I have been playing around with essential questions in several of my classes for some time. As well, I have been thinking hard and long about assessment and trying out a variety of ways to keep the whole assessment of learning process from being reductionist and a waste of time. How useful is the unit test, ultimately? How boring is it to mark the unit test?
One of my new litmus tests is if I am bored marking it, I probably shouldn’t be marking it. There is also a very good chance that I probably shouldn’t be assigning it either, but I think that’s a gray area and a different blog post.
Here is one of my latest forays into assessment and essential questions.
Last semester, in Psychology 11, I made the following questions central to our Social Psychology unit:
- What are the costs and benefits of fitting in and not fitting in?
- Is there a right way to be?
These questions were central to all the learning we did, as we moved through the four week unit on attribution theory, social roles and norms, conformity and dissent, and prejudice and discrimination. Students were asked to reflect continuously on these questions.
Students knew at the start that they would have to have a good grasp of both the content of the unit, such as the vocabulary and concepts and the famous psychological studies that inform our understanding of how people behave in groups (Asch’s line study, Robber’s Cave, Milgram and Zimbardo, and others) and the essential questions for the unit exam.
The exam would take place over about four hours of class time and they could access any resource in the room, including me, books, the internet, and each other.
I gave them the list of terms and the studies and a large sheet of paper and said, “Go for it.”
It was not a smooth ride. Some students begged for the ‘old exam’ while others likely cursed me silently. I printed it out the version from the previous year and handed it to them, in order to illustrate that the information was not different. I told them that I wanted to mark fifteen different exams, not fifteen exams exactly the same. Of course, the essay at the end would have dealt with that independent thinking, but I really wanted to push them to BE WITH THE CONTENT for an extended period of time in the hopes that the content would really stick. We learn when we write, so this was assessment that IS learning. I wanted them to be able to leverage the content in other courses in the coming years, not forget it once they had matched the definitions, written the short answer questions and banged out an essay. As well, I wanted them to apply the essential questions over and over. I wanted to be able to see THEIR thinking, rather than watch them travel the path of MY thinking.
It was critical to communicate they had to answer the questions in light of the study of psychology, not just give their opinions. This was about application.
The blank page was intimidating. I brought out my basket of paper and post-it notes. I provided a model to show them what some possibilities were. I used a certain colour of paper for essential questions, another for famous studies, and another for terms. The post-it notes and bits of paper really got them moving. I left my sample in the middle of the room for them to refer to. Things started to move more smoothly at that point.
The unit assessment had built in differentiation. Students could reflect their basic understanding of the content and terms. We had summarized the studies in groups as part of our review, and these summaries were available to the students to include. The terms were already on their definitions sheets I had handed out through the unit. They had powerpoint notes and assignments to use. Then, as they started to analyze and integrate, individual student experiences and understandings would allow for a wide range of reflection.
The assessment still managed to stymie a few students. I suspect these same students would have not studied for the test and then come in and guessed a whole lot, and then they would have written a whole lot of nothing on the essay. However, I think I could have had a bit more success with few of them if I had sat with them longer and pushed harder.
Some really great thinking happened and I was excited by the process. Their individuality really came forward.
They were an utter pleasure to mark. I believe my assessment of their learning was far more accurate than any traditional test could have delivered, and the learning carried on a much deeper fashion.
If only I could hear what they have to say in fifteen years. Usually the statement goes, “I don’t remember a thing from high school!” I hope they will say, “I remember Zimbardo, and Milgram, and I still think about the costs and benefits of fitting in and not fitting in.” I hope it shapes their own behaviour in groups and that they maintain strong control of their ethical compass in high pressure situations. After all, that is ‘the right way to be.’