The benefits of frequent low-stakes assessments are well recognized in education research. Though high-stakes assessments have value, smaller, more frequent assessments have some important and unique benefits: they are formative, not just summative, and they provide real-time feedback to the teacher. Furthermore, they promote student learning by giving students many opportunities to retrieve information from memory.
In the course of my current Mandel Center-sponsored research project, Hasidic Learning, I have observed an assessment technique that takes the benefits of frequent low-stakes assessment and adds to it the benefits of cognitive clinical interviews. The clinical interview is a technique used by researchers to investigate what students understand about a given topic. It is typically semi-structured; that is, it has some anchor questions that are used in all interviews, but no fixed formula throughout. Unlike a standard psychology intervention that follows a set script, the clinical interview allows the researcher flexibility to pursue questions or problems that may arise as the interview unfolds. This lack of rigid structure is a powerful tool in the researcher’s arsenal, allowing him or her to get into the nitty-gritty of student knowledge.
In Hasidic schools (and indeed in most Haredi schools), assessment often takes place using something called an oral “farher”. Unlike a “bechina” (which usually refers to a written test), the “farher” is an oral exam built off of a student’s understanding of the course material, and usually involves a written text (the Humash or Talmud) as its base. The rebbe or menahel (principal) will typically use the text as the backbone of the “interview” in much the same way that a researcher would use a research protocol with investigative tasks as a launching pad for further questions to probe the limits of student understanding. In the schools I’ve observed, these farhers take place every week for every student. This means that every week the principal assesses every child in the school for understanding and has the ability to dig deeply into the details of what they know.
Regardless of the exact format used, the practice is one that I think could be adopted productively in many Jewish education contexts. Aside from the rich data provided to a teacher in the course of the clinical interview, this approach provides frequent opportunities for assessment, gives the students important time for review, and allows the principal to have his or her finger on the pulse of the school.
Read the entire post at the Mandel Center blog.