What Neuroscience Reveals About What We Should Assess in the Student’s Brain

What if assessment could look like this?

By Scott Sterling

At Learning Sciences International, we’re starting 2015 with many exciting developments. One of them is the release of a fascinating new book, Brain-Friendly Assessments: What They Are and How to Use Them, written by Dr. David A. Sousa, a bestselling author and consultant in educational neuroscience. This series of blog posts highlights some of the topics covered in the book.

Ask teachers what they’re measuring during an assessment and they’ll usually say they’re measuring students’ progress toward a relatively arbitrary standard devised by a governing body. That’s no frivolous pursuit. For better or worse, standards reflect what society expects of students once they emerge from school.

What is learning?

Is it the ability to remember things? That’s the first step, but it is one of the most basic functions the brain performs (depending on what is being remembered). Is it the ability to perform a task? Partly, depending on one’s philosophy about what a person’s purpose is to society. Regardless, learning needs to happen in the brain. Therefore, it makes sense to assess in ways that reflect how the brain works.

How does learning work?

No one fully knows how the brain works, and perhaps no one ever will. The science is continuously expanded and revised. However, in simplified terms, learning involves memory—particularly long-term memory. Once the brain has stored a piece of information, it can access it for an extended period.

For something to move into long-term memory, it has to make sense and have meaning to the student. Things must build on top of each other. How can multiplication make sense to a student who can’t count?

Then comes meaning. Students who always ask, “Where are we going to use this?” aren’t just being annoying; they’re searching for meaning so they can move the lesson to long-term memory.

Long-term memory includes what students are remembering and how they can use it, whether learners are engaging in rote memorization or complex tasks that will become second nature. We find the synthesis and cohesion of these memories in taxonomies, the most famous of which was proposed by Benjamin Bloom in the 1950s and revised early in the last decade. Teachers are more than familiar with it.

What should we assess? 

A simple assessment may just involve an educator asking a student for information. Current higher-order assessments might explore how a student can use the information to perform a particular task. That is a particular goal of new standards and their aligned assessments.

What could be of more value to the teacher is to know how the student’s brain is working. Is information moving in the right direction? Is it combining knowledge in a way that moves the student up the taxonomy toward higher-order thinking? If not, why?

If every student wore a sensory device that measured brain activity, organized data, and sent the data to the teacher through another device, educators could monitor how students’ brains work during each lesson and instantaneously change their instructional approach as needed. Technology hasn’t provided this option yet, but isn’t that the ultimate goal in assessment? Teachers already do this, to a degree—sometimes subconsciously.

Current assessment strategies are great for helping teachers figuring out who knows what; the diagnostic piece is the greater challenge. Why do they know (or not know) the information? A change in assessment strategies can help teachers move toward that ideal—without the need for headwear.

Don’t miss next week’s post, The Difference Between Assessment and Testing, as we continue with this series. To go on a much deeper dive into the world of neuroscience and assessment, order Dr. Sousa’s Brain-Friendly Assessments: What They Are and How to Use Them from the Learning Sciences International bookstore.


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