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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue A ::: March 1999

Multiple Assessments for Multiple Intelligences

by Meg Costanzo and Diane Paxton
Teachers use many kinds of assessment for many different purposes. They often use formal tests - commercial or "home grown" - for placement: to decide in which class to enroll students, and to determine where to start instruction. They informally assess students as they teach, to gauge whether the students have grasped the material. They may use tests or assignments to do this, too, and to mark the completion of a section of curriculum. For guidance in choosing instructional methods, many teachers observe students' enthusiasm or ask their students which instructional activities they prefer.

Multiple intelligences (MI) theory, which identifies eight ways in which students can be "smart," provides educators with an expanded framework to use when assessing their students' strengths and potential. Schools have traditionally emphasized only two of these intelligences, linguistic and logical/mathematical. Multiple intelligences theory encourages teachers also to recognize their students' bodily/kinesthetic, spatial, musical, naturalist, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences. It stimulates teachers to plan assessments that allow students to draw upon these intelligences when trying to demonstrate their mastery of content material.

As teachers interested in finding ways to engage adult basic education students in nontraditional approaches to learning, MI theory was appealing. We were curious about the efficacy of formally assessing students' intelligences. We also wanted to see if we could use MI-influenced assessment and instruction as a springboard to break our students away from their attachment to traditional modes of learning. Over the course of our teacher research project, we found that our view of the value of developing intelligence profiles for our students differed. One of us concluded that developing individual intelligence profiles was not meaningful; the other found the process beneficial and empowering to students. We both found that MI-enhanced, nontraditional classroom practices were accepted by our students, more by some than others, but accepted nonetheless. In the ongoing classroom process, we used diverse assessment formats to invite students to think about their own learning as well as the effectiveness of activities.

Diane's ESOL Classes

I taught two different English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, beginning literacy and intermediate. At the start of the project, I had the impression that individual profiles were essential in bringing MI theory to the classroom. And, at the 1997 TESOL convention, Thomas Armstrong, a well-known speaker on multiple intelligences, emphasized that individual profiling was one of the most valuable aspects of the theory for students. Many of my AMI colleagues also felt this way. With my beginning ESOL students, I introduced the intelligences explicitly and worked with them to help them identify their areas of strength and weakness. My hope was that if they realized they had many areas of strength besides the linguistic intelligence, they might begin to value nontraditional learning activities designed to emphasize other intelligence areas.

My students' limited ability to communicate in English encouraged me to find ways that were not dependent upon language to help them to assess their intelligences. I used photos of people engaged in tasks that represented each of the intelligences. The students guessed the underlying intelligence categories. Next, they identified areas of their lives that indicated skill, interest, and experience in those areas. For example, students who liked to dance, take walks, and exercise identified bodily/kinesthetic intelligence, and those who enjoyed reading and studying English identified linguistic intelligence as an area of strength. I created a self-assessment chart using drawings of people learning in different ways: working alone, in pairs and groups, singing, writing, laughing, reading. The students circled the ways they like to learn.

My elderly Latino students did not see the identification of their intelligence profiles as relevant to our class. They followed the class process I have described, but did not understand how the idea of their intelligence strengths could help them learn. In my view, the thinking about intelligence or "being smart" in eight different ways was not part of their cultural backgrounds, perhaps as a result of their limited experience with literacy. They appeared to be going through the motions to please the teacher, which is part of their educational background. Neither during this part of the class nor later did they take ownership of or show additional interest in the idea of intelligences. I overheard Juanita very softly say something like, "All this is not related to English class."

Jesus replied, "Sssshhh, the teacher is giving us a gift of what she knows, she is trying to help us learn, and we should be thankful." They seemed to feel that I was taking class time to focus on a topic in which they were not interested. I, too, was coming to doubt the usefulness of MI self assessment. I began to realize that, at least the way I taught, individual profiles were not relevant to my beginning students' potential to benefit from the application of MI theory, nor could thorough MI profiles be done in the context of our class. The most I could do is to look for domains of a student's experience in which the intelligences manifest themselves.

While our class did not see intelligence profiles as useful, they did benefit from MI theory in other areas. The students came to accept more hands-on, non-traditional activities which were extensions of topics in which they were interested, and I used MI as a framework to inform the development of their learning projects.

Meg's Classes

I taught an adult basic education (ABE), preparation for tests of general educational development (GED) and adult diploma class. My ABE and GED students arrived in class expecting to hear lectures and be assigned workbook pages. I needed a way to redirect these expectations and encourage the students to approach learning from a different perspective. If I could alter my students' expectations about what they would experience as learners in my class, perhaps I could reach them in a more effective way.

