Formative Classroom Assessment Using Cooperative Groups: Vygotsky and Random Assignment

Article excerpt

The formative classroom assessment using cooperative groups described in this paper has four purposes: (1)to increase students' understanding of concepts through verbal interaction with peers, (2) to provide feedback to the instructor on the cognitive processes students use to answer questions, (3) to reinforce the classroom learning environment, and (4) to model a variety of assessment methods. Students are randomly assigned to groups of four or five just before the test materials are distributed. Each student receives a test booklet and a scantron sheet for his or her answers--to be marked after discussion with the group. Group consensus is neither required nor encouraged. Student reaction to this assessment format has been uniformly positive.

Traditionally, the major function of classroom assessment in undergraduate and graduate university courses has been to measure the individual student's learning in order to provide feedback to the student and to spread student scores to assign grades (Sax, 1997). Designing assessments to spread student scores permits the use of the normal curve to assign grades. "Grading on the curve" guarantees competition among students and often ensures a competitive tone to the classroom. Traditional norm-referenced grading is also based on the assumption that the grades of students in upper-level and graduate classes can be expected to range from "A" through "F." Recently, more and more university professors have questioned this assumption as they consider contract grading and mastery learning (Linn & Gronlund, 2000; Sax, 1997).

There are additional purposes for classroom assessment in higher education. Formative assessment (often the "midterm") is used to provide feedback to the students and instructors; summative assessment (the "final") is used to determine whether the student will pass or fail the course. The formative classroom assessment using cooperative groups described in this paper has hour additional purposes:

   1. To increase students' understanding of concepts through verbal
   interaction with peers (Bandura, 1986; Johnson & Johnson, 1994:
   Schrunk, 1987; Vygotsky, 1978);

   2. To provide feedback to the instructor on the cognitive processes
   students use to answer questions (Webb, Nemer, Chizhik, & Surgrue,
   1975).

   3. To reinforce the classroom learning environment (Brookhart, 2000:
   Griffin, 1994; Klecker, 2000).

   4. To model a variety of assessment methods (Brosnan & Hartog, 1993:
   Linn & Gronlund, 2000; Sax, 1997).

The formative classroom assessment using cooperative groups was designed to measure how well the individual student responds to an assessment question after he or she has had an opportunity to discuss the answers with peers. This alternative context for assessment is grounded in the theory that students learn better by collaborating and discussing concepts with peers than by constructing answers in isolation (e.g., Vygotsky, 1978).

Cooperative assessment grew from cooperative learning and assumptions about the teaching and learning process in higher education. These assumptions have long roots in American education. Dewey (1910) criticized the use of competition in education and advocated that schools be structured as democratic learning communities. Boe (1994) suggested that cooperative group work in classrooms should be followed by cooperative group assessment because it "implements the ideals of democracy in the classroom" (p. 5).

Additional assumptions underlying democratic learning were outlined--then illuminated--by Smith & MacGregor (1998) in their description of cooperative learning in higher education:

   1. Learning is an active, constructive process. To learn new
   information, ideas, or skills, students have to work actively with
   them in purposeful ways ...

   2. Learning depends on rich contexts.... Instead of being distant
   observers of questions and answers, or problems and solutions,
   students become immediate practitioners . …