Checkups and Autopsies in the Classroom

Bernard Bull The Lutheran Educator Leave a Comment

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I think you will agree that checkups and autopsies are two completely different things. They serve different purposes. They meet different needs. You might be wondering what in the world I’m writing here, but stay with me and I’ll explain the important lesson we can glean from this.

The first is all about determining a person’s health and then responding accordingly. A checkup is a chance to do just what the word suggests. The health care professional checks to see how a person is doing. Ideally, this is a done early and often enough that it is proactive. They check weight, blood pressure, and other vitals and do an overall exam. If things are going well, the doctor says so. If there are risk factors or an indication that something might not be going well, doctor and patient develop a plan to address those issues.

Autopsies serve a different purpose. The doctor is not there to get the patient healthy or to check on how things are going for the person. Instead, it is all about determining the cause of death, learning from what happened, and using that information to potentially help other people.

Why am I writing about checkups and autopsies in a blog about education? Some might have heard me speak about this. I find these two concepts to be a useful way to talk about two distinct types of assessment. Both play a valuable role, but it is important to understand their differences.

The checkup is sort of like what we call formative assessment in education. Formative assessment is about checking up on the students as they progress in their learning. The teacher can find out how the student is doing. What’s working? What’s not? What are the strengths? What are the struggles? Is there progress toward a specific learning goal, or is the student possibly off track? This is a chance for not only the teacher but also the students to learn about their progress and needs.

This checkup assessment is not about giving grades or adding points to a grade book. It is about monitoring learning, gaining insights about how to help each student, and giving students good and important feedback on their progress toward each learning goal. Show me a classroom where students are growing and thriving and you are likely to see lots of good plans for formative feedback.

If formative assessment is absent, it will be much harder for students to reach goals. There will likely be greater student anxiety and uncertainty. The “top” students may still thrive, but others are more likely to be left behind. If our classroom is about helping as many students as possible to make as much progress as possible, then formative assessment is one of our best tools. It works. It works incredibly well.

In fact, if you reflect on how you learned almost anything, especially something that you learned to do exceedingly well, you will see that formative assessment and feedback was an important part. Even if the teacher wasn’t especially helpful in providing it, you found sources of feedback that allowed you to persistently and frequently check to see how you were doing. You used that feedback to adjust and improve.

This is a great reminder for us as teachers. Checkups should be frequent, specific, and thorough. They should be used to help students thrive in their learning.

Then there is the autopsy. I like to think of summative assessment as the autopsy. The goal is a final grade, a high-stakes test score, or something similar. Unlike a true autopsy, that feedback can be used by the student to change or adjust. However, it is also something more permanent. The grade is assigned. The test is complete and the score is issued. In many ways, it is more of a document of what you did in the past. It allows students to show what they did or didn’t accomplish. It might become part of a permanent record. It plays a role, but one that is much different from that of the checkup.

Some classes are heavy on the autopsies and light on the checkups. Whenever a student gets feedback on work, points or grades are assigned. Students can still learn from that grade, but their mistakes stick with them. When I practice an instrument for a big performance, I can make mistakes and learn from them without those mistakes being visible to everyone, permanently recorded, or seen on the big performance day. That practice is just to get me ready for the big day when I do my best to perform at the highest possible level. Yet, some classes are set up so that each “practice” is like a small part of the final performance, adding or removing points.

There is plenty of room for difference of opinion about assessment practices, what should be done in a given class. Yet, I offer these two distinctions as a way of thinking about the role of assessment plans. What do you hope to accomplish with your assessment plan? How does it support your goals for each student? How does it help the most possible students learn as much as possible? After all, assessment is just a tool to accomplish the primary task of helping students thrive as learners.


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About the Author

Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is Assistant Vice President of Academics and Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin. He has 20+ years of experience in Lutheran education ranging from middle school to graduate school and parish education. He is also the editor of the forthcoming CPH book, Pedagogy of Faith. Bernard’s work focuses upon futures in education, educational innovation, and the intersection of education & digital culture. You can read his latest posts here.

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