Alternative Assessments and Feedback in a MakerEd Classroom


by Christa Flores -

The Rapid Growth of “Maker Education” Programs

According to Google Trends (see photo), a new term came into existence and quickly became synonymous with progressive education and a resurgence of STEAM education in America. That term is maker education, or makered for short, and can be seen in the graph as “born” according to google searches, around September of 2004. Although the exact number of makered programs is not currently known, schools that employ a progressive pedagogy (insert the word innovative for those working in the 21st century) or schools that make claims regarding the importance of differentiation, constructivism or experiential learning have built or are building makered programs. At first these programs seemed to be dependent on having state of the art Maker Spaces or FabLabs and high-tech tools, as most were found in well-funded private schools. That picture has changed rapidly in the past ten years since the makered movement has gained popularity, however. More and more public/charter schools and nonprofit programs are building programs for the average American child, that rival many private school programs. In fact, programs with limited budgets and space have reminded us that scarcity or “disability,” are invaluable teachers in any good maker culture, as they breed creativity and self-reliance. Many of the makered programs serving lower income communities have access to mentors who never stopped working with their hands, even when it fell out of status in a consumer driven America in the 1980’s (Curtis 2002). While lower income mentors may not know Python or what an Arduino is, they are skilled carpenters, mechanics, seamstresses, cooks and know what it means to be resourceful.


As with any progressive education discourse that seeks to reform the current education system in America, maker programs serving public schools are at the heart of this movement. Despite hope driven by the first ever White House Maker Faire and President Obama’s declaration of June 17th as the National Day of Making, most public schools still lack access to project or problem based programs. Those working in a makered program, know this kind of work/learning is good for kids, as well as communities and have the energy to fight to keep their programs alive. To support these teachers and to keep makered programs sustainable, i.e. not let them suffer the fate of previous progressive education movements labeled as lacking rigor, we need to be thinking about assessment and we need to be thinking about the following kinds of assessment:

  • Assessments used by students for real learning
  • Assessments used by high schools and colleges for enrollment decisions
  • Assessments used by a community norm system to establish authority or job readiness (badge or certification system)
  • Assessments used to inform the efficacy of a maker program (research)

Defining Assessment and Feedback

Discussing assessment and feedback begins with having a conversation about learning in general. Whether an infant, an adult, or a Jack Russell terrier, learning happens every day and in a rich array of ways. Merriam Webster defines learning as “the activity or process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something.” Albert Einstein described learning as “when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.”

Whether you take the more “traditional school” description offered by Merriam Webster, or the more blissful picture painted by Einstein, learning is a process. It is a process that can be intentional, as when we make a conscious effort to learn Mandarin, or it can be unintended, such as when “mistakes” take us down new and unexpected paths of discovery. For the purpose of this introduction, I will refer only to intentional learning, or events when the learner has a defined learning goal.

While learning is happening, assessment is the cognitive processing of outcomes in an attempt to reach a goal. Assessment is at first a snapshot to determine success or failure, then more deeply, a survey of the factors that led to that success or failure (if done methodically through documentation, this is science). Feedback regarding an action is strongly tied to the physical environment as it reflects the result of the learner’s action. Feedback is observed, and it is also felt by the learner.  Shame, pride, excitement, shock, etc., about the outcome (pass or fail) of actions drives the motivation to act again, and again, learning through iteration.

Adapted from various learning models, including the Kolb model, the diagram below shows the growth pattern a learner follows when seeking to learn, with an intended goal in mind (Kolb and Fry 1975). The goal may be to walk, make a souffle, or pronounce a glottal stop. If the goal is reached, we call that a pass. If the goal is not reached, that can be called a fail. After the action takes place, the learner processes the outcome or consequences of their actions through two filters; their cognitive self and their emotional self. The cognitive self seeks to diagnose the reason for the failure or the success (note: diagnosing failure for avoidance, especially if pain was involved, can be easier than diagnosing a success for repetition). The emotional self fills a vital role at this point. Classroom teachers call this emotional element of learning engagement or motivation. Studies in behavior and neuroscience have shown that emotional responses to success and failures, as long as a failure does not result in death, are key evolutionary tools driving learning (Arias-Carrión, Óscar; Pöppel, Ernst).


