Unschooling: Creative Ways to Evaluate Comprehension

When I first started homeschooling my twins, I remember fighting the urge to ask them to write an essay about every thing we studied, or answer a list of questions that I composed. No, that there’s anything wrong with these techniques. Composing a short essay or answering paragraph style questions can be a great way for a student to collect their thoughts and review what they have learned. But like any technique, it can quickly become stale, or worse, dreaded, if used to exclusion. One of the reasons for this is that it engages a specific type of thinking, a logical/analytical evaluation, which is only a portion of how humans learn and understand the world.

Although my memories of grade school consist of a series of never ending essay questions, I believe the tide is changing, and many educators, alternative and mainstream alike, are using more and more “non-traditional” methods of evaluating student comprehension. To me, this means they are beginning to recognize the value of other types of wisdom- interpretive, emotional, symbolic, artistic. As unschoolers, we can choose how to best evaluate our children’s progress in understanding the various concepts studied, and more importantly, how they can best evaluate themselves. But sometimes it can be challenging to come up with the best ways to do this.

My kids have never been a fan of essay questions, nor of writing summary essays. Although I insist that they do it occasionally, so as not to miss out entirely on a potentially important skill, we generally avoid these methods. Thus I have had to be creative in the ways we use to evaluate and reflect on their learning. We have done paintings and clay sculptures, written and performed skits and videos, and arranged numerous presentations with oral explanation and other media mixed in. But sometimes we’re all feeling just a bit lazy, and we defer to our go to method-a good old fashioned conversation. Most of the time I feel more or less satisfied that, if my kids can explain a topic reasonably well and answer questions about it with some kind of clarity, they have absorbed the information as well as can be expected. Over the years I have gained confidence in this method, as various topics, they have studied crop up in conversation, sometimes months or even years in the future, and they are able to repeat what they have learned, as well as to think critically about it, asking pointed questions and making novel connections.

But there are definitely times when I feel the need to have the boys reflect more deeply on their studies, to help impress it in a variety ways or just to challenge their ability to connect different methods of thinking and processing. These are the times when I often reach out for ideas and resources from other homeschool parents or classroom teachers. For this reason, I decided to compile a shortlist of ideas of creative ways to integrate, reflect on and evaluate learning as we go through our unschool journey. As always, there are many variations on these ideas as there are unschool families.


Having kids create something artistic can be a great way to integrate various types of learning. If they have just finished reading a novel or biography, for example, it can help express the nuances of the story and the feel of the characters and setting, in a way than can be hard to express in words. My kids have always enjoyed working with clay, and have used it in various educational applications- for example making an ecosystem collage (remember dioramas?) when we were learning about Alaska, and creating a 3D model of a slot canyon after a family trip to Utah. Unfortunately, I didn’t know I’d eventually be writing an unschool blog when we made these projects, so I didn’t take pictures. Hence the links are similar project ideas.

after a family trip to Utah. Painting, collage, and drawing are all excellent methods of expressing learning and can be done as a sequential timeline representation, a “snapshot” of a particular scene, or an abstract representation of the emotions, conflict or desires of characters or historical figures. It can also be used to help integrate scientific or mathematical concepts. There is really no limit to what you can do when you start to merge artistic creativity with other subject matter. Maybe your child is drawn to sewing or felting, for example, or loves to make things out of natural objects found outside- you can incorporate any of these crafts into your plan and come up with an original, innovative expression of newly integrated ideas.


Putting on a play or skit, though decidedly more involved than some other techniques, is certainly a thorough way to study a topic and ensure that it makes a lasting impression. My favorite experience of this (and one of my favorite unschool memories period), is when we learned about Yellowstone Park and the impact that wolves have on the ecosystem. After reading a fascinating book on the topic, we decided to create a skit acting out the removal of wolves from the park, the ensuing depletion of resources, and the cascade of effects when they were re-introduced. Though we only had my partner and a couple of close friends to perform it for, we had a great time with it, and my kids will never forget the concept of a trophic cascade.

Of course, if you have a homeschool group to work with your options might be much greater in terms of the scale of your production.

And, if you dont want to engage in a full on production, you can always try some basic role playing as a simple and fun way to review and integrate your topic. In fact, when it comes to role playing, there are a variety of interpretations that can be useful. While the traditional definition of role-playing in educational environments involves setting up a simple scenario in which characters act out responses, these days it can also refer to Role-Playing Games (RPG’s), a more complicated activity which typically combines acting out roles with varying levels of strategy and rule structure, often with the use of dice to determine moves and points. Although usually associated with well-known games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Magic the Gathering, RPG’s are gaining popularity in educational settings, as teachers recognize their combined value of encouraging teamwork, self-expression, problem-solving and strategic thinking.

Stay Tuned for Part Two!

There are so many more great ways to integrate learning in your unschool room, that I had to break up my list into two parts! In the next installment, I will look at Verbal presentation ideas such as conducting an interview or creating a radio show, multi-media presentations, variations on written presentations, and more!

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