Assessment for the Classical School, Part 3: Facts, Skills, or Ideas?

By Carrie Eben, guest author

In the first article in this series, I related the importance of assessment aligning with the purpose of a classical education. The purpose of a classical education is leading a student toward intellectual skills and virtue. This alignment happens best when education takes a contemplative posture which Josef Pieper calls, leisure, or rest (schole). In the second article of this series, I related how relationships and conversations are important parts of assessment. Conversations for assessment can be held between student and mentor, student and peer and the student within herself. The conversation includes questions which create gaps needed for learning– a discord within the soul. However, questions need to reflect the type of knowledge being assessed. In Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto, Mortimer Adler discusses three columns of knowledge which include facts, skills, and ideas.[1] It is important for teachers to know what type of knowledge they are assessing because it will inform how they want to assess and what kind of question they must ask. Facts, skills, and ideas are not isolated in their columns. There are no thick black lines keeping them within their silo. As with most everything in classical education, facts, skills, and ideas bleed into each other, intertwining with each other depending on the subject matter being assessed.

Assessing Facts

Facts include organized knowledge from any type of subject matter that, when put together, are the keys which help unlock skills and understand ideas. They are generally taught didactically through “telling” from a teacher or a textbook. Facts are easy to assess since they require a simple “telling back.” This requires a student to reflect and retrieve a body of knowledge from their memory. Sometimes, assessment of simple facts (or a body of knowledge) is key to further understanding certain skills or ideas.

You might remember images of one-room schoolhouses featured in Anne of Green Gables where students were expected to recite their lessons. This recitation, or telling back, of what they learned, may seem boring, but for students who are being assessed on plain facts, telling back is a simple and effective way to assess. For young students especially, the act of telling or reciting what they know is a joyful experience. Songs, rhymes, and games are fun ways to make simple recitation more enjoyable. Teachers merely must ask questions reflecting the body of knowledge they want their students to learn—the “grammars” of any given subject (usually beginning with “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where”).

A more skillful form of “telling” is expression through narration which builds both relationship with mentor and student as well as a relationship with knowledge. According to Karen Glass in Know and Tell, The Art of Narration, “Rather than being simply the way we interact with the people around us…narration becomes the key that builds our relationship with knowledge, develops our thinking skills, and gives the power to collect our thoughts and relate them accurately and effectively, both in speech and writing.”[2] The art of “telling back” a process/procedure, a story, or the expression of any learning requires skill. It is something to be practiced and coached (which integrates into the “skills” category below—remember, no silos with the columns of knowledge). Narration of a story allows children to recall what they learn and then tell back, but in an artful way. Although this seems simple, it can be a very formative process for young students who are still learning to articulate language. It is a double assessment of recalling facts and practicing the art of articulation those facts in an artful way—which eventually leads to written composition.  Both recitation and narration are valuable forms for teachers to use when assessing all ages of students in a variety of subject.

Assessing Skills

Skills are arts that require practice and coaching that can be taught through imitation (mimesis) of examples (types). The academic arts include reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculating, problem solving, measuring, estimating, and using critical judgement. Teachers present several examples of a skill so students can imitate the proper procedure for mastering the skill. When a student compares different examples before them, they can see the similarities and perceive the common truth (logos) for mastery. By having students express the process (through narration) and present their level of skill through practice, teachers can then assess students in their skills and provide feedback for eventual mastery. After much repetition, time, and adjustment, the student can perfect the skills needed.

Narrative feedback, which includes questions for the student about their skill, or even a conversation, should be specific and formative so that the student feels as through the practice is “easy, plus one.”[3] Teachers can ask questions such as: “Which verbs can you swap out with stronger version in order to better articulate your meaning?,” “Are you lining up your decimals in order to add correctly?,” or “How can you arrange your facts better when you narrate back your story?’” Through observing a student’s practice of skill performance, teachers can ask formative questions to help their students incrementally improve their academic skills. It is important to give students many opportunities to try and fail without a formal assessment. They need leisurely time to practice, assess, and correct freely.

