Sunday, 30 August 2015

Testing a new Test

I have always been a proponent of weekly tests. For over ten years, I have had my students write a weekly quiz that I’ve dubbed Friday Flashbacks. The outline for a Flashback looked like this, with space for questions from our studies that week. For the most part, it has been well received by students and parents. I have, if anyone asked, defended it from three perspectives.

From the Student’s Perspective

Elementary students can often be described as “learners in the moment”. They can be wonderfully engaged in activities during a lesson. However, new information, concepts and mathematical formulas do not always stick. As soon as the recess bell rings, many dump this fresh knowledge from their short-term memories and move their focus to the more compelling world of the playground. I don’t blame them - I did the same thing. However, it is my responsibility to teach them to keep important information so that their understanding can deepen and that we can move forward with new concepts and ideas. A weekly test, and supporting lessons on studying habits and mnemonics, is a great way to build this capacity.

Additionally, the weekly check-in is also intended to be a way in which they can celebrate and reinforce their own learning. The first request I have always posed is as follows:

In the space below, share something interesting or important that you learned during our lessons this week.  Please write in sentences but, don’t worry about spelling mistakes. (TRY TO WRITE 2 OR MORE SENTENCES)  

From a Teacher’s Perspective

A weekly test keeps me focused on subject matter. I need to be moving through the curriculum in order to have new questions for the Flashback. On Thursday, when I prepare the test, I become immediately accountable for what I have covered. Did we spend too much time on an art activity or writing task? Did we tackle the math concept that I had planned for the week? Are the students ready to be tested on the science terms I hoped to cover by month’s end? The weekly test is, in many respects, an overview of my curriculum organization. I think it serves as a better snapshot of what I am accomplishing than scribbles and jot-notes in my day-book.

From a Parent’s Perspective

I send the Flashback home on Monday for a parental signature. This provides parents with a quick look at the things we are learning in class and a chance to gauge their child’s understanding. I remind parents regularly that this is not a final grade, but rather a snapshot of their current competency in a particular area of study. As with all teachers, I provide multiple opportunities for a students to demonstrate their understanding and hopefully mastery of a concept. The flashback exists as a predictable, static opportunity for which students and parents can prepare. Thursday night homework is often left open to provide time for this preparation.

Testing Out a new Test

I am considering revising my weekly Flashbacks. I find that I am rethinking a lot this summer, certainly a byproduct of my Professional Learning Network through Twitter and Edmodo. I will still dedicate one side of the weekly quiz to review concepts from the week. However, I have redesigned the first side to focus more on the student’s perspective of the week. I have included my first draft here but, I will not know how effective it is until I get a few chances to try it out. Here are the key changes.

  1. Many questions begin with the word please. This is a simple but essential change. I am certainly cognisant of the use of good manners with my students in the classroom setting. However, when writing test questions I often think more clinically. The questions on the first page are of a personal nature. Consequently, I think it is important to make my request politely.
  2. Each student will receive a small sticker and will be asked to place it in one of the six Learning Skill boxes available. This choice allows the student to celebrate success in one of these areas and a chance to explain the reason for that accomplishment. A brief description of the Ontario Learning Skills can be found here. I also plan to use this data to provide feedback through ClassDojo and, eventually, Edmettle.
  3. I am encouraging the students to share “something that they learned” with “something that they enjoyed” as two distinct questions. Although, I will let them know that the answer can be the same.
  4. I have included space for ongoing goal-setting. This encourages the student to reflect on the things that they need to improve without highlighting them as a failure. A student who struggled to work independently is not being asked to identify this a weakness. Rather, she is given the opportunity to contemplate ways in which this can be improved. It is a tangible reminder that every new week is another chance to improve. It will also reinforce the long-term goal-setting skills we investigate in January.
  5. I have included the “Emotion Tribbles” from the Tribes Learning Community. These five Tribbles each represent a range of emotions. The student is asked to colour the Tribble that represents her emotional state for the week. She is then asked to share the reason for this decision. It is my hope that this will help me make more meaningful connections with my students but, I remain tentative on its efficacy and may revisit this section.
  6. Finally, I ask for them to share a new word. I am sure this will be easy, as we cover new vocabulary daily. I think it will be fun to encourage them to build their own Padlet wall with these new words. At year’s end, each student will have a virtual record of their language development. Again, I’ll have to see how this plays out.
  7. As a side note, I have removed the "Marks" box from the first page. I continue to move toward a Grade-Free classroom. My focus, is to encourage students to meet (or exceed) clear expectations and my job is to provide meaningful feedback. Letter grades, while still required on report cards, are slowly vanishing from my classroom and any test or assignment.

I will provide feedback on the paper copy of this Flashback for the parents to see and through Edmodo. Students will be asked to keep these printed Flashbacks in their portfolio. I am still struggling a bit with making these entirely digital. Perhaps that is something I can also experiment with during the year. This first page could certainly be completed as a Google Doc through Google Classroom and then stored in a personal Google drive folder. However, that is a thought for another day.

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