Fix 11: Don’t rely only on the mean; consider other measures of central tendency and use professional judgment
Good morning. I was feeling guilty because I wanted this done by the end of June, and darn it, it’s not looking optimistic. Oh well, good to do some professional development over the summer months. Thankfully this one is an easy one, so I will keep it short, and maybe (but don’t quote me) might even reflect on Fix 12 before 3:00. Fingers crossed.
The last time I calculated the mean for a class or a test was in 2011, and I had 62 students taking Science 10 in two blocks in Semester 1. The sample size was high; there was pretty good anonymity for top and bottom marks on the “tails” of my bell curve. Now I have 9 students taking Science 10, so mean was useless before and it is completely delusional now. Interestingly though, a sarcastic thanks MyEd, our district does it automatically for me. I don’t even look at that number at the bottom of my column of final grades; it is meaningless.
Great news, we are back to professional judgement, which is an amazing safety net for those that are wrapped up around numbers and accountability. Your doctor takes a few measurements and runs a few tests, but most of the time the doctors professional judgement had the diagnosis long before the numbers were run or the samples were sent away. You are a professional just like a doctor. Know what tests to run, and how often to run them based on the individual student. Trust your judgement, and as long as you continue to monitor the progress in your students in a timely and constructive manner you are good! Focus on the conversations with them, not having a high average or a narrow standard deviation. Students are people first, you can’t treat them like an algorithm.
Fix 10: Don’t rely on evidence gathered using assessments that fail to meet standards of quality; rely only on quality assessments
Haha, maybe the end of the school year wasn’t the best time to attempt these 15 fixes. Ok, yes, challenge accepted. I will only accept quality assignments. Quality for one, however, can be mediocre for others. Fair is not equal… I digress.
Here is the climate in Science 10 lately. We are looking at how ecosystems change over time; the students have a bunch of jumbled up stages in secondary succession. Their task is to put the text in order, and illustrate what that would actually look like (make a cartoon). Student A reads the directions carefully, cuts and pastes the steps, rearranges them into the correct order and does a satisfactory job at illustrating. Their conclusion is written clearly on the back of the page by the end of the period. Student B does not read the directions, writes out the steps in shorthand (almost illegibly) on a scrap of paper and attempts to use the Storyboard That website to digitally draw out a cartoon. Student’s A can verbally explain the stages in succession; their work matches their understanding. Student B, however, can explain the science pretty accurately verbally, but never actually completed any assignment to support their explanation, despite 3 gentle and encouraging reminders in 3 successive class periods. The partially completed version of the assignment I saw several times left in my classroom was certainly not a quality assignment.
I am not wrapped up in the means of how I get my evidence, but at the end of the day I want to be accurate and consistent, and I want the students to be clear on how they can improve their level of understanding. Student B would take 12 months to complete a 5 month course if everything I required was “quality”. That, or the current situation, whereby he finished the course in 5 months but his mark is not the greatest because I didn’t have the patience or tenacity to wait for quality.
One of my mantras for assessment is that weighing a pig does not make it fatter. I don’t want to collect droves of assignments; I would much rather collect one quality assignment every few weeks (depending on the age and subject). This, for me, definitely brings about a bigger issue and a paradigm shift for both students and their parents, as well as my colleagues.
I guess my take home message after being mindful of this fix is that I need to know my students. Only after I know them and their interests and abilities can I truly understand what quality looks like for them specifically. Then, and I know this is lacking for me at times, I need to stay diligent with those repeat offenders and keep giving back low-quality evidence until it is good enough. Man. Assessment is so cool – it takes both sensitivity and discipline simultaneously.
Fix 9: Compare students achievement to pre-set standards, not to each other.
Haha, this one makes me laugh. This makes me think of one of my Science 10’s, whose assignments could be the answer keys. In fact they are better than the answer key because her printing is neater than mind. In the spectrum of meeting-achieving-exceeding standards, this particular student is exceeding, head and shoulders above my standards and the standards suggested in the BC Curriculum for that matter. No teacher could ever fairly compare other students to her, because of the fact that she has such exceptional efforts and abilities. It wouldn’t be fair to either of the parties. Even just considering the “meeting expectations” students; all of my students are so unique, with their skill sets, abilities, interests and work habits, it’s like comparing apples to oranges, even if they are categorically both “meeting expectations”.
An interesting and related side note: I am having one last crack at the old Science 10 curriculum. Guilty, sorry, as charged, but I had my reasons. The thing about this curriculum is the learning standards are like this:
Explain half life with reference to rates of radioactive decay
Ok, let’s tweak that a little bit…
“I can explain half life with reference to rates of radioactive decay”
“Ok kids, here are 100 pennies; your job is to model parent isotope with heads, daughter isotopes with tails, graph it… and answer the conclusion question at the end”. The standards for this particular learning goal, or this particular classroom activity are completely transparent and very unambiguous; the standard is also a manageable enough chunk to approach in one or two classroom activities.