Assessing Ideas

Ideas include enlarged understanding about ideas and values which are found in literature, art, music, history, and even science and math. Assessment of ideas can also include comparison of types and offers students an opportunity to realize true ideas and virtue rather than skills. Group conversations involving all assessor types (mentors, peers, and self) help all involved to glean understanding from each other as well as assess through the articulation and embodiment of ideas.

All teachers know the beautiful feeling when they see a spark of “Joy” brighten the eyes of a student who suddenly grasps a truthful idea. It permeates their body. We might also refer to this a “light-bulb” moment. Adler says that teachers help birth and clarify ideas “by [KR1] asking questions, by leading discussions, by helping students to raise their minds up from a state of understanding or appreciating less to a state of understanding or appreciating more.”[4]  Through thoughtful questions, teachers can assess the level of understanding of ideas by listening to a student in conversation or through other means of articulation (writing, projects, debate, etc).

The Five Common Topics (from the first Canon of Rhetoric—Invention) are useful tools for discussing and assessing ideas. They require the student to think deeply about any given topic and are tools to help articulate their ideas. The Five Common Topics are:

Definition: Describe x. What is it? What is it not?

Comparison: Compare x to y? How are they similar and different?

Relationship: What are the causes and effects of x? What happened before or after x?

Circumstance: What are the circumstances surrounding x and how do they shape it?

Testimony: What do others say about x? Is it true?

When students are given an opportunity to gaze at ideas through the lens of the Five Common Topics, they can harvest more complete understanding. Revelations of truth, beauty, and goodness will abound when students are allowed to converse and articulate (even poorly) difficult ideas and the virtues which lead to the “good life.”

Final Thoughts

At Sager Classical Academy, our grammar school employs narrative assessment for student growth and for parent/teacher communication. Teachers are taught to assess specific facts, skills, and ideas from each subject which are presented narratively in quarterly reports for parent and teacher conversation. A new part of the assessment this year which has proven very helpful for communication is the section which identifies intellectual virtues and moral virtues (which is in place of a “behavior”). Giving definition to these specific ideas of virtue helps both parents and teachers encourage the will of the student rather than simply modifying behavior.

When parents, teachers and students are aware of the type of knowledge (facts, skills, or ideas) being assessed, they can engage with the most appropriate type of assessment.  This assessment will help all parties pinpoint and reflect on areas for growth. Assessment dialogue, from a state of rest, or leisure, combined with true relationship fitting questions for the appropriate task, will address the needs of the whole student. Instead of tempting students to love the wrong things, such as grades and scores (fleeting desires), they will teach the student to direct their will to loving lasting virtues which help the intellect to engage rightly in all stages of life. 

Works cited

Adler, Mortimer Jerome. The Paideia Proposal: an Educational Manifesto. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1999.

Glass, Karen. Know and Tell: The Art of Narration. North Charleston, SC: Create Space


[1] Mortimer J. Adler, The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (New Yor, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 23.

[2] Karen Glass, Know and Tell: The Art of Narration (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018), 11-12.

[3] Andrew Pudewa uses this phrase in his IEW Structure and Style video series.      

[4] Adler, The Paideia Proposal: an Educational Manifesto, 29


 For over twenty years, Carrie Eben has championed classical education in both the private school classroom and homeschool arenas. She currently serves as founding board member at Sager Classical Academy in Siloam Springs, AR. Carrie passionately leads teachers and parents in the classical model of education. She develops and delivers customized workshops for administrators, teachers, and parents in both classical school and homeschool settings via Classical Eben Education Consulting (www.classicaleben.com). Carrie holds a BSE in Intermediate Education from John Brown University and a MSEd in Curriculum and Instruction from Oklahoma State University. She is currently a PhD student in the Humanities program at Faulkner University and is a CiRCE Institute Master Teacher.

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