High Scores

When I log into my school board email system I am presented with a news feed that is received by all the teachers in the district.  Usually there are short stories about the accomplishments of different students/teachers in the board.  A few weeks ago I saw a “news release” that told about two students in our board who graduated high school this year with an average of 100% (based on their best 6 grade 12 courses).


What kind of assessments are these students exposed to such that they are able to score 100% on EVERYTHING?!

I can see how it may be possible for a student to demonstrate all of the knowledge requirements in a course, but as teachers we are responsible for far more than knowledge-based assessments.  I can only assume that if a student can finish with 100% in all her courses, then there has definitely been an over-emphasis on traditional tests and projects.  This is disappointing to me.

As teachers in the 21st century we need to create engaging learning environments where students are challenged to be critical and creative thinkers.  We need to develop assignments that encourage students to be resourceful and self-directed.  We need to provide opportunity for students to have meaningful collaboration and teamwork.  And we need to be aware that we are preparing our students for a world where the problems that need to be solved don’t fit on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, nor will they be solved with “test taking skills.”

Over the past few years, I have been trying to make the following changes to my classroom:

  1. Students learn from each other as much as possible.  Nurturing a classroom community is very important.
  2. Developing assignments that absolutely cannot be completed by copy/paste, memorization or “cramming.”
  3. Creating some projects that are broad in scope to allow students to “make it their own” in meaningful ways.

Personally, I think that the tradition of publishing the names of the students who have achieved the highest overall average in the board is an obsolete practice.  It comes from an era in which marks were emphasized above all else and the marks were based on old-school assessment practices like traditional tests, quizzes and homework checks.

In today’s fast-paced, hyper-connected world, achieving high marks in high school will only be one predictor of future success – and not the best one by far!  Instead, look for students who are intrinsically motivated, who are creative thinkers, who are self-directed learners, and who are able to build and maintain personal learning networks.  These are now (and have always been) better indicators of future success than a student’s graduating average.

Image Credit:  clspeace

Tracking Student Achievement

Assessment policies and “best practices” are a big deal in education.  It seems to me that every year the discussion around assessment, evaluation, and reporting becomes richer and more multi-layered.

To a new teacher (or a very traditional one), the policies around assessment, evaluation, and reporting, can be overwhelming and complex.  Because assessment policies and best practices can seem daunting at first, I think that some teachers have a tendency to lean too heavily on mark reporting software to “crunch” a student’s overall mark.  Obviously, the simplest – and most ineffective – way to track a student’s achievement is to evaluate everything the student hands in and put the marks into some tracking software, which then averages all of the assignments together and spits out an overall grade.  I don’t even want to begin to list off all that is wrong with this approach.

Now, I’m not bashing mark tracking software.  In fact, I use a program myself, and I think that it is a really important component of my overall assessment of a student’s achievement in my courses.  However, I am very cautious with how I use the software, and I never let a program tell me what a student’s mark should be.  Calculating the overall average of a few major tasks is only one piece of information I use to generate a student’s overall grade – after all, the tracking software has never once had a conversation with my students, or observed them while they worked!

Over the last few years, I have been on a quest to find a mark tracking program that I like and that aligns with the assessment policies set by the Ontario government.

As with many teachers in Ontario, I first started tracking marks using Markbook.  It is a powerful program for doing detailed calculations and “number-crunching,” but I really feel that Markbook has some very big limitations in our current climate of assessment and evaluation.  Within a few years of using Markbook, I felt it was very stifling to me when trying to exercise my professional judgement.

I have experimented with a large number of online mark tracking programs, like MyGradeBook, Engrade, and Thinkwave.  In general, I have been disappointed with their customizability and functionality, as they are only designed to be used in one specific way.  Maybe it’s the techie in me, but I want a program that I can tweak to work just how I like it.

A few years ago, I switched to Easy Grade Pro.  It is a robust program that gives me a lot of control over how marks are entered, processed and output.  The main advantage of this program is that students can access their marks from the web using a secure login and password.  I also feel that the interface and reports generated by Easy Grade Pro allow me to better “eye ball” a student’s overall level of achievement on submitted work.  Of course, it still has some issues, but it has served me well for the past 2 years and I do recommend it.

