We’re All People

I think one of the biggest misunderstandings that occurs between a student and a teacher is that one forgets the other is a person too. Students want instant gratification and feedback. Expecting all assignments to be graded over night, the weekend, or even sometimes the same day. While teacher’s on the other hand, myself included of course, oftentimes forget that our course is only 1 of any range from 4 to 8 classes that they are taking, and place demands on them sometimes forgetting that they have demands coming from other courses as well.

These academic demands don’t even come close to the demands of surviving in high school’s society. Balancing the choices you want for your life with how you will look, will you be cool, will you have friends. Add this to sports teams, musics, theater and art groups and the endless list of other extracurriculars. And finally, top that off with all the demands the come from home and family; because lets face it, less and less kids are growing up in the Cleaver household these days.

As I’ve mentioned before, building healthy, trusting and respectful relationships with my students is my prime goal throughout the year. Building these relationships allows me to connect with and in the end guide my students though the educational process.

My strongest recommendation to facilitate the formation of these relationships is to remember where students are coming from. Remember all the demands that are pushing and pulling them in every direction and give them the benefit of the doubt. Remember we can never truly know 100% what else is going on in their lives.

The two weeks leading up to the exam I had a section of my whiteboard dedicated to telling the days and times that each class would have its exam. Almost everyday as I would go over assignments I would remind students of the date of their exam. The last Friday before the exams I had a student ask “so what day is our exam?” In my head I am thinking “are you serious?” (There may have been an expletive in there, I don’t quite remember).

Now, it helps that I am a patient guy, like brake pads it takes long sustained wear, over a period of time for my patience to wear out and reach the end of my fuse.  Just to set the stage with this student there have been chronic missed assignments because he was unclear on what it was, when it was due, or consistently asks “so what are we doing?” after probably 10 minutes or more of going over directions multiple times for a task.

So, let me tell you there has been gradual and sustained wear on my patience, yet I  was still able to muster it. I waited a second, took  a deep breath and drew his attention to the board and reminded him that his exam would be on Wednesday of the following week. I even instructed him it might be a good idea to write it down.

Wednesday rolls around and he’s a no show. As I’m proctoring the exam I’m on the edge of fuming. Thinking about how he’s probably going to come in the next day, put on his confused “oh I didn’t know” act that he has used so many times in the past, not this time I decided.

I went to bed  still kind of mad about the situation. I woke up Thursday, and as I sat in my classroom waiting for students to come in for their exam, still thinking about this student, I realized getting mad at this guy isn’t going to help him get organized. Its definitely not going to put him in a good place in his head to take my exam. I know I wouldn’t put too much effort into an exam for teacher who I’m pissed at for getting mad at me.

So, sure enough he walked in Thursday, and had been confused about the day of the exam. I smiled, said “good morning, don’t worry about it” and gave him his exam to take. As he was leaving he thanked me for letting him take his exam.

“Thank you” simple words melted my frustration. It was a much better outcome than even the best results of me getting mad at this student. Even though maybe getting upset would have made me feel better when he first didn’t show, it certainly wouldn’t have helped him, and it wouldn’t have been the same as receiving his gratitude for cutting him some slack.

I found out last week that his mother has recently been diagnosed with cancer, it has metastasized throughout her entire body and into her brain.

We never know where our students are coming from, never have all the variables. Sometimes Biology, English, history, and math just can’t compete with what life throws at our students, and it would be a mistake to force them  to. Try to remember that so you don’t make one the biggest mistakes of your teaching career.

I know I will never regret smiling that morning.

Exam Week: The Quest for the Perfect Assessment

Today marks the start of the 2011 Mid-Term exam week. Even just in the midst of my third year on the other side of the desk I have come across some interesting differences between being in the exam versus now designing and grading the exam. When I was in high school we had quizzes, tests, exams, but now, having gone through professional development to become a teacher, I now know them as assessments.

Assessment, it’s a hot word in education, and I have spent many hours trying to find the best way to assess what students have learned. A high quality assessment, in my book, and hopefully anyone in education for that matter, is one that allows a student to successfully demonstrate what he or she knows or has learned about a specific topic. So, as I sat down to design my exams in preparation for this weeks series of exams my goal was to make a test that would provide my students with a variety of opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned in the first semester of their respective Biology classes.

From this process I made this realization: There is an inverse relationship between the quality of the assessment and the ease with which it can be graded.

For those of you who may be a little rusty with your math lingo what I am saying is that the better an assessment is at providing students with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, the harder or more time consuming it is to grade; on the other hand the easier it is to grade the more limited the assessment is at providing students with opportunities to show their stuff.

For instance take test 1. A test 30 pages long with say 10 multiple choice questions per page, giving a total of 300 questions. These 300 questions would be able to cover the variety of different topics covered  over the semester, with less point value per question topic. This could be beneficial for a student who just didn’t get one unit and so maybe gets the 15 questions about that one topic wrong, but does well on the the other sections. However, I wonder does this assess what the student has learned or if he or she simple memorized the right 300 facts, because thats what multiple choice questions tests factoid and how good a student can memorize and spew back those factoids. Is this a high quality assessment? For some students? For all students?

Ok, on to test 2. This test is broken into four parts 30-50 multiple choice questions, a vocabulary fill in the blank section, 20 or so short answer questions and finally an experimental design section. Section 1 allows students to show their ability to spew back facts, but now maybe just the key ideas or ones that that have been focused the most. Section 2 also mainly based on single pieces of information, giving back a memorized definition.

The final two sections, to me this is where the magic happens. Short answer allows students to look back at the facts they have memorized, or vocabulary they have learned and now apply that information to synthesize something new to answer a broader question. Here they can discussion what they have learned based on connections to their own lives, but this type of questioning also takes their thinking to a new level and allows them to demonstrate both that they have learned information, but also have learned how to think about it. Higher order thinking is possible here, explaining why something is a certain way not just that it is that way.

Finally, the last  section experimental design. A student is given a scientific question and has to create a hypothesis regarding the question and design an experiment to test that hypothesis, or is provided with data they must graph and analyze. Just look at the verbs here: “create”, “design”, and “analyze” these allow students to both access and demonstrate the abilities of different parts of their brains beyond simply supplying the fact of who, what, where, or when…. Is this a high quality assessment? for some students? For all students?

If you compare your answers to the questions I posed regarding test 1 and test 2 they may be similar. Maybe each test could be considered a quality assessment for the right student. I guarantee that neither test would work for all students, and I would not attempt to blindly either of these tests with all students. However, I’m sure you can guess based on my tone and descriptions, I believe test 2 is a much better assessment and will provide the students I designed it for with a much greater variety of opportunities  to show me what they have learned than test 1 ever could. Oh yeah, did I mention  its a description of an exam I made?

Could their be an option 3? Pure synthesis? Students using information they have learned to create something a project, a model, a video, a song? I’d say yes! But you’ll have to wait for more on that.

This brings me back to my  previous realization that test 1 would definitely be easier to grade, simply throw down an answer key and put an x if answers don’t match. Compared to going through and reading each student responses and determining what connections they have made, where they have earned partial credit for partial understanding and even trying to decode some of the most unique combinations of words that represent an answer.

So, yes it does take time to design a quality assessment and yes it does take time to grade an assessment that does its job to the best of its ability, but isn’t that what it’s about. Creating ways for students to show you just how much they know. As of yet, I have not made the perfect assessment, every test I make is an experiment. I try something new, test it on my students, and then go back and analyze the results to make changes. This is science after all.