When failure is tied to a student’s actions and they are the only one around to witness that failure (privacy to fail), learning occurs naturally and even blissfully. Learners must experience both aspects of assessment, the cognitive, as well as the emotional, to move forward with intention, purpose and passion towards their learning goal.  If success comes too easily, a learner may give up on a task out of boredom. If the task proves too frustrating, the learner may abandon their learning goal, adopt a closed mindset and label themselves as a failure. Finding the perfect balance, a term referred to by some as “funstration” and others as the Zone of Proximal Development, is key.

Student or Teacher Driven Learning and Assessment

When a teacher is handed the responsibility for building the curriculum that his students will be learning from September through June, this is considered a 100% teacher driven learning environment. Often this style of education has pre-set assessment tools made well in advance of their need, in the form of a test or rubric. In contrast, student driven learning would entail students having a degree of choice in the content they will study, the skills they will be building or the assessment used to illustrate their learning.  Some combination of teacher and student centered learning is more likely the typical experience, but there are clear differences seen in public versus private school education settings.

In a traditional academic setting the teacher functions as the dark orange square in the above diagram (the cognitive processing of a success or failure). As such, the teacher is entrusted with the wisdom, expertise and fairness to assess each student’s level of and potential for learning, at least in one discipline. When the learner is removed from the critical assessment process in this way, they are left with how they feel about a success or failure, but are not encouraged to take part in the empowering aspect of constructing the causal relationships between their actions and their successes or failures. Removing the cognitive from the emotional, for both learner and teacher, creates an imbalance that gives assessment in a rote learning environment a bad name.


“[Making] is intrinsic, whereas a lot of traditional, formal school is motivated by extrinsic measures, such as grades. Shifting that control from the teacher or the expert to the participant to the non-expert, the student, that’s the real big difference here.”

-Dale Dougherty


In a maker classroom, learning is inherently experiential and can be very student driven; assessment and feedback needs to look different than a paper test to accurately document and encourage learning. Regardless of how you feel about standardized testing, making seems to be immune to it for the time being (one reason some schools skip the assessment piece and still bill making as an enrichment program). Encouragingly, the lack of any obvious right answers about how to measure and gauge success and failure in a maker classroom, as well as the ambiguity about how making in education fits into the common standards or college readiness debate, has not stopped schools from marching forward in creating their own maker programs.

Qualitative versus Quantitative Assessment and Feedback

Grades are quantitative, discrete numbers, asked to be a standard language of achievement. Grades are by definition summative, or a non-flexible snapshot of what a student knows and does not know at any point in time. Due to the nature of these discrete, universal numbers they are used to rank children locally (within their classroom or community), as well as globally, and have enjoyed the status of proof of rigor. Whether you are a 10 year old in Santa Cruz, California, or a 10 year-old in Nairobi, an A in math is supposed to mean something. In contrast, formative assessment is a vital element in the process of learning and is best left to qualitative tools; such as oral feedback from peers and adults, narratives and self-assessments. Unfortunately, formative assessments lack the status given to a letter grade.  Although new methods for assessing meaningful work and learning through projects are emerging, take Maker portfolios now accepted at MIT for example, we are still working primarily within a grade-based system.  As a result, any project can be graded using a clear set of concept or skill related goals in the form of a rubric.  

In summary, giving a grade based on a paper test to measure achievement in STEAM still fails to compute in a maker education program, and other quantitative assessments may have a lifespan as well. Neuroscience and educational research assures us that qualitative feedback and self-assessment do more for passion based learning then red marks on a test or high scores on standardised tests. The difference translates to mindsets, argues Mariale Hardiman, professor of education at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and cofounder and director of the university's Neuro-Education Initiative. “As the research strongly suggests,” states Hardiman, “when students focus on mastery of learning rather than on their performance on tests, they significantly increase their intrinsic motivation for learning.”