Today, I learned about a new mark tracking program that I think has a lot of potential.  It’s called Markscan and has been specifically designed for standards-based assessment in Ontario.  The key difference between Markscan and other software applications is that the program does not generate a student’s mark at all – it only creates an assessment graph to facilitate the teacher’s professional judgement.  The program is actually designed only for “eyeballing!”  As you can see in the image below, the program is not at all flashy, but I was impressed by the concept.  If you’re also intrigued, check out the 5-minute Busy Teacher Demonstration from the Markscan website.  I have only just begun to start playing with the program, but I think that I am going to try it out this semester alongside my regular mark tracking software.  I will let you know in June if I’m going to dump Easy Grade Pro and start recommending Markscan instead.  Stay tuned …

Image Credit:  Dave Dugdale (http://www.rentvine.com/)

Should Tests Have Time Limits?

I am not opposed to traditional tests as a means to assess student learning.  In fact, I think that tests play an important role as an assessment tool in my Science classes.  There are many times when I need to know for certain that a student has grasped a concept, and that they can communicate their understanding in their own words.  I also find tests are useful to see how well my students’ problem solving skills are developing.  For these reasons, I think it is valid to have students sit quietly, reflect independently, and communicate their understanding on paper.  Of course, if testing is a teacher’s only major approach for gathering information about their students, then they are not likely to get a complete picture of what a student knows and can do.

At school today I was administering the Grade 9 Mathematics EQAO test.  This is a standardized test for all grade 9 students in the province of Ontario.  The students were given 50 minutes to complete the first booklet of questions, a 10 minute break, and then 50 minutes to complete a second booklet.  It was clear that many of the students in my room were frustrated by the timelines and wished they could have been given more time.  Alas, a standardized test obviously requires that all students receive the same test, and are provided the same amount of time.

This post is not about standardized testing (although, for the record, I am not a fan of them.)  Instead, I wanted to question the importance of having time limits on tests at all.

Most of the tests that we give our students have time constraints.  Generally, this is the model that we all experienced when we were in school, so it seems like the natural thing to do.  Besides, we are still subject to external limitations – Each class period has a set length, so you cannot very well deliver tests that have an unlimited amount of time.

Yet, a test with a time limit is not really a test of what a student knows or what they can do, but how quickly they can do it.  This is especially challenging in my senior Physics courses because a good part of what I teach is problem solving.  Seventy percent of any test that I give to my students will ask students to solve problems.  Although there is usually one or maybe two ways to solve a given problem, it is not immediately clear to students how to determine the answer just by looking at the question.

How can I reasonably assess a student’s ability to problem solve when there is a time limit?  How can I know that the student was not 5 minutes away from “getting it” when the bell rang?  To me, it is critically important that a teacher can discern whether a student ran out of time, ran out of motivation, or ran out of knowledge/skill.

For a while now, I have been letting my students use as much time as they need to complete a test.  If possible, I try to plan tests for the period before lunch or for the last period of the day so that students may take extra time if they need it.  By eliminating the possibility that a student ran out of time, I can be certain that the student’s overall achievement on the test will more closely reflect their actual level of knowledge/skill.

I often hear other teachers say that we need to develop our students’ “test taking skills,” and I’m not really sure what they mean by that.  Does it mean helping students deal with the anxiety of tests?  Does it mean helping students to budget their time on a test?  Does it mean helping students complete multiple choice questions by a process of educated guesses?  The fact is that outside of the education system, no one is required to write formal sit-down exams!  Real life “tests” are so much more complex than the ones we give in school because they deal with dynamic problems, they involve diverse people, and they make use of every accessible resource.

Let’s try to replace phrases like,”you have 5 minutes left,” with ones like, “keep trying until you feel you have done all you can do!”

Image Credit:  rileyroxx

Assessment As Learning

There continues to be a big push in our school board to incorporate more “Assessment As Learning” into the learning process.  Basically this means helping students to develop skills for self-evaluation and metacognition.  One of the ways that my department has opted to try and integrate this into our science curriculum is through the use of student friendly check-brics.

One example of a simple check-bric might look like this:

Criteria Met Not Met
My graph includes a title and labeled axis.
My graph includes a line of best fit for the data and an equation of the line.
My graph has a caption, briefly describing what the graph is about.

white space – please ignore

The check-bric above is the type that a student might complete before handing in an assignment.  Generally, the point is to help students self-reflect on their work so they can make the necessary improvements themselves.  In my class, after the students complete the check-bric above, they are given the chance to take their work home and improve it before it is handed into me for more formative feedback.

