Winning Streaks, Losing Streaks

Another assessment article I dug up recently was “Assessment Through the Student’s Eyes” by Rick Stiggins.

“The goal of assessment for learning is not to eliminate failure, but rather to keep failure from becoming chronic and thus inevitable in the mind of the learner. Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has pointed out that the key to winning is to avoid losing twice in a row (Kanter, 2004, p. 251). He meant that if you lose once and fix it, you can remain confident. Losing twice, though, can raise questions, crack that confidence, and make recovery more difficult. So when learners suffer a failure, we must get them back to success as quickly as possible to restore their confidence in their capabilities. This is the emotional dynamic of assessment for learning.”

I love the sports analogy. In something like sports, we so easily make the connection between the emotional state of a team and its successes; any devoted fan will concede a loss here and there, but the more losses happen, the more chronic they usually become.

I feel like teachers don’t really consider the emotional impact of handing back bad grades, or the impact of handing back bad grade after bad grade. Or likewise, they don’t consider the kid has who always scores well and just keeps scoring well; they are both at an emotional advantage and more likely to continue succeeding.

I was a high school student only a mere 6 years ago, so I kind of remember being in that position. I was usually the high achiever though, so it’s hard to remember what it feels like to be a “losing streak”. However, I did always feel that way with regard to math. I was in advanced classes, but math was the hardest subject for me. I “knew” I was never going to do as well as some of my friends in my math classes. I would actually tell people I was “bad at math” even as a junior in Calculus class. Looking back, it’s hard to believe I said that; in college, I actually studied math because I found it challenging and I’d finally found the self-confidence to see that as a good thing.

Maybe it’s the same for a lot of my students. They just keep “losing”, whether losing for them means a D grade or a B grade. The challenge is that I still want assessment to be fair; I don’t want to hand out high grades to everyone just to make them feel good. It would be an interesting experiment, but I think that the students need to feel like they really accomplished the “win”, not just have it given to them. I’ve seen it happen with a few students already this semester… like one who struggled last semester. She did really well on our first test of the semester, and ever since then she keeps proudly telling me how she got all the homework right (rather than her usual “Wait, I’m confused”)… and indeed, her work looks astronomically better.

So what does Stiggens suggest to fairly, and honestly, help more students get on a “winning streak”?

“Assessment for learning begins when teachers share achievement targets with students, presenting those expectations in student-friendly language accompanied by examples of exemplary student work. Then, frequent self-assessments provide students (and teachers) with continual access to descriptive feedback in amounts they can manage effectively without being overwhelmed. Thus, students can chart their trajectory toward the transparent achievement targets their teachers have established. The students’ role is to strive to understand what success looks like, to use feedback from each assessment to discover where they are now in relation to where they want to be, and to determine how to do better the next time. As students become increasingly proficient, they learn to generate their own descriptive feedback and set goals for what comes next on their journey.”

Two specific situations he discusses are:
1. Set Students Up for Success (sharing expectations)
2. Help Students Turn Failure into Success (i.e. test corrections)

I’ve been good at #2. I have already done various types of test corrections and/or relearning type activities. I’m not sure it’s always helped everyone take ownership and learn things better, but I think it has helped some really think about their performance and improve. However, #1 is where I feel I’ve been less strong. It’s not that I want to keep things a secret, but I find that I have given assignments where I expected something and clearly the students didn’t understand that. For example, even with timed testing at my school I ran into a misunderstanding. It’s a small private school and apparently it’s the norm (especially in middle school) to just let students have extra time on tests whenever they want. As for whether timed testing is even the right way to approach things… that’s a whole different discussion. However, given my background, I didn’t think I had to explain ahead of time that a timed test meant you don’t get extra time. I got major backlash from students grades 9-12 who weren’t used to that expectation and even got talked to by the administration. It’s not that they didn’t support me, but students complained. That’s an example of where I could have been clearer with expectations, and I know in the future I will be.

Assessment Group

In preparation for an “Assessment Group” meeting after work today, I’ve been reading about formative assessment.

