Why do we need to assess and evaluate student work in Religious Education?
Because religious education is a required course, it makes sense to have its assessment similar to that of other required subjects. This not only gives credence to the importance of religious education, but highlights the knowledge and skills found within the program. Assessment is an essential part of the entire teaching and learning process, including religious education: assessment includes the ongoing observation and reflection on specific expectations by students and evaluation involves the demonstration of those desired expectations.
The Province of Alberta School Act 1996 establishes teachers’ authority for the assessment of student learning and for the periodic reporting of learning to students, parents/guardians and the board. (Section 18, 1e) Assessment enables teachers to identify strengths and weaknesses in students’ attainments and to plan the next steps in their learning. It provides the means to chart progress, and enables them to make students and their parents/guardians clear about particular achievements and targets for improvement.
Effective assessment in each course requires:
· Clear planning of broad objectives
· Identification of a clear focus for a unit or lesson
· Careful consideration of learning experiences
· Instruction that addresses the needs of the students and modifications to instruction that allow each learner to attain the understanding and skills required to reach the next level of learning
· Opportunities to demonstrate achievement
· Regular evaluation
Cognitive and Affective Learning in Religious Education
Religious instruction in schools should be handled just as any other course is handled, and should not be considered a less important subject. It should have the same systematic demands and the same rigor as other disciplines. (GDC 73)
The approach to learning in Religious Education is outcomes based. Hence, there are two related and interdependent processes involved: the cognitive (learning about religion in its varied dimensions – the content) and the affective (acquiring and ‘digesting’ the content to draw out its meaning – learning from religion). The cognitive component is centered on the student’s growth in knowledge and understanding as well as skills (communication, thinking, inquiry and application of knowledge). It includes such elements as beliefs, practices, history, symbols, stories, texts, rituals, ethical/moral understandings, and structure of one’s own and others’ religious traditions. The cognitive realm develops rationality, one of the characteristics of Catholicity. This component is the central focus and starting point of religious education; it requires systematic and coherent presentation of religion and that it be explored broadly as well as with some depth. All students, regardless of their own personal belief, can learn about religion and thus undertake religious education in the cognitive realm.
Thomas Groome, noted religious educator, writes that evaluation of the knowledge component of religious education can be as “academically rigorous and challenging as any other approach to teaching in such a context” (Sharing Faith, 276).
In addition, he notes that assessment of learning in religious education calls for evaluations that invite (a) an accurate expression of and familiarity with the cognitive content, (b) understanding that reflects the students’ own analysis of and critical thinking about the cognitive content (most reliably evidenced in an ability to express it clearly in their own way, (c) students’ own evaluation and judgment of the cognitive content encountered, and (d) their chosen and tested perception of its meaning and significance for themselves and others who take it seriously. (Sharing Faith, 276)
The focus of the affective component of religious education is making personal sense of what the student learns at the cognitive level – it is the internalization of content learning. In religious education, the student is challenged to consider the implications of the content of religion for his or her own life and/or to connect it to current or past life experiences. The affective realm, with its capacity to awaken a range of feelings, may lead to integrating the content with one’s own life experience, making creative responses to the content, being drawn into greater awareness of one’s own personal beliefs, and/or having a deeper reflection on and/or engagement with them. It is not possible for a teacher to determine whether affective outcomes have been achieved by the students. This does not preclude them from the teacher’s plan and expectations.
Touching the students’ affective life (their feelings, attitudes, values and/or beliefs) assists the students’ formation in faith, an important dimension of Catholic education. Affective outcomes are personal and are developed over the long term and, out of respect for student’s freedom, are NOT assessed. Nonetheless, in their planning, teachers need to include affective elements along with the cognitive ones. Even though it is not possible to assess the affective domain, it is essential to student learning that there be affective learning (the head and the heart are important). “The cognitive domain is like a skeleton without the skin if we forget to nourish the affective domain.” (Griffin and Nguyen, 2006). Through providing opportunities for reflection and response (e.g., reflective writing, personal journals, meditation, anonymous surveys, conversations/dialogue, music, art) the teacher helps students make their affective learning explicit and enhances student learning even in the cognitive domain.
Assessment of and for Learning in Religious Education
There are two general forms of assessment – of learning which embodies the familiar tests and hand-in assignments of traditional classrooms and for learning which helps both teachers and students track their learning goals and measure their progress in attaining those targets.
As in every other subject area, this model of assessing for and of learning is an important process with which both students and teachers in Religious Education (Roman Catholic) need to engage. Both are aimed at helping students achieve the learning outcomes of their current course of studies and of assisting the teacher to make changes in the classroom strategies to facilitate this learning. These strategies are also about helping students see themselves as life-long learners, continually evaluating how much they know, what they need to know next and how to accomplish that learning.
Assessment for learning is a particularly powerful tool for students who find learning difficult or for other reasons may not be fully engaged in the subject and daily classroom process. As teachers grow in their ability to assess for learning they will help students grow in their ability to master the learning outcomes in each subject and strengthen their accomplishments during their high school educational experience. For some teachers this is new territory and for others it has been their natural way of organizing classroom learning. It involves becoming familiar with the styles of learning of their students, growing in knowledge of student motivation, learning more about flexibility and increasing both the student’s and teacher’s understanding of the goals for learning in a particular subject or program of studies.
As students and teachers both become more aware of what and how they can accomplish the learning goals of each course they become collaborators in the learning process. As students, particularly those who in the past struggled with large course outcomes, see themselves accomplishing the small steps towards a larger goal and finding those steps rewarded and applauded, their engagement in the learning process strengthens.
All assessment should be developed to support student learning. Assessment for learning is the most direct tool in meeting this goal. Ideally it helps students recognize what they already know, what the targets are and what steps are needed to meet these goals. Then, together with the teacher they identify what resources are needed, how learning will proceed and what assessment tools will assist and finally measure their progress. As teachers meet the wide variety of learners that grace the classrooms of our schools, it is important to recognize the need to make resources available so that instruction and assessment meet the challenges of differentiation.
At the beginning of each course a background knowledge check would be very helpful. As in other courses, religious literacy requires a great deal of vocabulary, the development of dialogue and comparison skills, a deepening appreciation for the role of faith in daily life, and the ability to add perspective and background knowledge to media reports.
Pre-assessment will help the teacher determine if remedial outcomes need to be set for certain students and how that learning can be accomplished. By the end of the first month in the course, students should have determined the direction for their major project and laid out a plan for intermediary steps where assessment for learning would facilitate their progress. Students should also, by this time in the course, have developed a strategy for keeping track of the vocabulary and core concepts that make them knowledgeable in every day conversation about the topics under study.
What to Assess?
Religious educators have distinguished four different aspects of learning: 1) knowledge of material; 2) critical thinking and interaction with the material; 3) individual acceptance of the material as meaningful; and 4) actual incorporation into one’s personal life. Religious educators strive to achieve all four outcomes, and to the extent that theses outcomes are achieved or not, perceive their efforts as successful or failing. Which of these lend themselves to evaluation and grading?
a) Knowledge of the material. Here we are in the realm of the cognitive, and can speak of the grasp of religious information. This can be formally tested and graded, just as in another school subject. Some courses are more informational than others. Doctrine, Church history, information and knowledge about world religions, theological questions, and scripture studies contain a good deal of such content whose mastery can be measured. On the other hand, topics such as prayer or morality, with their stress on process, may be less amenable to such calculation but completion and self- analysis are also useful measures.
b) Critical thinking and interaction with the material. This can and should be graded. It is not as objectively measurable as the grasp of information, but a teacher can make a fair judgment of the degree to which the student wrestled with the issues and actively contributed to individual and group learning. Such an assessment is very appropriate in topics which stress the processes of discussion, research and experience.
c) Individual acceptance of the material as meaningful. This is realization of personal belief. This embraces the subjective as well as the objective realm. It is what the teacher hopes and strives for but cannot make happen without the student’s totally free response. It can be elicited and assessed, but should not be formally tested or graded. Having said that, it is part of the whole atmosphere and ethos of Catholic education.
d) Actual incorporation into one’s personal life. Here we are dealing with transformation, with what may be called lived faith. Sometimes this can be observed, but only on the external level, and can rarely be verbalized adequately. Neither the presence nor the absence of this incorporation can be legitimately graded; otherwise we would be judging not academic performance, but the personal life of the student. There is irony here: the most important outcome of our efforts is the one we are most stringently forbidden to reward or penalize. It is also part of the life-long activity of catechesis and again is part of the agenda and responsibility of the whole of the Catholic school education experience.
Once teachers have clarified for themselves what it is that they are marking and how they arrive at the grades, they should strive not only to be fair, but also to be perceived as fair. Assigning marks is often a potential source of misunderstanding and resentment. To minimize this danger, students should be informed, clearly and explicitly, how they will be graded. The use of marking rubrics are suggested in many programs and there are samples available in these courses that help students know their target and know what are the acceptable standards as well as the standards of excellence.
Students must also be reassured that their grades are not a function of their belief or disbelief, or of their agreement or disagreement with the teacher on controversial questions. For this reason, teachers should be careful in marking exercises – essays or research papers – which ask for opinions rather than retention or explanation of information. Nothing must be permitted which would damage the atmosphere of honesty and trust that the teacher has built in the classroom. Marking rubrics and clear standards mean that students can aspire to achieve full marks each step of the way through these courses if they meet the highest levels of standards of excellence.
When evaluating students’ performance, it is well to distinguish different degrees of learning. There is passive retention, whereby the student can recognize the right answer (e.g. in a multiple choice test) or follow the line of reasoning in a teacher’s presentation or understand a piece of writing. Then there is active retention, in which the student can recall what is demanded. This active grasp, which is a superior degree of learning, is demonstrated by the ability to express oneself, to verbalize both by the spoken and the written word. These degrees of skill are important when we remember that the goal of Catholic education is to nurture graduates who are not only well-informed and discriminating, but also articulate and capable of communication and leadership. Religion teachers probably may not expect this of all students, but they should certainly give recognition and encouragement to those who seem to be on the way to achieving it. Higher order thinking skills of synthesis, application, design, etc., are the standards to which the most capable of students are called.
Finally, assessment need not be a one-way street. Just as teachers help students by evaluating their work and pointing out their achievements and shortcomings, so also students can help teachers by offering constructive criticism of their work. Administrators can supply specially constructed forms that enable students, anonymously, to offer positive as well as critical observations. These evaluation instruments touch on such items as command of subject, organization, clarity of presentation, ability to sustain interests, fairness, and relationships with students. Some teachers find this process threatening, and indeed, it is sometimes humbling. But, it can also be encouraging and even surprising. There is no better way to assess how one is really doing in the classroom. The use of evaluation instruments is highly recommended to all teachers, from novices to veterans. It is never too early or too late to learn.
Knowledge of material and critical thinking and interaction can and should be graded, but not personal belief and incorporation into one’s life. A person’s relationship with God is a matter of conscience, the internal forum of the soul. God alone is the arbiter of souls. It is important, therefore, that we avoid the grading or evaluation of a student’s faith.
In evaluating student performance, different levels of learning should be considered, from passive recognition and recall to active mastery, articulate expression and on to synthesis and creativity. We grade the knowledge the student has acquired based on the program of studies and the skills the student is able to show in articulating his/her knowledge. In mixed ability classes that teachers encounter, it is reasonable to suggest that students who demonstrate basic recall and understanding should be able to achieve a passing grade. Once again however, for those who are capable and for whom the motivation is there to excel, the standards of excellence should include demonstration of the highest order of thinking skills and writing ability.
We acknowledge the contribution of Fr. James J. DiGiacomo, SJ, shared in Chapter 8, Teaching Religion in a Catholic Secondary School, 1989.
We encourage teachers to always be mindful of the aesthetic expectations that reside at the heart of the mission of religious education and to find ways to engage students in self-evaluation of various virtues and guidelines. Students might like to develop or set their own behavior goals at the start of a course from lists (e.g., 10 Commandments, 6 Precepts of the Church, behavior codes of respect and affirmation for family and fellow students) then at each reporting period they can engage in a self-assessment against their chosen criteria.
Teachers should also engage in reflective practice. While it is not possible to fully understand the work of the Spirit in the inner lives of our students, teachers might wish to reflect on their own journey as a witness, mentor, and educator in the context of the classroom, e.g. The students in my care may have been successful in terms of academics and learning outcomes, but to what degree did my practice touch minds, change hearts, and nurture growth? Like student self-evaluation, teachers may find it helpful to develop or set their own affective goals at the start of a course that could be used to guide professional and personal development. These beliefs, attitudes, and values goals could involve student attitudes towards a particular Church teaching or practice, improvements in students’ care towards one another, or growth in the appreciation of and desire to pray. Although many of our most important goals are not appropriate to grade, it would be irresponsible to avoid assessing these goals in some other way.