Over the last year, I have started to use check-brics not only for students to assess their work, but so they can also assess their learning.  For example, if the students were participating in a learning activity, such as a scientific investigation, I will develop a simple check-bric for my students to look at before and after the task.  Below is an example of one I used the other day for a learning activity about accelerated motion:

Statement Yes Kinda No
I have a good understanding of how to use the motion sensors
I have a good understanding hot to use the Datastudio software
I understand why a distance-time graph can have different shapes
I can explain what is happening in a distance-time graph based on the shape
I understand why a velocity-time graph can have different shapes
I can explain what is happening in a velocity-time graph based on the shape
I know how to calculate the speed of an object from a d-t graph
I know how to calculate the acceleration of an object from a v-t graph
I know how to calculate the displacement of an object from a v-t graph
I can see how an understanding of accelerating objects relates to objects in real life

white space – please ignore

What I like about this approach is that students can see before they begin an activity, what the activity is designed to teach them.  I think that if a student is aware that “understanding the shape of a displacement-time graph” is important and that the activity is their opportunity to learn this concept, they will be more likely to ask for help from other students or from me while the activity is going on.

white space – please ignore

At the end of the activity, I do not need to collect any “product” other than the check-bric.  The learning results of this particular activity were pretty good:  About 8 students put mostly all YES, about 14 put mostly KINDA, and about 4 students put mostly NO.  Immediately, this tells me who my “experts” are in the class, and who needs the most extra help.

The part I am really excited about is what I hope to do with this data.

My first thought was that I needed to seek out the students who did not understand and talk to them directly, and I will definitely do that.  But, I am also attempting to empower my “experts” more and get them involved in using their mastery to help others.  I have arranged for pairs of experts to record a short video (less than one minute) explaining how they understand one of the rows of the check-bric.  They are encouraged to use words and diagrams as they see fit and they can use the department’s Flip video camera any day after school.  Ultimately, they will post the videos to our class social network for all other students to see.  I am really hoping for a positive response to this, so that it can become a regular occurrence in my class.

I see the creation of student videos as a really valuable use of the assessment as learning data for a number of reasons:

  1. It empowers students to see themselves as having something of value to share
  2. It distributes the responsibility of reteaching content to weaker students from the teacher to other capable students
  3. It provides opportunity for the “KINDA” students to re-approach the content, even if I may not have time to get around to each of them individually
  4. It permits all students to review the subject content at a time that is convenient to them – whether they are in the library at school, at home, or visiting their grandma for the weekend (Comment:  I think that asynchronous learning will be a big part of the educational landscape of the future)

I am excited about how this first attempt will go.

Image Credit:   KTVee, Mechki

Student Assessment Using Video Feedback

I often feel stifled in my writing because I feel like I should only produce a blog when I have something big to say.  I am realizing, however, that I have come to know about so many great technology resources simply because other bloggers have shared their experiences.

I have decided that one way for me to ensure that I blog more consistently is to establish some routines.  Since I am always experimenting with different ways to bring effective technology practices into my classroom, I am going to make an concerted effort to post a blog every week about a single piece of educational technology that I have tried.  Mostly, I just want to share my experiences (good or bad) and I hope to be able to articulate the following key ideas:

  • What is it and where I heard about it
  • How and why I tried it
  • If it worked well or not and why

This year, I tried something entirely new to me:  providing students with feedback through recorded videos.  I got the idea from one of my favourite bloggers, Shelly Blake-Plock, author of TeachPaperless.  The basic idea is  that you read through a piece of student work on the computer and use screen capture software to record a video of your comments as you are reading their work.  I used a free program called Jing.  The program is incredibly easy to use and the videos can be downloaded to your computer or uploaded to Screencast using the 2Gb of storage provided to when you sign up with Jing.

Seeing as I am accepting more and more work from my students electronically, using screen capture software allows me to give descriptive feedback in a way that is far more natural and personal.  I was motivated to try this method for a two main reasons:

1. Time Saving

I am always frustrated with how much time I spend writing comments on student work.  It seems there is no way to communicate complicated ideas quickly and effectively.  In general, the less I write, the poorer the quality of the feedback.  In the past, I have found myself writing comments like “unclear” or “incorrect,” or sometimes even “no!” or “?“.  Clearly these comments are of no real value to a student.  If something is “unclear,” why is it unclear and what can be done to fix it?  Recording feedback is useful to me because in a video recording I can SAY so much more that I could ever write.

2. Personalization

When a student watches the video, it’s as though I am reading their work with them sitting right beside me.  They can see exactly what sentence/idea I am referring to and commenting on.  I also feel as though students will be more willing to watch the entire video to receive the feedback.  In many cases, I find that students are not much interested in written feedback on paper assignments.  The video feels more like a conversation, which is a much more natural way to give and receive feedback.  In addition, the video feedback is sent to the students directly as a link in an email.  They can choose to watch the video when it is convenient for them.  I think this is far better than handing out 30 assignments at the end of a period before the students go off to another class.

