Why Assess in Physical Education?

By Stephen Jefferies, Toni Jefferies, and Wendy Mustain

April 16, 1997
Copyright © 1997, PE Central

A major implication of educational reform presently occurring in many states is the expectation that teachers should be able to show what students are learning as a result of their participation in physical education. While this might not sound very new, after all most of us who teach PE obviously know what we are teaching, some different expectations need to be appreciated.

First, stating what you are teaching (e.g. basketball dribbling, shooting, and passing) does not adequately answer the question, What are the students learning? In view of the vastly different skill levels of students entering many PE classes, what each individual student will learn by the end of the class will also be different. Second, you should anticipate being able to answer a parent who poses the question, What is my son/daughter learning? or even more specifically, What is it that my daughter/son will be able to do after this class that s/he couldn't do before? Responding to such questions will demand information that many of us do not presently have available.

Different Assessment Methods

Currently the most widely-used assessments in PE are fitness tests. As you know, with most of these tests a student score is compared to a table of norms and given a rating. This is an example of a norm-referenced or quantitative test. You probably also know that similar tests are available for the tennis forehand while rallying against the wall (e.g. correct grip, sideways position, keeping the racquet head up, etc.). While the student might not be ready to play the game of tennis, improvement would be evident. For physical educators, a measure of learning and conversely teaching effectiveness would become available.

With more complex skills or when students are introduced to new skills, learning often occurs more slowly and performance of the whole skill is not a good measure of learning and improvement. In these instances it is often more useful to use qualitative types of assessment. In qualitative tests, as the name suggests, we are looking for changes in the quality of the skill as it is performed rather than the outcome. For example, for a genuine beginner it would take a long time to be ready to rally a tennis ball against a wall for one minute using the proper forehand technique. Assessing this student's learning from a one minute rallying test would not adequately indicate what the student had really learned. A better measure might be to ask the student to demonstrate the key parts of the tennis forehand while rallying against the wall (e.g. correct grip, sideways position, keeping the racquet head up, etc.). While the student might not be ready to play the game of tennis, improvement would be evident. For physical educators, a measure of learning and conversely teaching effectiveness would become available.

There are many ways to assess a student's knowledge of the key parts of a motor skill. In addition to actually demonstrating them to a teacher or peer, a student can communicate knowledge about the skill cognitively in a variety of ways. This provides inclusion for the student who, while understanding the hows and whys of a concept or skill in physical education, as yet may be unable to demonstrate proficiency in performing them. Armed with the knowledge however, the student can become an independent learner and continue to refine his/her skills and use of concepts outside the physical education setting. Here are a couple of examples:

    Example 1: School Newspaper Article

    Ask students to work in groups of 2 or 3 (solo if they prefer) and create an article for the school newspaper that would provide instruction about a motor skill to the reader. Students can be asked to seek outside sources of information, and provide illustrations or photographs that would be helpful in clarifying their instructions.

    Example 2: Create An Evaluation For A Motor Skill

    In this assessment, students are asked to create a form, checklist or rubric that they could use to assess the qualitative performance of a peer. Critical components of the motor skill would be included and weighted. Students would explain the use of their evaluation and the support for their weightings in a short (1 page) instruction page to accompany the evaluation form.

Benefits of Cognitive Assessment Techniques:

  • Students are creating and clarifying their own knowledge of a motor skill. The very process of the assessment is instructional as well as evaluative.

  • The process encourages the use of a wide variety of resources that might include using the Internet, video sources, print media, and the knowledge of experts to complete the assignment.

  • The "product" of the assessment is a potentially useful resource for others, and is a more meaningful accomplishment than a test answer sheet.

  • The assessment itself can provide an opportunity for interdisciplinary projects that can serve to build bridges between academic content as well as mirror "real-life" work.

Other Assessment Ideas:

  • Create a 3-minute instructional videotape about a skill or concept
  • Write and illustrate a brochure about a skill or concept
  • Write a letter/videotape a message to your parents about what you learned in a particular unit
  • Create a mnemonic device to remember critical components of a skill
  • Teach a skill or concept to a younger, or less skilled/experienced student
  • Demonstrate a skill or concept using visual aids to highlight information
  • Create your own game that teaches a skill, concept or strategy

What you probably notice about these assessments is that they ask students to create a demonstration of their knowledge, rather than respond to, or recognize, information provided by the teacher as in traditional testing formats. Inherent in this process is one of the benefits of these assessment techniques -- they are instructional while at the same time indicating an understanding of content. While the use of traditional written tests is quick and familiar, and often serves useful purposes, other assessment techniques can provide insights that are inaccessible from test scores. This is especially true of students who lack skills in reading. Because of the varied formats of the assessments listed above, students who are hindered linguistically can select a mode of communication that will enable them to communicate their knowledge of physical education skills and concepts. In any case, assessments such as these have the potential to better interpret the progress of student learning, as well as the effectiveness of instruction and programs.

When Should I Assess?

Assessing learning at the completion of a unit is the bare minimum for assessment. Unfortunately, by then it's too late to make any instructional changes that might have enhanced learning. There's also no way of showing that student performance was the direct result of your instruction. Pre-and post-testing improves slightly on this situation by at least showing changes in performance during the unit. Adding an assessment in the middle of a unit creates time to make changes but still means that you may have been wasting the preceding instructional time.

Probably the best way to implement assessment is to make it continuous. In other words, to create some means by which students are always aware of what they have already learned and the remaining expectations. "Whoa," you say. "I don't have this much time to spend on assessment. I won't have any time to teach." Well folks, the not-so-secret truth is that if you aren't assessing, you probably are not teaching! If we as teachers are not aware of what our students already know and can do, how can we possibly be confident that what we are teaching is what they need? Fortunately, the task is not so daunting. Effective teachers are always continuously assessing. These teachers watch how their students are performing and make adjustments to the lesson. The big difference in what will be expected in the future is that learning must be documented rather than exist in the teacher's head.

Assessment Reports

There is no single most effective way to record or report student learning. Many methods exist and you need to choose what works best for you and your students. Some teachers like to use assessment charts that they post in the gym. Student names go down the side and the skills go along the top. As students achieve the skills they are given stickers. Many teachers and students find these extremely motivational and informative. The challenge is to break the skills into small enough steps so that all students are able to record progress in their learning. In some settings, older students do not enjoy having their names so visible in the gym. In this case teachers can keep assessment charts in a 3-ring notebook. Wall charts work well but of course they can't be used for administrative reports.

Teaching Implications

Implicit in all of the preceding discussion is the belief that as far as possible instruction in PE should be individualized. Individualizing instruction necessitates the use of different teaching strategies from the traditional whole-group, command-style instruction. As you experienced in this presentation, teaching stations offer one possible alternative. But please note - stations demand a lot of organization in terms of charts and equipment. They also only work for teachers who are skilled classroom managers.


Submitted by Stephen Jefferies, Toni Jefferies, and Wendy Mustain. Stephen is a professor in the Department of Physical Education, Health, & Leisure Services at Central Washington University. Toni is a sixth grade classroom teacher (English/Reading/Social Studies) at Kittitas Middle School in Washington. This paper was presented at the "1996 Northwest Secondary Physical Education and Athletics Workshop." Thanks for contributing to PE Central!
This article used by permission of the authors.
Copyright © 1997, PE Central

To reference:

Jefferies, S., Jefferies, T., & Mustain, W. "Why assess in PE?". PE Central. 16 Apr. 1997. Online. http://www.pecentral.org/assessment/assessmentresearch.html.


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