovative learning opportunities in the classroom.

Many teachers agree that our current curriculum structure emphasizes quantity over quality. Tons of information is offered up to our kids daily in order to cover a broad range of material in a relatively short period of time. This inherently disadvantages not only slow learners – those children who simply require additional processing time to properly internalize a lesson – but also focused learners who prefer to spend longer periods of time delving thoroughly into a single area of interest, such as indigenous plants, our solar system or ancient Egypt. While gaining an “A” on a multiple choice quiz may accurately reflect the number of facts a student has correctly managed to memorize, it says nothing of their ability to be thoughtful, original, or perceptive in making connections. Both the teaching and learning experience are more enjoyable when the focus is taken off the grade as an ultimate goal, and placed instead on the value of the learning process itself.

Helping our kids to become ‘deep’ learners requires us to open our minds so that they may open theirs. Offering them a variety of learning and assessment options that enable them to do more than skim the surface of the curriculum, gathering and reiterating facts, will help them dig deeply and connect with that joy of discovery that truly inspires them.

Reviewing our options

The current popularity of teaching to a variety of learning styles in our classrooms may also be paving the way for a new style of testing and marking procedures in our schools.

The following are a selection of different assessment tools that may be helpful in deriving a grade that is more reflective of your child’s abilities; some teachers may use them to measure overall performance as well. Consider discussing these with the teacher or principal.

Personal Portfolios: Better reflect the student’s learning process throughout the term or year.
Peer Assessment: Builds communication, cooperation, collaboration and teambuilding skills.

Self-evaluation: Encourages deeper self-reflection while offering opportunities for the student to improve performance and productivity over time.

Problem-Solving: Measures overall progress in terms of how well students apply what they learn rather than how well they reiterate canned information.

Project-Based Learning: Enables many different types of learners to excel and show what they know in a way that best matches their learning style.

Dramatization and Role-Playing: Enables those who learn best by doing to literally demonstrate their understanding of ideas, concepts and information.

Attitude: Puts greater weight on effort, positive attitude & interpersonal relationship building to help kids develop key ‘people’ skills.

Inquiry: Encourages innovative thinking by asking questions that reward original ideas as responses rather than only ‘correct’ answers.

All of society’s advancements, whether scientific, technical or cultural, have come from folks who think ‘outside the box’ and have the courage to act on this difference. Do we really want our children to become efficient at reiterating memorized data in school, or do we hope they will learn to be ground-breaking problem solvers who will grow up to make our world a better place? With that in mind, it might be worthwhile teaching our kids to be better risk takers by applauding their positive attitude, creative efforts and fresh ideas rather than just their report card grades. Try some of the tips offered at right to help light the fire under your learner.



Consider these options to help your child achieve his/her personal best…

Some children absorb lessons easily but struggle to express their knowledge clearly. If this describes your child, discuss these options with the teacher/principal…


  • Oral testing of unit material rather than written
  • Engaging a scribe to write down the child’s orally produced answers
  • Using computer technology to aid students in composing and writing responses

Help your child’s teachers do their best for your learner by communicating clearly with them…


  • Ask questions – clarify expectations to improve your child’s capacity to perform well
  • Tell stories – help your child’s teacher get to know him or her
  • Share best practices – let your child’s teacher know what works for your child
  • Record – keep records of all professional assessments [by doctors, clinics] to help the teacher assess your child’s performance fairly

Teachers can only assess what they see – help your child to complete assignments on time and to the best of his/her ability…


  • Set goals, complete tasks, review steps daily
  • Have them choose a regular study place and time of day
  • Create a visual calendar together using pictures/illustrations
  • Store homework supplies in one easily accessible spot
  • Work backwards from due dates; break assignments into smaller tasks

Foster your child’s positive attitude toward learning…


  • Praise for effort and attitude; avoid punishments for low grades
  • Encourage self reflection to discover personal strengths
  • Teach positive self talk rather than self criticism
  • Help launch projects that provide opportunities for creative thinking and doing
  • Support imaginative play with dress-up, forts, characters, music and craft
  • Encourage children to follow their own personal strengths, whether drama, hockey, singing or martial arts
  • Provide opportunities for quiet contemplation after dinner, in the early morning or before sleep to enable better overall focus

Author: Sasha Korper

Sasha Korper is dedicated to helping kids have more fun while they learn. She works and lives in Northumberland with her husband and youngest daughter.

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