I have included an example of some video feedback that I recorded for an assignment last semester.  The assignment was called, “Forces in Everyday Life” and it involved students taking pictures or capturing videos of places in their community that are experiencing forces.  Students were to draw force diagrams of the object(s) as well as write a brief description of how Newton’s Laws applied in each situation.

For my first time creating feedback videos I feel like it worked very well.  My students seemed to take positively to the technology as well.  I am looking forward to using this approach more often in the coming year to see how effective it is with repeated and consistent implementation.

Photo Credit:  quinn.anya

Rebranding Homework

Learning physics requires practice. Problem solving is a brain skill, and it needs to be developed and refined.

Every semester I tell my new group of grade 11 physics students that the course will seem especially hard at first because it requires them to think in a different way. I often have students who are typically very good in science coming to see me after school worried because they are not doing as well as they would like.  I try to reassure them and tell them that if they continue to work hard, their mark will go up, but they will need to have the patience to develop new skills.

My students are expected to complete problem set questions during each unit in order to practice problem solving skills. The questions are all posted at the beginning of the unit and students are given time in class to work independently or in groups to solve the problems. I collect the problem sets to gain a better sense of where students are struggling, but the problem sets are not “for marks” – I don’t believe in grading students on tasks that are designed for practice. However, as many teachers know, teenagers don’t tend to put forward their best effort if they know the task doesn’t “count.”

Recently, I have been trying to think about ways to motivate students. In an ideal world (or classroom), students would see the immediate value in their effort to practice new skills. Most often though, students tell me after the final exam that they wish they had tried harder (which breaks my heart because I know they could have tried harder too).

The other day, I was watching a TED talk by Rory Sutherland called Life Lessons From an Ad Man. In it he explains that, “many problems in life can be solved by tinkering with perception.”  It is a very amusing talk and it is worth watching just for the enjoyment of it, but his talk got me thinking about how I could rebrand homework to motivate students.

Rory Sutherland explains that in consumer culture, “the interface” fundamentally determines behaviour. (For example, if you want to encourage impulse buying, put chocolate bars in the line at the checkout counter – the interface makes it easy to be seduced!)  More importantly though, Rory explains that if you want to change behaviour, then it’s simply a question of changing the interface by which people make decisions!

The way I see it, this is the “interface” my students have with homework:

  • Mostly independent work
  • Boring
  • Not empowering
  • No immediate reward for completing
  • No immediate punishment for not completing
  • No immediate value

No wonder they don’t want to do homework … who would?!?!?

Although I do not have a full plan as yet, I am going to try a new approach to motivate students by incorporating some elements of Web 2.0 into the problem sets.  I plan to set up a wiki page designated to each problem set.  On the wiki, there will be forums to encourage dialogue about the problem set.  Even more than that, each question on the problem set will have  a separate sub-page where students can develop and share the solution.  The solution page will include space for:

  • a scanned copy of a student’s solution
  • a written explanation in simple language
  • a video of students solving the question and explaining the solution as they go along
  • a rating scale for students to evaluate the usefulness of the solution (I have been playing around with Google Forms and I think I can make this work pretty easily)

If Rory is right – that changing the interface changes behaviour – then I hope incorporating social elements into the problem set will encourage students to become more engaged with the process.

I’m excited and anxious at the same time.  I know that if I do not structure the site well, or if contributing to the site is overly cumbersome for students, they aren’t going to use it.  To all readers, help me make this a success!  What are your thoughts?  What am I not thinking about?

Image Credit:  zaui

Transfer of Knowledge

When we ask a student to demonstrate their learning in the same format that they learned the content in the first place, it is difficult to truly know if the student has in fact understood the material or simply memorized and regurgitated it.

There are times when regurgitation is important for any subject.  I want my students to be familiar with the proper language of science, to be able to recall specific laws and principles, and to demonstrate lab skills and techniques exactly as I taught them.  But, when I ask a student, “What is Newton’s Third Law?” I understand clearly that the correct answer does not mean the student actually understands what they are saying.

One of the ways for teachers to get a better idea of what a student understands is to require that the student “transfer their learning” into a different format – moving between oral, written and artistic forms of expression.  The transfer of knowledge and skills ensures that we are not testing a student’s memory recall (or the speed of their recall, as is the case with many tests).  The added bonus is that the process of assessment and evaluation becomes much more interesting to students!