“What we need is a shift from quality control in learning to quality assurance. Traditional approaches to instruction and assessment involve teaching some given material, and then, at the end of teaching, working out who has and hasn’t learned it–akin to a quality control approach in manufacturing. In contrast, assessment for learning involves adjusting teaching while the learning is still taking place–a quality assurance approach. Quality assurance also involves a shift of attention from teaching to learning. The emphasis is on what the students are getting out of the process rather than on what teachers are putting into it, reminiscent of the old joke that schools are places where children go to watch teachers work.” (from “Classroom Assessment: Minute by Minute, Day by Day” by Leahy, Lyon, Thompson, Wiliam)

I chuckle at the idea of students going to watch teachers work – I do sometimes feel like they put in so little effort and here I am stressing myself out, working at home, having nightmares about school…

I really do agree with the ideas of formative assessment. I guess I just keep finding myself conflicted in how to do it.

For example, I made a quiz over the graphs of exponential functions for my precalculus classes. My whole goal with the quiz was to make questions that could get at the shapes of graphs relative to other graphs but so that the kids couldn’t just plug it into their calculators. It’s like when I get into “test and quiz making” mode, I come up with these tricky nice questions, but I almost wish they weren’t being graded on them. I honestly call it test or quiz mostly so they will take it seriously!

I think they can learn from the questions, but how do I administer the quiz and have them learn from it? I would rather just not grade the quiz at all and use it for discussion, but I feel like they expect a grade and who am I to completely change in the middle of the year?

Never Passing Through the Student’s Mind

“U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman recalled what his father, a chemistry professor, used to say about traditional lectures: the notes of the teacher go straight to the notes of the student without ever passing through the student’s mind.”

I stumbled on this in an article about a local charter school, and it relates directly to a situation I had yesterday. There’s a 10th grade girl in my geometry class who struggles in math. She told me this at the beginning of the year, and I tried to inspire her that this year could be different. She’s a really interesting girl who perks up at any mention of fractals or Fibonacci and turned in a really eloquent piece of writing for my first foray into making the students write in math class.

So she ends up pulling up to a B- last semester and was absolutely ecstatic. Then yesterday was the first test for this semester. A couple days ago I was having them work on a review of similar triangles while I went around and talked to each of them, and I started to become a little worried about her. Similar triangles usually involves dealing with fractions, and it became clear to me that her fraction skills were shaky at best.

So anyway, yesterday right before the test, she comes into my office and has this big confession to make. She says that she likes my class, but for some reason this whole unit on similar triangles has just not stuck with her. She says that she just feels like no matter how hard she tries to listen, she can’t focus on the lecture. When she can focus, she understands what I’m doing, but then she tunes out again and then when she’s looking at the homework problems, she has no idea what to do. She kept saying that she thought she knew the concepts but “couldn’t express it” the way that I showed, which basically meant she doesn’t solve proportions the way I do and was concerned about having to show her work. When I saw her working in class the other day, she actually knew what the answer was supposed to be but couldn’t explain why to her friend sitting next to her. She asked me “how to do it”, which I interpreted to mean how to set up the algebraic proportion and solve, and that’s where she was really lost.

I encouraged her to take the test and answer the questions “her way” to the best of her ability, not worrying if the “work” looked like what I showed in class. What I saw on her test was actually quite interesting. She was looking at the relationships between the sides in an addition sense – so that if one side increased by 10, she wanted the other side to increase by 10. She obviously missed the entire idea of increasing by a multiplicative factor, and I never managed to figure that out before the test.

So it makes me really wonder what to do now. I don’t feel right giving her a low test grade when I can finally just now see that she has a huge conceptual misunderstanding. Honestly, I’ve been questioning testing in general lately, but this really makes me wonder.

I know that when I give back tests, most students hardly look at it. The ones who scored poorly look embarrassed and are usually the ones that put it away the quickest. I kind of doubt most of them go home and pore over and read the comments and try to figure out how to improve.

I did a test corrections assignment earlier this year with mixed results. I’m still not sure it really shows them what to focus on; they just figure out how to fix that one problem in hopes of getting some points back. I mean after all, it’s hard for someone to look at their own paper and pick out their areas of weakness, but it’s fairly easy for me to do provided they show enough of their thought process in writing.

So I have this idea and I’m a little hesitant to do it because it would take longer.. but I was thinking of writing each student a short summary of their test that mentions the areas of deficiency, and giving them that before they ever see a red pen mark or a grade. Then, those that score below a certain threshold can meet with me to work on that deficiency and possibly earn back some credit.

I don’t know. It’s still playing in the “points game” which I am really starting to hate, but I’m not ready to go completely off the deep end with the anti-testing stuff yet. At least I feel like they’d have more of a chance of getting feedback before they shut off when they see a low grade.