More interesting for me, the new learning standard “chemical processes require energy change as atoms are rearranged”. This is still a preset standard, and I’m still not going to compare my students to each other, but this obviously requires some unpacking to make it helpful for both the students to learn from and teacher to assess. For this daunting task, lately, I am trying to develop Learning Maps for each of my units. It takes some front loading (what else did I want to work on in July?!) but once the scaffold is there, periodical check ins with students and yourself for assessment is seamless and constructive. Learning Maps are amazing because they remove scores and they put language to the learning goals; they are discrete, because all students have to have a conversation with you and it looks the same, and lastly it factors in the multiple entry points into a topic and just emphasises forward growth.
Sorry folks, I kind of drifted away from my central thesis there. My specific instructions for blogging were “short and to the point <winky face>”. I guess I am “approaching expectations” in the blogging department today.
Fix 7: Don’t organize information in grading records by assessment method, or simply summarize into a single grade; organize and report evidence by standard / learning goal
Ok, for anybody out there reading this, I would love to see how you do this. I struggle with this. I have heard that I need to try FreshGrade but haven’t yet. Maybe in July I will do some recon…Currently, in Biology 11, I give the students our Learning Goals every Monday morning to start the week. However when I report evidence it is definitely a summarized grade and is not specifically organised by standards (just the title of the assignment). I do specify as to whether or not my marks are Formative or Summative, and I always reiterate the weight of major tests etc. Almost all of the time for Formative assessment I use a three point scale to indicate the level of comprehension. I find that our system just doesn’t allow for the kind of information I want to include (conversations, observations etc.) all in one place.
When I teach math, and teach out of the textbook, I have a system I enjoy that works for both myself and the students. The learning goals are plentiful, which can be intimidating for some, but we pick away at the goals; the students day to day activities as well as my reporting are lined up around clear descriptive standards. When I teach Biology, however, which is my forte, I the organization fails me to some extent. Maybe it’s because I have only taught the course twice, and the curriculum has been different each time…Or maybe it’s MyEd. Or maybe it’s because my “bell curve” is so broad that my standards are different for some students compared to the others.
I am, by nature, pretty organized and Type A. I can admit it. I have an MSc, but since going into Education, from applied science, my focus has evolved from numbers and algorithms into more personal documentation and note keeping. I have seen Kindergarten teachers’ mark books and I think we highschool teachers could learn a thing or two. A kindergartener is never going to get a score / 5 on raising their butterfly from a caterpillar. You will never see a list of assignments in chronological order of the worksheets they attempted to describe metamorphosis. Kindergarten records are a living document because a Kindergartener changes month to month- scratch that- day to day. No “grades” are permanent, it is just a snapshot in time of where they are at and how we can all support growth.
I want to spend my time teaching my students, and preparing ways to inspire them at their level. I went into this career knowing that record keeping is a big part of it, but I am skeptical there is software that can do this in a meaningful way that wouldn’t be a huge sink to my time that would be value added. Hmm… Kind of leaving this one hanging which I don’t like. Feel free to comment please. Until next time.
Guest Blog by Kevin Yapps.
Kevin has taught in various Science settings. His current role is teaching French Immersion Sciences as well as a combined French Science-Math option at WL Seaton Secondary Vernon, BC. Kevin is an avid tinkerer and maker and loves incorporating it into his Science instruction. @yappsolutely
Osmosis: abstract and difficult to demonstrate
For years, I have been trying to come up with concrete methodology that will help learners better understand osmosis. Laboratory exercises and online videos have made it much simpler to understanding diffusion. However, I have always found it daunting to come up with activities that make it easier to understand osmosis because it almost seems counter-intuitive.
A colleague shared a lab-activity with me where students used red onion epidermis. Students were instructed to do a classic wet-mount slide preparation. Then, with the use of a pipette, they injected a saline solution between the slide and the slide cover. All this was to be executed in real-time with the prepared slide on the stage: talk about complicated! Even when or if it worked, it was difficult for the untrained eye to understand what it was looking at.
Let’s just say that the students, like always, loved the fact that they were doing “lab-work,” but they executed it without fully knowing whether or not it worked. I was left having to explain what they should be seeing. A student mentioned that everything happened too fast. This made me reflect. I didn’t want to throw the activity out. It had so much potential.
