Tag Archives: Assessments

More Thoughts About ‘Helpfulness’

Tomorrow three of my four classes will be taking unit tests. I have always devoted the class day before a test to review. Over the past 5 – 7 years I have become more and more insistent that a review day should be a day where I am here to answer some questions that students come to class with and to help facilitate some meaningful conversation between my students. What many students seem to believe is that review day before a test is simply a time for me to tell them exactly what will be on the test. I always come to class on these days with some prepared questions in my back pocket and I always dream that those questions will stay there. That is not often the case, and it certainly was not the case today.

My Geometry class, the one I’ve been SO proud of recently, was in pretty good shape. We looked at our last HW together, they had some good questions about that but they could not really generate too many meaningful questions of their own. I displayed the review questions I had prepared and they perked up and were terrific in joining in the conversation. I just came away wishing that the class had been more about them and what was on their mind. In retrospect, perhaps it was exactly about what was on their mind. They are concerned about what I am interested in right now so that they can glean some important clues about preparing for tomorrow’s test. Sigh…

My two AP Statistics classes are in a different place emotionally than my Geometry class is. They are almost all seniors and the energy level that they brought back from winter break is distinctly different than the energy level I see in my Geometry students. I gave them class time yesterday to work on their own or with their neighbor on the review exercises at the end of their most recent chapter and my observation is that there were relatively small pockets of productive conversations. However, there were also quite a few incidents of aimless chatter, obsessive checking of their phones, silly debates, and general non-statistical conversations.

So, I feel that I am asking myself the same question I asked myself on these pages just a couple of days ago. How can I be less helpful in the standard sort of hand-holding way that my students want me to be while actually being helpful to them in modeling smart behavior about how to work, how to be metacognitive, how to be reflective, and how to be more self-aware. Trying to recall who I was when I was in high school is probably not the best exercise in answering these questions. I was a different person then than I am now. I am remembering through a distinctly tinted memory lens and I am not teaching four classes of teenage Mr. Dardys.

Gotta keep thinking and keep pushing.

The Mysteries of Students’ Thinking Processes

A busy week of writing letters for advisees, writing a letter of rec for a former colleague, and pulling weekend dorm duty. Back on duty again tonight, so it is three out of four nights now!

Last week was the first time in quite a while that I found myself largely disappointed by my students and I have a couple of questions I want to air out. Trying to understand what students understand through assessment is, of course, one of our big challenges as teachers. People much smarter than I am have been hashing this out for a long, long time. So, I have two stories to share that are each nagging at me.

In AP Stats we are wrestling with probability. Most of my students have had very little, if any, exposure to probability before this class so this tends to be a tough unit. We had a problem on our last quiz that went like this:

Mr. Felps has 28 students in his AP Calculus BC class and 8 of them are left handed. We know that approximately 10% of the population is left handed. Can this situation in Mr. Felps’ class happen by chance?

A number of my students felt that this could not happen by chance. It seemed too unlikely to them. This bothered me a bit since we had looked at some simulations and talked about runs of short duration. We had discussed the law of large numbers and looked at a decent EXCEL simulation. I thought I had covered our bases on this one. But what really flustered me was that the follow up question asked for the probability of 8 out of 28 left handers under this condition. Every one of my students attempted this computation. Almost all got it right. BUT – a number who got it right had just told me that it was impossible for this to happen by chance. Somehow in the span of two minutes they seemed to forget that it was impossible and instead gave me the small percentage chance of it happening. What happens? Why do such good students have these kind of hiccups, especially in assessment situations? Man, it feels as if this is THE golden treasure to find as a teacher. How can we help our students step back and be metacognitive enough to sidestep these mistakes?

The second situation involves my Calc BC crew. We had a test last week and I try not to have too few questions on these tests so that each question does not feel so overwhelmingly significant. i have settled on feeling comfy with 7 questions in a 45 minute or 50 minute class test. Our recent unit on arc lengths and surface areas involve some problems that take a bit of time. To compensate for this while still having 7 questions I threw in what I thought was a gift wrapped set of points. Here is the question I tossed in as a softball for them.

I realize that if I increase my cycling speed by 3 MPH it will take me 40 seconds less time to cover each mile. What is my original speed?

I had students who left this problem completely blank. AP Calculus BC students who were so stymied by this that they did not even write an equation relating the information presented to them. I’ve been wrestling with this for days on a number of levels. It feels like this was an easy gift to them, one that my competent Alg II kids can easily solve. However, this was clearly not the way the problem was received by my students. They felt tricked or ambushed. They feel like it is unfair to lose points on a Calculus test on a problem that does not feel like it has anything to do with Calculus. I sort of sympathize on some level, but I feel that it is absolutely essential for these kids – kids who want to pursue serious, high powered technical degrees and futures – to be able to synthesize and recall old ideas with ease. Man, I am frustrated by this one. I felt I was tossing them a bone and it got stuck in their throats.

I have so much thinking to do (still!) about assessments and understanding what my kids understand.

Catching Up and Looking for Some Ideas

There are a few ideas/questions banging around in my brain. No school tomorrow here so I can relax a little more than usual on a Sunday night. I’ll try to be coherent and I hope to get some feedback here or through twitter (where I can be found as @mrdardy)

On Friday our school had the day off and we have been encouraged to use this as a professional development day by our administration. I chose to travel a few hours to visit a school where an old friend is working. The school does some interesting work in the STEM arena and they balance an IB program as well as AP expectations. I gathered some ideas that I will be bouncing off of my colleagues and administrators, but more importantly I just felt energized. I walked away excited to have made some new contacts, happy about many of the things we do at our school so well, interested in figuring out how to develop cultural pieces to support some ideas that work there, and filled with some ammo to talk about the need for schedule changes at my school. As a young teacher I never visited another school. I have long had the habit of visiting other classes at my school and I never feel like I do that enough. It has only been since I moved north 8 years ago that I started making the effort to visit other schools and I cannot recommend this enough. Where I live I pretty much have to drive two hours or so and I have done that the past two years. Every time I have reached out to another school I have received nothing but positive responses and a generous  expense of energy in making the visit happen. I also want to take this space and time to extend an invitation to anyone who wants to come and see our school in action.

