Students must be able to write to convey what they know. Teachers need ways to grade that aren’t too time-consuming and allow them to gauge students’ understanding of material.
A student of psychology must be able to use, explain, and apply several hundred concepts, ranging from incentive to action potential and deindividuation to ego ideal. It is not necessary for students to memorize the textbook definition of any concept; they simply need to know what parts of the definition are needed to make it complete and what might be superfluous so their definition remains tight.
Here are a few effective and efficient ways to assess student understanding.
Ask students to write five to ten definitions per unit. Definitions can be read fairly quickly and are relatively easy to grade, since the scorer needs only to look for key words.
Ask students to write a sentence demonstrating the relationship between two words. No definitions are necessary, only an understanding of each term and a sentence that reflects their relationship. If students can write a sentence showing how population and sample are related, they likely understand a good deal. When students associate social loafing with diffusion of responsibility or connect reinforcement and extinction, they are demonstrating understanding of the relationships between these respective concepts. Sentences demonstrating the relationship between two words are easy to grade; I give three points for each sentence, one for the correct use of each term and the third for a correct relationship between the two words.
Ask students to make distinctions between major concepts: distinguish between random sample and random assignment; between self-serving bias and self-fulfilling prophecy; between tolerance and withdrawal. These distinctions can assist understanding, especially if the concepts can be easily confused. I give five points for a good distinction, since I require that each concept be not only defined but also explained. Two points are awarded for each concept and its explanation and one point is given for the feature that distinguishes them.
Answer free-response questions from old AP Exams. I also create new questions using the same format. Responses to these questions do not have to be lengthy and in fact should be short and direct. Try a question like the following:
Racism is an intractable problem in our country today. Define each of the following concepts and explain how it contributes to the phenomenon of racism.
- Dispositional attribution
- Fundamental attribution error
- Learned helplessness
- Self-fulfilling prophecy
- Cognitive dissonance
If students can appropriately apply their knowledge of psychology to a social problem like racism, they have mastered important concepts.
Summarize landmark experiments
There are many landmark experiments in psychology, many of them accessible to high school students. I have students read and summarize important articles from Scientific American or The American Psychologist. My rubric for summaries ensures that the students include all main ideas but only main ideas. I also teach students how to use APA style when they summarize significant articles. Festinger’s “Cognitive Dissonance” (1962) or Gibson and Walk’s article on the “visual cliff” (1960) are the kind of reports that help students to master sophisticated concepts and to appreciate the creativity needed to design good research. If you have time to grade the summaries, even better.
Write letters throughout the course
I have students write letters to someone they know and like, explaining a concept they have mastered in the unit or during the quarter. This assignment lasts throughout the course. Students choose one recipient. Each letter is submitted unsealed in an addressed, stamped envelope. I read and grade the letters for clarity, accuracy, and depth of understanding; the letters are mailed after they are graded. Each letter defines and describes a concept in the unit and explains its relevance to the student’s life. Most students also address the power of coming to understand a psychological concept.
Students love this exercise; they write to someone for an entire semester or year, and often the recipients of the letters write letters in return. Five, six, or seven letters to one person is not an insignificant communication; many students tell me that this assignment is important not only for their understanding of psychology but also for strengthening their relationships.
Festinger, L. 1962. Cognitive Dissonance. Scientific American (October): 93–102.
Gibson, E. J., and R. D. Walk. 1960. The “Visual Cliff.” Scientific American (April): 64–71.