How it all came together: the “a-ha moment”
I began to reflect on the activity. What went well? What went horribly wrong and what needed to be improved? About a week prior to this activity, students were encouraged to use their smartphones during lab-work to snap photos of pond life through the microscope. This was a very engaging activity for students and they were proud to share, via Airdrop or email, the various photos and videos of microorganisms (I even began to archive these in a Google Photos photo album). A collective problem with this technique was finding a way to hold the phone still to take a photo. Some used 2 sets of hands! Then, they had to crop out the impertinent segments of their photos.
I thought to myself: “If only there was a way to hold the cameras to take better photos. I could 3D-print a mounting apparatus! Photos will be clear and I can even take video like I would with a tripod.” Using a 3D printer was not a viable option for me at that point, so I began to improvise with selfie-sticks and “oogoo” (silicone and cornstarch). Let’s just say that my prototypes were marginally functional.
Then, one evening, while surfing aimlessly on the Interweb, I stumbled upon a DIY microscope video from the Instructables website: a home-made microscope that used a small acrylic lens coupled with the focusing power of a smartphone camera. Subsequent Youtube searches yielded demonstrations; one of them being with red-onion cells. I immediately concluded that this project could solve my previous problems with camera stillness and videos. To boot, I had also come to the realization that time-lapse was a function that existed on most new smartphones.
I now had a way to watch the phenomenon in real-time, in time-lapse and then repeatedly by using video. For example, once salt water is injected into the cellular matrix, cytoplasm leaves the cells to balance the exterior. In real-time, this is difficult to notice as it happens over minutes. Time-lapse permits the observer to watch 5 minutes-worth of footage in a few seconds. Moreover, the time-bar in the video application permits the observer to go back and forth in time. If you miss something, it’s always accessible! Having the luxury of going over the visual component of osmosis with learners is a very powerful tool. (The following photo’s were all taken using these microscopes.)
*3x 4 ½” x 5/16” carriage bolts
*9x 5/16” nuts
*3x 5/16” wing nuts
*5x 5/16” washers
**¾” x 7” x 7” plywood — for the base
***⅛” x 7” x 7” plexiglass — for the camera stage
***⅛” x 3” x 7” plexiglass — for the specimen stage
****11/32 inch threaded Acrylic lens (use two for increased magnification)
*****LED click light (necessary only for viewing backlit specimens)
*Can be found at any hardware store – It is better to buy from a wholesaler to cut costs
**I use old shelving – You will need a saw to cut this with the appropriate dimensions
***I found used plexiglass in the school. Canvassing your local glass retailers for donations (even scrap pieces work)
****I found small acrylic lenses on Amazon
***** LED lights can easily be found at any hardware stores
Use the Instructables website if you are uncomfortable troubleshooting on your own. You will need the following tools and accessories for building purposes:
Potential related projects and cross-curricular
There is the potential to collaborate with a visual-arts class. Students can share their photos with collaborating arts students who can transform microscopy photos into works of art. This could work well with pond life organisms, insects, etc.
If you are not comfortable using small power tools in your classroom (i.e. drills and saws), you can converse with your school’s tech-ed instructor. High school and middle school shops usually possess the necessary tools.
Every semester, I have students use previous classes’ home-made microscopes. They use the “Design Thinking” methodology to establish a plan to build a 2.0 version.
Fix 6: Don’t include group scores in grade, use only individual achievement evidence.
I have to say, I am not looking ahead in the book, but I’m a little bit proud of myself. I haven’t actually got to try out any new fix or strategy yet; so far I do all of the fixes Ken suggests for broken grades. Doesn’t make for a very interesting read though, so I’m feeling the need to comment on each fix anyways. When we have group assignments I do not include group scores in the students grade, only their individual achievements. Not to fear, I’m on top of this one already.
I think group assignments are important; we are a collaborative species, and when scaffolded properly, students teaching themselves and/or their peers is much more powerful than having the only adult in the room “download” their wisdom. However I can empathize with the assessment piece when it comes to group work, as every group has the potential to have a “Hannah” (aka the student that cares about grades and does a great job in spite of the group) and each group also seems to end up having a student that contributes little to no work and is there for social hour.
With group work I think I do what most teachers do, in that I track who contributes what, and blend the actual scores (based on a rubric) of teacher, self and peer evaluation. That said, I am also not afraid to go with what my gut tells me, and have a one-on-one conversation with a student to see what they actually know and can demonstrate with or without the powerpoint, poster etc. their group completed. For group work, if you can set high standards and create a culture of collaboration and curiosity, the actual score at the end of the project is just for accountability. Fair is not equal, so trust your professional judgement and give the students an individual grade that is honest and, hopefully, encourages them to continue working towards bigger and better things as they advance through your program and high school.
Fix 5: Don’t include attendance in grade determination, report absences separately.