When I introduced MI to my students, they were interested in learning about the theory, but they could not transfer the abstract ideas to their own experiences in the classroom. To help them do this, I wanted them to begin reflecting on their strongest intelligences. Developing individual profiles seemed to be a concrete way to begin this process. Also, we operated under an open enrollment, open exit policy at our center. This meant that new students were constantly rotating in and out of our program. I needed a standard introduction to orient students to the types of MI-inspired activities and projects they would be experiencing in our class. Creating individual profiles became a way of making new students more comfortable with the style of work they would be encountering in our program.

At first, I had the students complete a learning preference questionnaire that I found in The Multiple Intelligences Handbook by Bruce Campbell (1994). As I reviewed these questionnaires with my students at individual conferences, I realized that they had little experience with this type of self-assessment. I decided to create an AMI assessment survey that the students would find easier to complete. I wrote eight scenarios, each containing statements specific to a certain intelligence, and recorded the script on a cassette. As the students listened to the tape, they responded to each scenario by stating whether the statements described them very much,' a lot,' somewhat,' a little' or hardly at all.' The students then graphed their responses on a grid. In subsequent class discussions we talked about the intelligences associated with the scenarios. The students began to reflect upon the ways they learn best. The on-going discussions about the students' strengths that stemmed from the development of the profiles were far more valuable than the actual profiles themselves.

Most students reported enjoying this type of individual MI assessment, often using words like fun' and interesting' to describe the experience. One student said she was now aware that there were more ways than one a person is smart; another student thought this was a good exercise to make you think. Whenever someone new enrolled in the program, the other students were often the first to remind me that the new student needed to complete the survey. In addition, the students frequently referred back to information found on their individual profiles. At the conclusion of our class, one student suggested that they take the survey again to see if there were any changes in their profiles.

Perhaps the reason my students reacted so differently to this type of assessment than Diane's students did has something to do with their vastly different cultural and educational backgrounds. My students did not find it inappropriate or impolite to discuss their strengths and talents. Through their children, many were already familiar with educational contexts that emphasize individual projects and nontraditional teaching methods. Most of my students had already completed a couple of years of high school and many had held jobs where they had experienced continual success. Maybe they felt less threatened about discussing their strengths and weaknesses because of these experiences.

Variety of Approaches: Diane

In an effort to help students develop metacognition - an awareness of their thinking and learning processes - about the effect of the diverse approaches to ESOL we were experiencing as a class, I incorporated assessments into the routines of the class. These assessments were designed so that the students could reflect individually and as a group on the value of the activities and thematic units we did. The assessments raised their awareness and ability to articulate how they learn effectively, as well as encouraging them to express their needs and begin to take control over the class and their own learning.

I used a variety of assessment tools, some created spontaneously and others prepared ahead of time. Usually once a week I asked them to reflect as a group on an activity, writing their responses on newsprint or the board in categories, good' and not so good' or it helped me learn because/it didn't help me learn because.' At mid-semester, I asked each student to complete a form that was part chart, part short-answer questions. The evaluation chart listed all the activities done in class. Each student indicated with a check if they wanted more, the same, or less of each activity. I tallied the responses, brought them back to the class on newsprint, and we discussed them. This helped all the students see the diversity of activities that were helpful and also created a community of learners who were expressing their needs in English, which in itself represented a developmental step.

Hearing each others' opinions about teaching and learning helped the students in both classes recognize and value their own voices as well as the many different ways there are to learn. Twice a semester I held individual conferences. Several of the students pointed out their appreciation of the varied methods we used in a videotaped assessment at the end of the semester. Samaria noted, "All three points of what you write on the board help [their journals; their notebooks for all the grammar, readings, and textual activities we had done; and the creative wall projects]. Because you have to try many different way how you can learn more fast. For me I like to try a different ways. I like this."

Randolfo said, "Everything in this class helps us. Believe me, because you know everything is interesting. And for myself, I can say that writing I learned so much because when before I came here, I write just a little, but now I can write a lot. Because I speak more than writing. Everything in this class is good, myself I can say." Concepcion reported, "I like the cassette, because at home we can listen the story and read it at the same time. When we don't know how to pronounce a word, we can practice. The stories are interesting, and later you give a song or a poem or a photo that has the same idea. It makes me think a lot about how to say my ideas in English. Later when I write in my journal, I know more how to write my paragraphs to say ideas."

