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Posted by on in Assessment & Grading


Since the start of my career in 2007, I have witnessed some form of educational debate take place on almost a daily basis. And, with the rise of social media – in particular, Facebook and Twitter – these types of conversations are now that much easier to create, engage in, and/or find.

The Problem

Overall, the majority of this communication does ultimately benefit our students, but at the same time I believe we owe it to our profession to not just interact when we’re “in the know,” but also when there is a lot to be learned…And, furthermore, we should be willing to admit to ourselves and others that we just might not know everything.

Over the past month I have witnessed a few arguments unfold on Twitter in which a couple of educators from other districts were justifying their actions by declaring, “Those ideas [proposed by others in the district] wouldn’t work with my students,” and at the same time they discounted the work of highly respected researchers because “They aren’t in the classroom!” In general, these situations were your typical resistance to change.

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Posted by on in Assessment & Grading
My students moan about my chemistry class. Every Friday, I require students to take a test. With so much riding on test results for both teachers and students, the external examinations required by the Cambridge system my school employs appears to encourage more cheating than learning. At best, they foster memorization, but at the expense of originality and critical thinking. The dreaded teaching to the test. Today, information can be more easily—and accurately— searched online than mentally recalled, old-fashioned testing strikes its critics as obsolete. But it turns out that the right kinds of assessments—frequent, short tests—can actually yield big educational benefits. It’s called the “testing effect,” and it is my belief that educators are missing an opportunity by not doing more to take advantage of it.
One of the major problems with the standardized testing is that it is built on the assumption that there’s a fixed amount of knowledge and ability in a student’s head, which the test merely measures. But that’s not what research has shown. Done properly, testing is not impotent. Rather, it can be much more like Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The act of testing students, actually affects how much knowledge they retain, how well they retain it and how they apply it.
Educational researcher Andrew Butler has shown that testing facilitates creative problem solving, a major objection against testing. Undergraduates were given six text passages filled with facts and concepts. He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did these latter students demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked apply these concepts in completely new contexts. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.
The key to this effect is the timing. The sooner students are tested after learning new material, the more it sinks in, the longer you wait to test students the less recall. On the other hand, the more testing a student gets on a given set of more information, the greater the benefits. With the first few tests, students show dramatic gains. With further testing, the positive effects on retention taper off. But surprisingly, there is no plateau. Even after 20 or 30 tests, students’ performances progressively improve with each additional test.
No one is entirely sure what causes the effect. One possible explanation is that connections between neurons increase when you reinforce the learning with examinations. If you don't “use it you lose it.” Because recalling during test-taking requires real mental effort, it may force the brain to create multiple, alternative pathways for accessing the same piece of information. Frequent mental struggle strengthens these networks. This may be why, for all the drawbacks of external examinations featuring lots of practice exams, they force students to retrieve the information on all those flash cards, they provide helpful mental workouts. So although it has it's critics, evidence suggests that examinations and tests still hold an important place in the modern educational system.
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Posted by on in Assessment & Grading


A few weeks ago, a teacher shared with me a question his had given to his students. He asked them,

“If you had the choice for your next grade, would you choose an 88 that you really worked hard for and learned something to earn or 95 where you won’t remember anything after the grade and didn’t learn throughout the process?”

I love the question. Both the question itself and the thoughts I have about the implications of either choice are fascinating to me.

Not surprisingly, many students opted for the 95. They are sophomores in high school, and with a few weeks to go until spring break, I can understand the allure of some free points.

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Posted by on in Assessment & Grading


Sometimes inspiration comes from unusual places.  This week it came through the mail.  I don’t always take the time to read through my alumni magazine but when I do I’m never disappointed. This edition contains a particularly great quote from David Anderegg, a professor at my alma mater, Bennington College. I think every educator should read it 

He writes… 

“I give assignments to make sure that students are integrating on a deep level.  It’s easy to learn concepts superficially, to get familiar with the terminology and to speak in terminology.  When I assign something to the class, I’m looking to see if students are able to grasp a concept, if they understand its range and limits, what it means and what it doesn’t mean, and if they are able to apply the concept.

I think of class participation and assignments in tandem.  It’s all part of the same thing, and I require both.  Sometimes my students want to know why participation is required and that’s when I talk about Andrea Bocelli.

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