21st Century Teaching and Learning: Assessing New Knowledge


In Part 1 of this two-part series on 21st century teaching and learning, I stated:

Current mobile technology challenges [instructional] design even further as it demands a totally different approach to instructional design and also teaching methodology. It requires fluidity never before seen and new skills from both teacher and student. In fact, I would argue that while we focus on the skills needed for students in the 21st Century, we must discuss more and learn more about the skills required of teachers in the 21st Century.

Much has been discussed about the new roles teachers and students play in learning environments created by using new technology and the types of skills required of students in this century. Those skills tend to be softer skills like team building, cooperative communication strategies, self-direction, and the academic skills of critical and applied thinking, new knowledge construction and collaborative learning techniques. Alongside this dialog is another sociological discussion currently in progress attempting to define millennial students; their characteristics, expectations, and preferences in life and learning (Howe, Strauss & Matson 2000; Howe & Strauss, 2006). Much has been and is being written about how the new student characteristics should affect instructional design and increase technology use. Not so much, however, is being discussed about how these kinds of changes should affect assessment and the recognition in terms of academic value of the skills that are being developed in the learning process.

New Skills: Assessing Process
The theory of connectivism (Siemens, 2004) is interesting in this context. This theory proposes that technology and making connections in learning are linked--a combination of connectivism and constructivist methods: Learning processes previously confined to learning theory can now be actively supported by technology. Solomon and Schrum (2007) suggest that current educational trends based on standards and tests lean towards teacher-driven instruction, while the required 21st century skills of higher order thinking skills, application of technology, and adapting to change and workplace skills, among others, require new methods and new assessment measures. The challenge for teachers according to these authors is to find ways to support in-depth learning and increased student achievement, "...while also employing a variety of measures, including standardized tests." What kinds of new methods would provide the kind of learning environments and learning measurements that truly reflect the learning that is taking place? What new skills are needed if instructors are to meet this challenge?

Often, those very same math teachers, however, would not grant a passing grade for an incorrect result even if the thinking demonstrated excellent logic and well thought out connections.

Identifying new skills here does not refer to content area as much as process; thinking, interaction, collaboration, communication, application: All represent areas of process. Each of these areas is included in any process of teaching and learning. While each of these can be researched individually and its interplay with other processes in learning analyses, I would suggest that teachers/instructors in current educational environments must be aware of how new forms of communication, new ways of thinking, and new expectations and needs for application can be accommodated and valued in the learning process. That is, teachers being involved in assessment that not only assesses the outcome of the process but the process itself. Formerly, the assessment of process was more about the end result than the method you chose to arrive at that result. For example, occasionally, progressive math teachers concerned with concept building might ask students to represent their calculative methods in an attempt to validate the concept and the thinking process involved, as well as the end result. Often, those very same math teachers, however, would not grant a passing grade for an incorrect result even if the thinking demonstrated excellent logic and well thought out connections.

Currently, with the integration of new technology in every aspect of students' lives, process must be part of the assessment rubric as process is precisely what new technology demonstrates more clearly than ever before. The use of new technology provides students with ways to change things, create new things, apply learning in new ways and beyond the confines of a pre-set course. Therefore in method and delivery, the focus is on process throughout. That is not to say that the end result is not important. Indeed in many disciplines the end result is vital. It does mean, however, that students have more opportunity to make new paths in their learning and find new ways of achieving the end result and that the level of process innovation is something that should be valued in the assessment.

There will always be those students who do not demonstrate innovation--those are students who desire pre-set formulas and templates for success. Teachers struggle to find ways to move these students beyond the formulas and encourage critical thinking and application. The problem is, when the thinking occurs, we (educators) still usually reward only the end result and not the process by which students arrived at the end result. Now with new technology, those processes are not only essential for effective technology use but can also be digitally captured and used as a demonstration of the process and ultimately the learning that has taken place. That is, when students take advantage of the tools given to them to enter into a different level of engagement, those students' efforts should be recognized, and the skills needed to perform to that level should be valued.

The following is a diagram illustrating the method by which this kind of assessment can take place. Aspect A illustrates a fairly regular approach to assessment design in learning. Aspect B illustrates what may be incorporated should teachers choose to value new levels of innovation, design, and application in student learning.

Assessing Learning: Aspect A

Assessing Learning: Aspect B

Therefore, while the initial "required" results are still included, they are now part of a larger whole that is driven by process. The ways in which things are done are also valued; the new ideas and methods are valued along the way; and, ultimately, the end result is continued learning rather than a pre-set product. Not only can new technology assist in the process, new digital tools such as wikis and blogs can capture the connections within the process to help with assessment. Additionally collaboration now can be digitally traced so that isolation does not happen.