I also believe that listening to and building on what classmates said and thought helped their bonding process, building community and trust in me and each other. And, seeing that their opinions were solicited and respected by peers and the teacher helped them to become empowered as individuals and as members of the learning community and to take ownership of their learning processes.

Many Methods: Meg

I used many assessment methods when I evaluated my students' learning preferences. The notes from the teacher journal, as well as the anecdotal musings I wrote after each class, provided useful information. I also examined samples of class work when looking for evidence of student strengths. I assigned writing topics that gave me insight into the students' intelligences. We worked on team-building activities that allowed the students to display their strengths through project work. I gave open-ended assignments such as: What can we do as a group to make our center a more comfortable place in which to work and learn? How can we, as a group, encourage more adults to attend classes at our center?

The students expressed interest in working on these real-life challenges, often saying that this was their favorite part of our program. One student told me, "The project is very important to me because I'm learning more with every step we take. It's exciting to find out what's next and begin the project. The most exciting part is the finished project because we all worked together to complete it." As the students worked on their projects, I had time to observe them in authentic settings as they solved problems and created products.

Perhaps the most effective assessment tool I used was dialogue journals. During the last 10 to 15 minutes of each class, I asked the students to reflect upon the evening's lessons. The students could write about anything they chose, but I often set the direction for their reflections by posing such open-ended questions as, What do you think of the math activity we did in class tonight? or What kinds of lessons work best for you? Based on their responses, I pursued further discussions to encourage them to think about the ways that they learn best. As time went on, student comments became lengthier and more introspective. When I asked the students what they thought of the dialogue journals, they emphatically endorsed their use. One student made the following comment regarding our journals: "I like [the journals] very much. We can talk about something we liked or didn't like, what we might want more work in, some things we couldn't say in class or didn't have a chance to say."

As this project progressed, I realized that a few of the assessment tools I had developed to gather data for my research were becoming a end in themselves: a model for ways to draw upon students' interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences to help create a positive classroom environment, a community of learners. The interactions in the classroom stemming from data collection activities, both one-on-one and as a group, helped to establish closer bonds between my students and myself. I noticed a new dynamic emerging in the class and a shift in the balance of power. The students began to assume a greater role in determining how the class was organized and what they studied. Their work during our team-building activities made them aware of the wide range of their abilities, and they started to view themselves in a different light. One student's reflections in her dialogue journal underscore this change. "I haven't really had time to think about where my strengths are. I just know my weaknesses and that sometimes worries me. I always knew everyone had strengths and weaknesses but I always worried about the things I couldn't do and not the things I could."

A month later, after we had completed our first team-building exercise, the same student wrote this: "First of all, I really believe that our project was a success for two reasons. 1) We all worked together and worked for something that we thought was important. 2) That you have inspired us to open our minds and have [the] belief that we are capable of almost anything if we really want to do it I never thought I could feel this good about my education and my self-esteem."

As a result of my work on this project, I have an entirely new view of the meaning of assessment. Besides relying solely on my observations of student strengths and weaknesses, I now encourage my students to assume a greater role in this process. I include their input more than ever when designing our lessons and units. More and more, I found myself saying, "Why am I doing this, when the students could do it instead?" I believe that my work on the AMI Research Project tipped the scales of the balance of power in our classroom, making it more student-centered now than it had ever been before our involvement in this research.


Our experience with the MI project affirmed the value of designing assessment tools that are meaningful and empowering to students, not just sources of information to be used exclusively by the teacher. The information we gathered from the assessment tools also informed our classes' work with project-based activities, which in turn contributed to the students' taking control over their learning processes. As a result of their growing self awareness as members of a community of learners, the students in our respective classes bonded, determined how they acquired skills, appreciated each others' strengths, and learned to value nontraditional approaches to teaching and learning.



B. Campbell, (1994). The Multiple Intelligences Handbook. Stanwood, WA: Campbell & Associates.


About the Authors

Meg Costanzo carried out teacher research as part of the AMI study while teaching a GED/external diploma class at the Tutorial Center in Manchester Center, VT, and training tutors for the local affiliate of Literacy Volunteers of America. Meg has almost 30 years of teaching experience, mostly at the elementary level.

Diane Paxton is the ESOL specialist at the Adult Literacy Resource Institute in Boston and teaches writing at Cambridge College. When she worked on this project, she was teaching at Centro Latino and at Bunker Hill Community College, both in Chelsea, MA.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL