Last week’s cathartic rant on the traditional bell curve approach to testing has left me free to reflect on the tool of feedback which we give to our students, and how crucial it is to them as they learn. This leads me to explore a different vision for tests, one that looks like a triumphant culmination and affirmation of work well done and material mastered.
Two years ago my school went to a 1 to 1 I-pad program and this has opened up unique opportunities for students to get feedback. This last week in chemistry students have been working to master the skill of writing names and formulas for Ionic compounds. As I explain to my students, this is a skill that requires much practice in order to strengthen those neuronal pathways sufficiently to produce flawless results every time. There is no “partial credit” for an almost correct answer because any of them might grow up to be a doctor and he or she sure as heck better be paying close attention to exactly which medication is being administered as I’m put under for that hip replacement twenty years from now! Spelling counts! Practice is essential because it stimulates the nerves in the brain to actually grow connections. Its a physical, biological process and there are no short cuts.
So this last week a nice dynamic has been taking shape. I’m home on the couch, with husband and dogs, doing teacher stuff, and “ding!” in comes an e-mail from a student. She has sent me her formulas practice sheet in progress. It takes just a few moments to download that practice sheet onto my own I-pad, open it in “Notability” and make a few notes of guidance and encouragement on her work and “swoosh” the work back to her. (“Swoosh” is the fun noise an I-pad makes when sending mail.) Not only is this helpful to keep the student on the right track, practicing the skills correctly (forming the correct neuronal connections, rather then incorrect ones that have to be “unlearned” later), but the very act of this evening communication strengthens our relationship as learner and coach. This is not teacher as the judge and jury waiting to pounce upon mistakes at the end of a unit with a “summative assessment” she is not ready for. These are two people eagerly engaged in the work of learning, and this scene repeated itself many times during the week. What a wonderful thing, and just one more unanticipated bonus of using I-pads!
The feedback and teamwork continued in class too, with students working together, comparing answers, helping each other, and the teacher there to support the work too. “Sue!, Sue! Come check mine next!” is what I hear all day. These are students who love that little positive jolt they get when there are a lot of “check marks” on their work, and a smile from their teacher. Human interaction really matters. There are also students who are still confused, perhaps even discouraged and need a few tips and their courage bolstered a bit.
The day before the “big test” students did a “practice quiz” (would not be counted) and we made it as realistic as possible, quiet in the room, work with pencil and paper. As the students finished one by one, they brought me their quiz for a quick grading. Most of them were surprised to find they were still making a significant number of errors. Scores mostly ranged from 30’s to 70’s. Oh dear, they are not ready yet! Back to their desks they went with urgings to practice more and more. Some of them had not been taking their practice seriously enough!
Every day in class is an experiment for me. What can I say, what emotion can I project that will be the most effective in helping these students to learn and achieve their goals? This time, I raised my voice somewhat sternly to them, quite a change from my usual gentle demeanor. “Mastering this skill is not an IQ test! It is a commitment test! All of you can learn this if you practice enough!” I wanted to impress upon them that it was not OK to make excuses that this subject is too hard for them, that I do, and they must, believe in their ability! Hard work is necessary, work only they can do for themselves. Only they can train their own neurons to connect!
Today was the real test, and much to all our delight, students did very well. Out of 39 students there were only a couple who had not mastered the skill to a high level. Of course I agonize over those two exceptions, and I will be meeting those students for extra help tomorrow evening, because I still do believe they can and will gain this skill. They just need a bit more practice!
Meanwhile, a positive vision for tests in class is becoming clearer. If the curriculum is well designed, with articulated goals and a map with manageable steps along the way, and if there is plenty of feedback and coaching during the journey, and if the student is willing to put in the work, the final assessment will be a triumphant affirmation that hard work does pay off. The brain will be rewarded with good feeling neurotransmitters, confidence increases and the learner becomes even more “addicted” to the learning process!
Sounds pretty good to me! What do you think? Is this a vision worth aspiring to?