Therefore, teachers are challenged to become more aware of the teaching and learning process and to assess it accordingly. Mark Smith (2007) argues:

For all the talk of learning amongst educational policymakers and practitioners, there is a surprising lack of attention to what it entails. ...It is almost as if it is something unproblematic that can be taken for granted. Get the instructional regime right, the message seems to be, and learning (as measured by tests and assessment regimes) will follow. This lack of attention to the nature of learning inevitably leads to an impoverishment of education. It isn't simply that the process is less effective as a result, but what passes for education can actually diminish well-being (1999).

Smith discusses the various theories of learning to illustrate the complexity of learning itself but also suggests that there is a difference between "knowing that" and "knowing how" and that if learning is only seen as a product, the "how' and "why" of learning will be diminished (Smith 1999). It is precisely the "how" and "why" that can be recognized and valued when process is emphasized in learning. Assessment therefore is more complex but more complete; less predictable but more reliable.

Supporting the Process
As I have taught graduate students of education for the last eight years, I have discovered that I can never assume the learning process. If I am to focus on recognition of the process, I must support the process, remain committed to the process, and then reward the process at the end of the course. Additionally, I feel particularly successful as an instructor when, at the end of the course, students realize they are "just beginning" with the content area and now believe they have the tools to continue their own learning in the subject area. In order to support and facilitate the learning process to that extent, I have discovered that in designing the instruction I must move beyond course objectives, focus on learning outcomes, and then think through ways students can demonstrate their journey in exploration and discovery toward the learning outcomes. I fully expect each student to demonstrate his or her own learning path, but, as I use new technology, I can clearly see that path and reward it accordingly. For example, if I desire students to grapple with certain core concepts in a topic area, rather than state the concepts initially, I provide resources and tools to support their discovery of the concept and provide time and space for the "process area" to proceed (Aspect B).

Additionally, I provide summative assessments that require an application of the concept or concepts in a real-life setting that is relevant to each student (therefore different from student to student) and will, therefore, provide the context within which the concept will not only be meaningful but will more likely be learned and applied in their professional practice--enhanced learning outcome (Aspect B).

Therefore, for one concept or concept area, the instructional design includes:

  • Online and hardcopy text resources (articles, papers, textbook etc.);
  • Online discussion topics, blogs, or wikis;
  • In-class group work; and
  • In-class and online project work and new knowledge work.

This process is in place for each concept or concept area and can be captured for assessment purposes. Providing clear rubrics ahead of time guides the process but does not dictate the process. Additionally, each course provides an opportunity for class groups to think through a project that best demonstrates their new knowledge work and how it applies to real life. Finally, a self-directed research paper customizes the concept learning, critical thinking, and application of learning for each student. Each research paper is different, and each application of learning is different. These summative exercises help students to understand their own learning and "see" how it affects their own knowledge and practice. While this presents many data sources for me as an instructor to evaluate, the data are still within the confines of the course and relevant to the subject area but demonstrate the learning process that has taken place for each student, and ultimately stretch me as an instructor in my own learning and understanding of the subject.

Throughout the learning process, students can become frustrated as most conventional learning environments do not expect students to engage at this level, and students ask me often to "short-circuit" the process and simply tell them what I'm looking for , "...so we can get an A and move on." Therefore, commitment to the process is essential for any instructor, and expectations must remain high so that students should engage, if real learning is to take place. As I have remained committed to the learning process, on many occasions I have had students (sometimes up to two years after the course) contact me to tell me that while they felt frustrated they finally realize what I was attempting and that they have never felt so engaged or that the learning was as relevant as from my expectations that they remain focused on the learning process: They could see how it changed their thinking and their professional practice.

As technology continues to change and affect how students think and process information, instructors must realize that there is an opportunity to now capture and assess in ways not formerly possible. Research continues to enforce the importance of learning as a process, student engagement, and learning outcomes in the process of learning. Technology does not change these realities, but it can provide new ways to evaluate learning through clear demonstration and new ways to challenge students in the process. In order to maximize these opportunities, we as instructors must be willing to move away from conventional forms of assessment and, using new tools available to us, create new ways of assessing actual learning. Ultimately this will not only benefit students directly, but grow our content area knowledge and methodology as instructors: Our skills can expand to as high a level of innovation as we demand from our students.


Howe, N, Strauss, W, Matson, R.J. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Generation. Vintage Books, N.Y.

Howe, N, Strauss, W. (2006). Millennials and the Pop Culture. LifeCourse Associates, USA.

Siemens, G. (2004, Dec. 12). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.

Soloman, G; Schrum, L. (2007). Web 2.0: new tools, new schools. International Society for Technology in Education OR, USA.

Smith, M. K. (1999) 'Learning theory', the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm

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About the author: Ruth Reynard is the director of faculty for Career Education Corp. She can be reached at [email protected].

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