Using Current Events for Online Assessment

By Benjamin Barbour

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed education and forced teachers to reconsider how they assess students. The virtual classroom demands something other than the traditional multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank test, assessments that even in the best of times often require little more than recall. Students learning from home have access to the internet and, in some cases, their textbooks as well. This requires teachers to “google-proof” assessments by asking questions that demand more creative and analytical responses.

Remote learning provides educators with an opportunity to try new approaches to evaluation. I have found that incorporating current events into my classroom in a more systematic manner has opened new opportunities for both formative and summative assessment.

Current events are always important to include in the classroom because they offer teachers the chance to demonstrate the real-world applicability and relevance of a course’s content. The use of online newspapers and news websites may prove even more beneficial now. As long as students have internet access, many of these sources are largely accessible from both home and school.

Asking students to connect content to the news encourages them to engage in strategic, evidence-based thinking. Moreover, how to identify and use reputable sources is a critical skill young people will continue to need into adulthood.

Using Current Events for Formative Assessment

For an in-class, formative assessment, you can supply students with a news article that is applicable to content you are covering. Images can work, too! I usually look to AP for thought-provoking photography capturing current events. Share this article or photo at the end of your lesson or unit along with a question that requires some critical thinking; given your time and objectives, you can vary the complexity and number of questions.

  • For a lesson about the environment, show a picture of deforestation in the Amazon and ask students about the potential reasons for, and effects of, such policy.

You might require that students identify concepts in the article they have learned in class, or push them to make inferences, interpret data, or draw new conclusions from the article or image. This formative assessment might take the form of an exit card or a brief discussion.

Using Current Events for Summative Assessment

For summative assessments, I ask my students to find a relevant article themselves. I sometimes provide a list of newspaper and news websites from which they can choose. Consider directing your students to library databases or pre-approved lists of credible news outlets. I find that giving students a narrow list of appropriate sources keeps them on topic and focused, as opposed to letting them venture down the potentially endless Google rabbit hole.

To help students identify pertinent material, I first discuss with them the objective of the assignment. What are they trying to find? What simple words or clues might help them?  When I recently assigned a current events assessment involving the First Amendment, I first broke down the freedoms described in the amendment. I helped one young man by giving him a simple visual aid: a note card on which were written the words “speech, assembly, religion, and petition.” We then defined and elaborated on our terms. A kind of Socratic approach worked well: “What would constitute an example of freedom of speech? What does assembly mean? Name some prominent religions in the United States.” He began refining his article search, and he eventually located a New York Times piece about protests by Orthodox Jews against new COVID restrictions in Brooklyn.

Before giving an assignment, it’s important to familiarize students with the anatomy of a newspaper. For example, when I asked my students to find a current event relating to the Judicial Branch, I directed them to the Politics and U.S. sections of the New York Times and the Washington Post. You’ll be shocked to discover that many students don’t know how to efficiently navigate physical or digital periodicals.

I attempt to create prompts that are vague enough that a variety of news sources will fit the criteria.

  • “Find a current event that shows the way geography can generate economic or military conflict.”
  • “Find a news article that demonstrates a power or role of the President.” 

After they have located an article, I typically require students to summarize the piece, which is a valuable way for them to practice pinpointing the main idea and key supporting details. I ask that they explain how the piece fulfills the assignment’s prompt in a second paragraph.

Students complete the assessment by writing the accurate MLA citation for the newspaper or news piece. This reinforces citation skills.

Practical Considerations

Learn the databases or periodicals to which your school subscribes. This will help you choose what news outlets or academic resources your students can access. At my school, certain subscriptions allow us to access the information at school but require a password when off campus.

There are plenty of free news sources, as well. I sometimes direct my students to review CNN or PBS NewsHour

The local library often provides newspapers and databases filled with periodicals. If the students have a library card, they may have access to a large amount of content even if internet access is not always available at home. 

Using current events during remote and hybrid learning offers beneficial ways for kids at home and in school to apply content knowledge in a truly meaningful and “google-proof” manner. This deeper kind of learning was evident in a recent assessment in which I had students identify elements of the Constitution in the news. One student analyzing a PBS article grappled with whether a Supreme Court decision that blocked thousands of felons from voting in Florida was congruent with the Fifteenth Amendment, which allows citizens to vote regardless of their “previous condition of servitude.” Hers was, in my opinion, a compelling and novel take on suffrage and what exactly constitutes “servitude.” This student’s nuanced analysis of the provisions found within the Fifteenth Amendment represents exactly the kind of higher-level thinking that current events assessments can elicit in our students.

Benjamin Barbour is a 10th and 11th grade history and government teacher in Fairview, Pennsylvania. He holds a BA in political science from Boston University, an MA in library science from the University of Pittsburgh, and an MS in secondary education from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He’s interested in civics education and the way in which we teach our students to become engaged and active citizens, particularly in our highly polarized political environment.

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