In Canada and internationally, there is an increasing trend towards integrated Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and mathematics (STEAM) education to better prepare students to contribute to a just and sustainable world. Through integrated STEAM education, students typically collaborate to design, test, and refine solutions to real-world problems. Educational policymakers have recognized that, through this process, students can develop key transferrable skills, such as critical thinking, self-regulated learning, and communication skills. Further, the recent addition of the arts to STEM education has been shown to amplify the benefits of an integrated curricular approach. Rather than merely shoehorning in the arts, STEAM education emphasizes the creative aspects of science that are already inherent to the subject. Think innovation, communication, and aesthetics.
One of the main roadblocks to moving towards an integrated STEAM- based approach in the classroom is assessment. Current assessment approaches in schools are focused on monitoring and supporting learning within specific subject areas, leaving teachers with little guidance on how to leverage assessment to cultivate the knowledge and skills underpinning integrated learning, e.g., collaboration, communication, and creativity. Assessing students in STEAM education requires a change in assessment philosophy, a difficult but not insurmountable task, as some teachers have already begun to navigate these assessment challenges to champion STEAM education. In our study, we interviewed and collected assessment artifacts from these teachers to see how they used assessment to maximize integrated learning (Dubek et al., 2021). Here, we’ve compiled their experiences into practical advice.
Collaborate with students in assessment and grading.
One of the most powerful resources teachers have is their own students. Through conferencing, teachers and students can work together to co-construct final grades, teaching students advocacy and reflection practices. One teacher reported conferencing with each student at the end of each STEAM unit, giving them a chance to present an “e-portfolio” of journal entries detailing their learning journey to determine a final grade, rather than assigning a summative project. Co-constructing assessment criteria can help create shared expectations and reveals what students identify as key goals, concepts, and skills they want to demonstrate. Discussions with students can also be used to evaluate skills and concept knowledge directly, either formatively or summatively. Several teachers in our study advocated for the practice of regularly conferencing one-to-one with students to assess knowledge and provide feedback. As one teacher put it, “What you get from that conference is mind-blowing. You know where they’re at. And you can’t get that on a project report… on a test. It’s got to be one-to-one.”
Adopt a broad view assessment and document the learning journey.
Instead of assessing and grading through summative “snapshots” of students’ learning, teachers in our study collected ongoing evidence to make the whole learning journey visible. Teachers need not rely solely on a few instruments for documenting the learning journey. One helped students keep digital diaries of their daily learning: “[students are] using Book Creator… or Spark Video… so they’re recording themselves and their thinking and then they put that all together in the end in a presentation that captures their journey.” The learning journey can also be documented informally, by asking students process-oriented and guiding questions during their problem-solving. These questions can be valuable thinking points for students and evidence for teachers to track student learning progress. Artifacts from documentation stand to provide valuable support to teachers and students in justifying final grades during grade co-construction conferences. Teachers should feel comfortable documenting and considering interactions when assigning final grades to students, especially when reviewing multiple sources of learning evidence. Professional judgment when assigning grades in these contexts is encouraged by assessment policies in Canada, and teachers can further inform their professional judgment when grading by marking with other teachers and having discussions about how they assign grades.
Try planning with learning skills in mind.
Although traditional numerical grades often take the spotlight for teachers and students when reporting on student progress, teachers looking to implement STEAM education in their classrooms found it helpful to emphasize learning skills and global competencies when designing assessments. As one teacher reminded us, “It needs to be about the skills that we’re developing in STEM, not [just] about the content.” Unlike content-based knowledge, learning skills are the same across subjects, giving teachers the flexibility to design multidisciplinary assessments with specific learning skills, like initiative or collaboration, in mind. Planning with the learning skills in mind offered teachers the freedom to design rich integrated STEM education tasks, which resulted in a variety of curricular content areas being covered and ultimately assessed. As learning progresses, being flexible in success criteria can help teachers adapt to students’ design solutions and approaches. Ultimately, teachers struck a balance between learning skills and disciplinary knowledge, using formative quizzes and “just-in-time” mini-lessons to focus on key curricular objectives, while using observations and conferencing to assess learning skills.
Developing effective assessment practices for STEAM education is a challenge that requires a dynamic and holistic approach from teachers. When planning for assessment, STEAM teachers may benefit from striking a balance between subject-specific objectives and learning skills. Centring students in the assessment process can help teachers gain insight into interdisciplinary skills students are learning (e.g., collaboration), invites students to become drivers of their own learning, and erodes power differentials between teacher and learner. Perhaps most importantly, letting go of the desire for “objective” assessments and instead aiming to document and contextualize the learning process as it is happening stands to free up STEAM teachers to use assessment to drive students’ integrated learning forward. Assessment is key in supporting integrated approaches that allow students to take ownership of their learning.
Dubek, M., DeLuca, C., & Rickey, N. (2021). Unlocking the potential of STEAM education: How exemplary teachers navigate assessment challenges. The Journal of Educational Research, 114(6), 513-525. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2021.1990002
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Alex Hemmerich is a Teacher Candidate from Queen’s University in the Intermediate/Secondary stream. He graduated with a B.ScH in Chemistry from Queen’s University in 2022 and hopes to teach high school chemistry in the near future.
Nathan Rickey is a PhD student in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University. Nathan’s research focuses on unpacking the ways in which learners think and feel during self-assessment activities. As a researcher, Nathan draws on his experience as a secondary school English teacher which taught him the importance of activating learners as the central agents in assessment processes.
Michelle Dubek is a former elementary school teacher and Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream at OISE/University of Toronto. Michelle’s research focuses on progressive science education pedagogies, including integrated science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) education across the curriculum.
Christopher DeLuca is an Associate Dean at the School of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs and Professor in Educational Assessment at the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. Chris leads the Classroom Assessment Research Team and is Director of the Queen’s Assessment and Evaluation Group. Chris’ research examines the complex intersection of assessment, curriculum, and pedagogy as operating within the current context of school accountability and standards-based education.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2023 issue.