I have been thinking about verifying understanding frequently. I have mentioned this before but, as a scuba instructor, I am very familiar with the techniques of mastery learning. In this essentialist, assessment-based world we live in, mastery learning becomes very relevant. Simply put, in mastery learning, you do not get to move on until you have mastered the material in front of you. The clear implication of this is that each student will be tested until that mastery is fully demonstrated. In my class, my students will expect to be challenged daily. They will understand that being challenged is like lifting weights, failure is precursor to success.
Of course, one of the first things I will expect my students to master is the art of taking tests. They will study test taking and they will practice it. Multiple choice and composing essays on the fly are skills like any other. My tests will be as challenging and devious as any the standards boards can devise, more so because mine are teaching tools. Challenges will not just be tests, they will come in many creative forms. In addition to tests and quizzes, I will ask students to “teach back” what they have just learned. Maybe that means giving a quick verbal description. Maybe it means preparing a five-minute mock lesson. Alternatively, maybe it means breaking up in groups to work together to achieve mastery, with individual success dependent on collective success.
Sometimes the best path is the crooked one. Maybe the test will be writing a poem about algebra. Or maybe it will be “draw a map of the island in Lord of the Flies.” Maybe the students will make a probability matrix for the American Revolution. The best way to learn something is to take it apart completely and re-assemble it. The other best way is practice, practice, practice.
One final note: key concepts and facts will appear on quizzes long after the unit is done. Anything worth learning is worth still knowing at the end of the school year.