Whoa boy… I better give this one some thought. First off, I don’t. But this is similar to my post about docking late marks, and, now that I reflect, marking effort. I don’t mark effort. I don’t dock marks for lates. I don’t include attendance in the grade. However all three of these fixes, for me, relate to the same chronic problem a few of my students face… I’m going to chew on this one and get back to you tomorrow. Bye for now.
Ok, I’m back. It has been two weeks and unfortunately I still don’t have some profound revelation to share with you about this “fix” for broken grades, and I wish I did. At my school we have a pocket of students who are chronically absent. This time of year it is a considerable weight on me. With a few weeks to go, students that have missed lots of clases by now are probably feeling stressed about being behind; that stress makes them skip more school. The cycle continues, and some parents enable this attitude, and self-fulfill their own educational shortcomings by allowing the students the time off as a bandage to their anxiety.
Getting back to the topic at hand, not including attendance in grade determination, I have tried a couple of different approaches to this. Firstly I have tried making my class as close to an online class as possible with the added bonus of a warm and friendly teacher every day to greet you. All of my daily lessons, assignments, relevant links etc. are updated on Google Classroom so students can be alerted as to what they are responsible for. Secondly I have tried to make my classrooms as predictable as possible (i.e. little assessment every Wednesday, rest of the week is lessons and practice). Other solutions I have tried are about the frequency of assessment. I have tried marking and recording every little assignment; I have also tried the flip side by marking lots but recording (or counting in their eyes) almost nothing. Thinking back, there was one semester where almost half of my students had “Incompletes” on their report card, because I refused to put zero’s when they just didn’t finish the assignment(s). That didn’t go over very well… At what point do you change the category from “missing” to zero? I know I don’t have to. At what point (test, small assignment, big lab report etc) do you continue expecting the assignment or just let it go? I guess it depends on the student, their circumstances, and how many missing assignments we are talking about here.
Lately, for the last month or so, I have one student who misses two or three classes a week. He is brilliant, and even whilst missing the lessons and activities, he can still troubleshoot high marks on the tests (which he shows up for). His missing assignments are du to the fact that he is at another level academically and is trapped with his grade group (for now). I have another student in the same class who comes diligently to every class and is conscientious about doing every assignment to the best of his abilities. His assignments are the only reason he is actually passing the course, as his test marks are never above 50 despite his efforts. These two gentlemen are in very different places in their Science 10 journey, and deserve to be treated differently in my assessment practices.
In my years as a teacher I have not found an assessment “fix” for students missing assignments that works for me. I don’t include attendance in determining grades, but honestly the students end up including it on their own anyways, sadly.
Fix 4: don’t punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades; apply other consequences and reassess to determine actual level of achievement.
Ahh cheating. I think the longer you have been teaching the stronger (or weaker depending on age) your opinion is on this. My colleague, gentleman in his 50’s, is a very firm believer that cheating results in zero and you have made your bed, now lie in it. For myself, I agree with Ken and still want to actually measure how much the kid knows, not how bad his decision making is or how desperate he is. So check off Fix 4: I have never reduced marks when busted academic dishonesty. BUT I do have a confession…
When I prepare my reassessment, I do let emotions get the better of me a little bit. Firstly, making a new test is a huge undertaking. I spend a lot of time on assignments and tests, I rarely just copy the one from last year or “tweek” the version I saved in the test bank. So chewing up my precious time to make a new test, when the student didn’t care to take the time to study or pay attention in class does upset me. Also being lied to by a student, to be honest with you, hurts my feelings. As such I don’t give cheaters zero but I do make my reassessment WAY more difficult than the original test. So I don’t reduce marks, per say, but if it is a strong student helping a weak student I make sure they get a bit of a hit academically, and then also in their work habits mark too.
Does this make me a bad teacher? I found it interesting. When I was finishing off my BEd we had one final big paper to write. One of the teacher candidates plagiarized on her paper. Everyone was really shocked, and I’m not sure how my university chose to deal with it. I’m sure her own guilt and the lack of glowing reference letters was punishment enough.
Fix 3: Don’t give extra credit or use “bonus points”; seek only evidence that more work has resulted in a higher level of achievement.
Well this post should be a breeze; I’m almost second guessing this whole project. Does anyone give bonus marks out there? To me assessment serves three purposes. Firstly, it informes the learner what they need to focus on, and where they still need to focus (based on clear learning goals). Secondly, at the end of the day, assessment tells the learner how much the student actually understood of a course or component of a course. Lastly, everyone’s favorite, assessment is a reporting tool. Bonus points in any of these functions of assessment would just skew it from its intent, and mislead shareholder(s). Deliberate practice and problem solving lead to learning; it doesn’t matter if you are trying to work on your open chords for the upcoming campfire season with your acoustic guitar, or trying to memorize the five agents of evolution. Work your brain and you will learn; there are no bonus marks.