How to Reconcile Assessment Methods with Social-Constructivist Learning Theories

Shepard, Lorrie A. (2000). The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture. Educational Researcher, 29(7), 4-14.

Should assessment practices be changed to reflect the current shift in classroom practices, away from “the banking method” of education (Freire), toward a more collaborative, student-centered approach? Working to educate current and prospective teachers about this shift, as well as the research corroborating it, the author of this article organizes her initial inquiry into distinct but overlapping sections that address and make connections between historical learning perspectives, standardized testing, social efficiency theories, and a reconceptualization of assessment as a tool to enhance student learning.

I have chosen to review this article because I’m interested in exploring the benefits of a social-constructivist  framework of assessment, as well as learning new solutions and strategies for applying such methods in a “learning-oriented” classroom (Kohn). Moreover, the author points to a number of problems with traditional methods of assessment and evaluation that I have addressed in blog posts #4 and #5. Her initial inquiry (and the subject of the article’s abstract) clearly speaks to the subject I’m exploring in my blog about the effects of assessment on student learning and motivation.

As she sets up her historical framework of assessment methodology and its relationship to scientific study, Shepard makes clear early-on her opinion (supported by an abundance of both historical and up-to-date research and evidence) that assessment should follow the current educational shift from a primarily behaviorist to a progressive or social-constructivist pedagogy. She goes on to describe the evolution of what is now known as “the banking method of education” (Freire), in which the instructor possesses knowledge and deposits it into the student’s mind/memory (insert student-as-receptacle metaphor here). For much of the twentieth century, the dominant ideas about education were based on theories of social efficiency and scientific management. These theories equated schools with factories in that knowledge was produced by academics and scholars, distributed by teachers, and committed to memory by students. This mechanistic view of student learning led to mechanistic methods of assessment, and “precise standards of measurement were required to ensure that each skill was mastered at the desired level” (Shepard 4). This is interesting, and pretty scary, because while they seem so crassly outmoded in a current educational framework, these precise standards are also used in predicting students’ aptitude for certain future endeavors, which has led to the creation of disparate avenues: vocational tracking and college preparation. This type of tracking is still being enacted in high schools across the country, and it is advocated by politicians who question the benefits of a college education for everyone (as Barack Obama proposed during one of his speeches).

Shepard presents this historical framework as a segue into her argument against standardized testing. I agree with her that it reflects the mechanistic educational views of yore, and should be drastically changed (especially the high-stakes nature of the tests), if not done away with. Why is it still in place, when schools are no longer thought of as factories, nor students as machines? Citing current research, Shepard outlines the numerous ways in which “objective” testing does not reflect how students actually process information, nor does it correspond with a learning-oriented environment. Learning, she claims is not a process of memorization, but rather an “active process of mental construction and sense-making” (5). (This idea is not new, but rather borrows from current cognitive theories of learning. Though she seeks solutions primarily from a social-constructivist framework, she also integrates cognitive and social-cultural learning theories and cites the conflicts and areas of overlap between all three.) Furthermore, “high stakes accountability in testing leads to the de-skilling and de-professionalization of teachers…” and “teaches students that effort in school should be in response to externally administered rewards and punishment rather than excitement of ideas” (9).

It’s not difficult to see the importance of such a shift away from testing ( and from school-as-factory to school-as-learning-environment). But how is it made? And how can assessment change with the times, as theories of learning do? Because both development and learning are primarily social processes (Vygotsky), there must be a way, Shepard argues, to treat assessment as such. Because there are no simple answers, and a list of strategies wouldn’t get at the pedagogical/historical underpinnings of WHY changes are needed, not to mention what needs changing, the author organizes her reconceptualization of classroom assessment into a “set of principles for curriculum reform,” which she then divides up into two main categories: Form and Content and How Assessment is used and regarded. Here, she addresses the problem of motivation and calls for “more open-ended performance tasks to ensure that students are able to reason critically, to solve complex problems, and to apply their knowledge in real-world contexts” (8).

One of the ways to go about this is to emphasize informal assessment occasions, in which the teacher responds to students in a low-stakes evaluative setting, such as giving feedback on reflective journals that is more substantive than error-focused.  The author also suggests the students should have more power in the classroom, a collaborative relationship with the instructor, and transparency from teachers as to what the assessment criteria might be (10). She outlines strategies for aligning assessment with classroom practices, such as:

Dynamic Assessment

Assessment of Prior Knowledge

Use of Feedback

Teaching for Transfer

Explicit Criteria

Student Self-Assessment


Evaluation of Teaching


  Such progressive strategies are in line with the majority of those we study in the M.A. Composition and certificate programs, and thus they are all very familiar. However, she has much to say about student self-assessment, which I tend to want to advocate, but have less general knowledge of, strategy-wise. The way she describes student self-assessment leads me to believe it a) makes students more accountable for their own learning, b) establishes a collaborative relationship between student and teacher, c) shows that standards of evaluation are neither “capricious” nor “arbitrary” (10), and d) helps students take ownership of the evaluation process. While I find the concept interesting (and have experience as a student performing self-evaluations) I have not often stopped to consider its pedagogical values (or its promotion of metacognition about assessment!)  The author’s consideration of it as a valuable resource for teachers has shown me something that none of the other assessment-oriented articles I’ve read have pointed out: that teachers are not the only ones that should play a role in assessing students’ work.

Shepard concludes her article with the humble acknowledgement that “this social-constructivist view of classroom assessment is an idealization. The new ideas and perspectives underlying it have a basis in theory and empirical studies, but how they will work in practice and on a larger scale is not known.” As a prospective teacher, I am driven toward the theories and studies that appeal to me and meet the learning goals I intend to set for my students. The social-constructivist perspective, with its student-centered classroom practices and collaborative nature, not to mention its view of knowledge as ever-changing and students as co-contributors to that knowledge, appeals to me as a teacher, and I’d like my assessment practices to mirror the ways in which I teach. Shepard also calls for teachers to be transparent about their learning process, and in a sense, model learning for their students (i.e. make the reasons you are redirecting your curriculum or launching into a mini-lesson known to the students, so that your process does not seem random or decontextualized). I love this idea, because as teachers, we don’t have all the answers, and we have to problem-solve as we go along, just like our students.


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