The Holy Grail in Teaching

The Holy Grail, in teaching, would be the development of an assessment tool that has the following properties:

  • It accurately reflects the actual learning that has occured.
  • It cannot be spoofed by students who don’t learn/prepare/read etc.
  • It is fair.
  • It is easy to grade.
  • It is, in like manner, easy to administer.

The easy-to-grade bit is important, perhaps more than a non-teacher would normally appreciate. A good teacher all too easily drowns himself/herself in work. Prepping lessons, giving them, and evaluating them — and then doing all the paperwork on top of the evaluation — can become overwhelming. An assessment mechanism that is cumbersome to grade will simply not be used as often, not matter how spectacular it is or how much we “know” we “should” be using it.

The example par excellence is the formal lab report. Every science teacher “knows” that we should be prepping the kids for writing scientific papers. (Aside: At some point I’ll have to return to investigate why we think this is important.) But grading the formal lab report is a drag and doing it properly takes too much time and energy. Most science teachers I know, even the good ones, compromise on this and don’t evaluate formal labs every opportunity.

Whether we like to admit it or not, this is in part behind the move toward “student-oriented assessment” — that is, having the kids grade each other. Sure, it’s probably pedagogically useful and it gives non-traditional learners a chance to shine. And performing for their peers is way more motivational than performing for a solitary teacher. But it’s also easier — which makes student-evaluated assessments one of the Holy Grails of teaching.

I was talking to a friend of mine who used to teach at Hun (hi, Julie!) and she told me what she’d taken to doing in her AP Bio class. Rather than have the kids prepare a full-blown formal lab report — mini-paper, really — on each of the twelve mandated bio labs, she’s having them do some only as graphs. In other words, the kids prepare the lab (with pre-lab evaluation), run it, take the data, but then prepare one killer graph (with succinct but complete blurb). These are hung around the classroom and critiqued by the other students as well as by Julie.

I love this idea. A different friend of mine who’s teaching at Rice University (hi, Doug!) once told me that the crucial skill he’d ask high school teachers to instill more effectively is the preparation of good graphs. Reading papers today is often not much more than skimming the abstract and then checking out the graphs. (That makes it sound a little like Playboy, actually, but that’s not the intent.) Producing a good graph requires real understanding of the experiment: You have to know what data is important to take, how it should be combined, and what you need to convey to the reader. It might be possible to spoof this evaluation but I think it’d be hard.

Anyway, I’m going to work out a rubric that will work within my AP Physics class and inflict this on them post haste. It’s a nice add-on to the full-blown “peer review” process we’ve been developing. And it gives me some thoughts about semi-regular “group meetings” during the semester-long project they’ll be starting in late January…

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