On Thursday my AP Stats classes had a group quiz. I stood at the door with playing cards in my hand. Students took one (blind) from me and were randomly assigned to groups. Each class had four groups and each group had a different quiz. There was one question in common to all quizzes but otherwise they each had five different questions. It was SO much fun to listen in as they wrestled with these questions and as they explained ideas to each other. There were some healthy debates but it never got tense or unpleasant. Our school has a very international flavor and I was especially pleased to hear the voices of my international students in these conversations. So much of the material in this course is based on careful reading and vocabulary and I sometimes worry about whether this gets in the way of these students accurately showing me what they know. Have not graded them yet – that is tomorrow morning’s task – but I fully expect them to shine.

On Thursday my AP Calc BC class took a test on integration techniques. The last question on the test was this – Divide a pizza of 14 inch radius into three equal portions with two parallel lines. Most of my students wisely chose vertical lines. Two chose lines in the form y = mx + b, a bad choice. I went into this intending to give full credit even without a numerical value for the line equations. Setting up the integral appropriately is where the calculus is in my mind. Here is what I find myself wishing after this test and after looking at their work – I wish that they had access to desmos or geogebra while they were taking this test. I wish that they had something much more powerful than their TI calculators to visualize this, to try out ideas, to narrow down where the solution needs to be. I had to struggle through some ugly algebra and some calculus that should have been cleaner and more obvious. I’m impressed by the patience and perseverance I saw but I am frustrated since I know that better tools can help them work smarter on a problem like this one. How many of you out there have a setup where your students have access to these tools on assessments? Am I overthinking this by worrying about internet access during a test? Should I just trust that reasonably written questions can allow them to show me what they know and allow me to judge my students’ progress? I’m thinking hard about this and I would love some ideas.

Thinking About How to End a Year

So, this morning both of my AP classes took their final exams. I have some questions for the world about this process, but first I want to share something fun from the Calculus BC final. You should know that my students understand that the word fun, when I use it in class, means that a problem is challenging, thought-provoking, unusual, or some other words that they might use but I won’t type. I believe that I mentioned that we ended the year after the AP test with a quick tour of some interesting topics that many high school students don’t get to see. I included a small unit on different number bases. I always start this by writing a series of addition and multiplication facts on the board. However, they don’t know that these facts are base 8 number facts. I usually reveal the secret by showing a picture of Lisa Simpson and tell them that these facts are how Lisa would compute. It’s a fun conversation to have. So, for our final exam I told my students that there would be ten problems. Nine of them would be Calculus problems taken from old tests. they have all of their old tests (all ten of them) so they could be very well prepared for that. I also told them that one problem would come from our last two weeks. After discussing this with my friend Richard – a former math teacher – he sent me the following passage from Alice in Wonderland

Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is

thirteen, and four times seven is — oh dear! I shall never get

to twenty at that rate!    

I played around with this for a while and fell in love with this as a final problem for the year. This is how I presented it to my students:

For your final problem on your final Calculus test, we will play with number bases. Consider the following passage from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

“Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is

thirteen, and four times seven is — oh dear! I shall never get

to twenty at that rate!”

            Explain, in terms of your knowledge of number bases what is happening in this pattern. Explain how four times five is twelve, and how four times six is thirteen.    Guess what she will say four times seven is and make it clear to me why she won’t be able to get to twenty. 

 

I will sink my teeth into grading finals tomorrow since I am on dorm duty tonight. I did browse through four or five of the test as they were turned in and two students really nailed the problem and provided beautiful, detailed answers explaining the pattern. I won’t spoil it here, I’ll let you work through it if you wish to do so.

 

I don’t know how your school works, I do know a bit about the four schools where I have worked. All of them have been independent schools that emphasize the idea that we are college preparatory schools. Each school I have worked at has had a statement in their handbook about the importance and significance of final exams as a college preparatory experience. However, I know that tonight many of the seniors in the dorm will tell me that they do not have any finals left. Today was the first of three and a half days of final exams and many seniors won’t have any more after today. There is a pretty common feeling that final exams will not be pretty and are of questionable usefulness with our seniors who are days away from graduation. This is not just a feeling at my current school. But I really wrestle with this. We say we believe that taking a final exam, preparing and organizing a large body of information for a one-day thorough examination, is a useful skill AND one that is important for college. However, it is those students who are closest to college who are the most likely to have been excused from a final exam. In some classes the final experience is a paper or a presentation that happened last week. But our school, and others where I have worked, carve out quite a bit of time for final exam administration. I wonder whether we could use our time in a more meaningful way. I wonder whether the idea of a final exam makes sense only in certain disciplines or for certain age levels. Is it reasonable for us to ask our freshmen to take exams under the same circumstances that we ask of our juniors and (sometimes) seniors? I don’t see AP scores for my students until July. I like the idea of some capstone where I check in with them in one last, broad examination of ideas. I feel pretty old-school in that regard.

I want to make my assessments meaningful for me and for my students. I am really beginning to doubt whether exam week is such a positive way to do this. I would love to hear from others about how they deal with this question. Are many of you bound to a policy that your school or your department has mandated? I want to be smarter about this and I’d love your help.