Some of the ways that I have students “transfer their learning” include:

  1. Creating multimedia presentations (presentation must NOT include any text on the slides – only images and video)
  2. Build a model and explain it
  3. Create a photo-essay
  4. Create a children’s book explaining the concepts in a basic way
  5. Interview a family member and reflect on the process
  6. Draw a concept map/mind map
  7. Create a Facebook/MySpace page for …
  8. Create a documentary video

Web 2.0 has generated so many wonderful online tools that students can use to transfer their learning into a different format.  One of my favourite tools to use as an assessment piece is a program for creating comic strips called BitStripsForSchools.  What’s amazing is that the Ministry of Education in Ontario has purchased a licence for ALL Ontario teachers – so it is free to use in your classes.  I would highly recommend signing up at www.bitstripsforschools.com – all you need is an email address from one of the school boards across Ontario.

Some benefits of the program:

  • bitstrips-avatarStudents can create their own avatar to use in their comic strips, and use the avatars of other students in the class.  (see my avatar on the right)
  • The interface is extremely easy to use.
  • Students can publish their comic strips for the rest of the class to see and comment on.
  • Teachers can create “class activities” in which students submit their work.  This makes it very easy for teachers to give feedback on student work while in progress and upon completion.

I would love to hear what other types of assignments can be used to transfer knowledge and skills.  Please put your thoughts in the comments.

Building Capacity – Seeing Is Believing

I have recently been brought into a project sponsored by the Ministry of Education under the edugains umbrella (G.A.I.N.S. stands for Growing Accessible Interactive Networked Supports.)  I am working with educators from within my board on a literacy initiative seeking to build capacity among teachers who are still new to cross-curricular literacy development strategies.

The project is a simple and wonderful idea.  Over the course of the semester, the teachers in the program will focus on thoroughly implementing at least one literacy development strategy in our “at risk” level classes.  Literacy strategies are geared towards helping students develop the complex skills required for effective reading, writing and oral communication.  Many literacy strategies teach students to be metacognative, reflective, creative and critical thinkers while they are reading, writing and speaking.

As a strategic implementation, the project teachers will be following a “gradual release of responsibility” model (Pearson and Gallagher, 1983) to shift the balance of responsibility from the teacher to the student.  The process includes:

  1. Modeling:  teacher assumes responsibility and demonstrates the use and thinking behind the strategy
  2. Shared Practice: students participate in the strategy while the teacher provides explicit instruction and feedback
  3. Guided Practice: students use the strategy almost independently while the teacher provides targeted support
  4. Independent Practice: students use the strategy independently while the teacher gathers assessment information and provides some support if needed

The Literacy GAINS project leaders will come into our classes and film our students at various stages in the implementation process above.  Ultimately, this project will culminate in a video production demonstrating how the teachers involved in the GAINS program helped their students develop useful literacy skills by embedding literacy strategies into the curriculum.

I am very excited to be involved in this program.  I think that providing teachers with a short video in which they see how a literacy strategy can be applied across subjects and at different levels will be the best way to build their teaching capacity.  It is often true that teachers who are resistant to new strategies (whether it be to instructional technology, cooperative learning, or literacy development) are usually unable to imagine what the new strategy would look, sound, and feel like.  I have heard many teachers say things like, “that wouldn’t work for my students – they’d never go for it,” or “that stuff doesn’t work in Science/Math/Phys. Ed./etc.”  Only when they see the strategy implemented do they truly “get it” – Hence, the video exemplars!

Having recently recognized how important it is for teachers to see other teachers in action, I have been thinking about how I can encourage my students to support each other in the same way.  For so many students, their skills are hidden.  If a student is a particularly good reader, it is difficult for others to see what it is the good reader does while they read that makes them so good.  This is also the case for problem solving skills, study skills, time management, essay analysis skills, etc.  From the perspective of the Literacy GAINS project, students could produce instructional videos that demonstrate their skills for other students to watch and learn from.

Encouraging students to create “how to” videos for their classmates would be an empowering and enriching process.  It would require the presenter to reflect on what exactly it is they do when they are performing a task (such as solving a math problem), they will need to break the process down into manageable steps, and they will need to communicate their process in a concise way (which are all great literacy skills to develop anyway.)

Web 2.0 tools are giving our students a platform for personal expression unlike ever before.  As educators, we need to teach our students to use their voice in productive and meaningful ways.  We need to provide them with avenues to share and contribute their expertise.  I recall in an keynote presentation at Leading Learning 2008George Siemens made the point:

“It is not the value of what the individual knows that is important, rather it is the value of how it connects with others.”

I think that all classrooms would benefit from incorporating new approaches to building capacity among students – especially by empowering students to help and support each other as a community.

Photo Credit:

TATRA fire engine instructions: Step 4