How to Design Assessments that Support Student Activism

Kathleen Ralf is the Blended and Online Learning Coordinator at Frankfurt International School and is a member of the GOA faculty. Visit her blog, Lehrer Werkstatt: Reflections on Living and Teaching in Germany.

When designing the Genocide and Human Rights course for GOA, I was adamant that this would not be a history course full of essay writing. The course needed to look at history for context, to examine current structures used to prevent these horrors in the future, and to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

Over the years, I have had many Model United Nations, debate, and journalism students in this course. However, with the events of the last year, I’ve found even more of my students are looking for courses that empower them to make change in the world. They have participated in Black Lives Matter protests, marched in Fridays For Future, or canvassed for a political candidate. They want to be involved in purposeful courses that help them make the change they desire for their communities and the world.

To ensure that the students leave the course equipped with tools to fight for that change, I ask them to create a final project that can be sent out into the world via social networks or other real-world media. But, in order for students to create these high-quality projects at the end of the semester, they must be exposed to some of the core competencies of activism and ways to communicate across different types of media.

Below are some of my lessons learned in designing assessments that support student activism.

Emphasize Low-Stakes Practice

As part of GOA’s competency-based approach, the other teachers and I have articulated essential skills that drive the work we ask students to do. For example:

Justify: You apply your knowledge of key terms, events, concepts, policies, and people from the past and present as evidence to support your reasoning about a genocide, human rights crisis, or current event.

Students work through a playlist of content and respond to prompts to show their understanding. Then, students have the opportunity to “Justify” their conclusions in a variety of formats, including synchronous and asynchronous discussions. Students will also respond to each other to support or refute what their classmates have stated.

Photo of two columns. Column 1: Students may choose to write a letter or an op-ed, create a video, design posters/infographics, organize a gathering, or pitch their own idea. Column 2: Students are assessed on their ability to compare, explain, justify, act creatively, attribute, understand a global issue, and demonstrate audience awareness

Students work on a variety of assessments during the course, but the competency-based criteria is used over and over again to focus on skill development.

They practice this competency across assessments, becoming comfortable with the debate of ideas. Instead of holding back and being worried if they are doing it right, they have the opportunity to take risks and know that it is about growing the competency and not about being perfect on the first try.

Provide Opportunities for Multimedia Design Practice

In each module of the course, students have summative assessment tasks that are products that can be shared to a wider community. Each week they are given a different task: an Op-Ed or Letter to the Editor, a screencast, a student-led discussion, a website, a video, and an infographic.

Throughout the course, students try each type of medium. By requiring the students to create different types of products, they are forced out of their comfort zones. This helps students to see that, “Hey, this is kind of a cool way to do a project,” when otherwise, they might not have tried out the task on their own.

When they turn in the work, that isn’t the end of the conversation. Students get feedback from me, but their peers also interact with and comment on their work.

Help Students Choose the Right Medium

At the end of the semester, students choose their final project topic on a current human rights crisis and whether or not the United Nations should apply the principle of the Responsibility to Protect. Students now have a variety of experiences from their previous units of study to help them decide which medium would best fit their project. They have feedback on previous assignments that will guide them towards mastery. They are well-positioned to select the medium that will help them best display their understanding.

Some students will take it a step further and explore new forms of communication like podcasts, art installations, live workshops, or public service announcements on their campus daily bulletins. This kind of risk-taking and creativity is not surprising; students have grown in their confidence of presenting their understanding in a multitude of ways.

Assessments as Activism Restore Hope

When I explored students’ final projects, tears streamed down my face. Why do we let these kinds of injustices happen over and over again? But, I was also crying for another reason: the kids are alright. These students will grow into the leaders that will help our various nations finally find peace.

And, my faith in distance learning was also restored. So much has changed in our daily lives in our bricks-and-mortar schools. More and more, we had to turn to digital tools to teach our students, as well as teach them to show their understanding in ways that go beyond the pencil-and-paper tests. What I have learned teaching my students at GOA reflects the same ideas I have learned teaching my students at Frankfurt International School.

Giving our students opportunities for low-stakes practice, giving them opportunities to try new ways to demonstrate their learning, and giving them choices, makes for more engaging learning experiences online and in the classroom. More importantly, giving students opportunities to share their work beyond the teacher to wider audiences empowers them to become the activists they are and want to become.

For more resources on sparking student advocacy, read these GOA articles:

GOA's Student Program empowers students to do passion-based work through our online courses and Catalyst Conference. Learn more about becoming a GOA member school.

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