Facing Assessment in Public and Private Schools Today

If we look closely at the pedagogical backbone of makered, the lens would clearly reveal experiential learning and student driven projects, which can be more challenging to assess, at its core. That being said, as paid professionals we need to adhere to a few constraints, while we also strive to help kids be their best. Those two main constraints are standardized curriculum, as a result of an industrialized model of education, and current assumptions about college preparation and career readiness.  Below is a breakdown of each, as they relate to assessment in public and private PK-12 schools today.

1) the Common Core - Described by the well-intentioned as “a common set of rigorous national standards (that) will transform American education, prepare students for college and careers, and allow our nation to maintain international competitiveness,“ the Common Core is a set of educational benchmarks in math and literacy designed to be taught, then tested for proficiency by schools. Essentially the Common Core is a management strategy to hold schools accountable for their use of government funding. Resulting test scores on Common Core assessment determine how “well” a school is doing at educating America's children. In as simple of terms possible, the Common Core ensures that schools with good test scores are given continued funding for a job well done.

I hope we can all agree that a one size fits all model to force accountability in public schools is an Orwellian and inelegant solution to a systemic failure of industrialized education. That said, its the law of the land for most American children. We owe it to those children to disrupt the system with measurable evidence of how using a makered program to teach math and literacy is better than using a one size fits all curriculum, that focuses on testing versus experiential learning.

2) College Prep versus Life Prep - Just as the common core promises to maintain standards in the public school industry, college readiness is the number one claim made by most private schools. After all, any adult life worth having would follow the expected trajectory of college first, then a prosperous career (an assumption worth on average $19,820 a year if your child attends a school within the National Association of Independent Schools). The problem is, college preparatory schools can not guarantee that all of their clients get into top high schools or colleges, only the top performing students will receive those slots, and thus the race begins. Assessment in this environment is driven by raking students rather than focusing on learning and growth, something that can occur in a competitive environment for some, but not others.  In the year 2014, some outspoken educational reformers, such as Ken Robinson, are now arguing that college might get you a good unpaid internship, but a well paying career is not guaranteed. Prepping for life, on the other hand, according to Tony Wagner in Creating Innovators, is about cultivating mindsets, especially those that support creative problem solving and entrepreneurialism for a rapidly changing global economy.

Regardless of well intentioned educational reform debates, there are still powerful systems of status quo in the higher education realm that are trickling all the way down to pre-kindergarten pedagogy in ways that would make you cringe. College readiness has become synonymous with stressed out, competitive, over-booked youth that struggle with autonomy and are more “at risk” than their lower-income counterparts. Its not good for kids and its not good for family dynamics either.  Assessments used by admissions that support the current status quo in college readiness, good or bad, set the standards for the rest of the independent school industry. Teachers that fall into this category need evidence that making is important for college readiness, as that definition currently stands, in ways that rival standardized test scores. Research and collaboration around best practice for switching from test-based assessments to alternative systems, such as portfolios, is a vital component to keeping makered programs sustainable.




Works Cited:

  1. Arias-Carrión, Óscar; Pöppel, Ernst (2007) “Dopamine, learning, and reward-seeking behavior.” Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis, Vol 67(4), 2007, 481-488
  2. Barseghian, Tina (July 9, 2014) “A School That Ditches All the Rules, But Not the Rigor” Blog for Mind/Shift
  3. Borovoy, Amy Erin and Cronin Ashley (2013) “Resources for Understanding the Common Core State Standards” Edutopia article July 2013.
  4. Costanza, Kathleen (September 17, 2013) “The Maker Movement Finds Its Way Into Urban Classrooms” Blog for Mind/Shift
  5. Curtis, Adam (2002) “The Century of the Self” British documentary series on the influence of Sigmund Freud
  6. David Kolb’s theory of the “Learning Cycle”
  7. Dougherty, Dale founder of MAKE Magazine, from the short documentary “We Are Makers.” Google Trends search for “maker education” and “maker movement”
  8. Hardiman, Mariale  and Whitman, Glenn  (Winter 2014) “Assessment and the Learning Brain What the Research Tells Us” Independent School Magazine, NAIS
  9. Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) “Toward an applied theory of experiential learning;” in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley.
  10. Obama, Barack (June 17, 2014) Presidential Proclamation -- National Day of Making, 2014