Back in January, I was wracking my brain about how to make assessments go better in my classes; there was too much stress, too much concentration on the wrong things: it felt too much like a big bad test that everyone should be stressed out about. So I thought to myself, what if they could take a break, take a walk, talk about the test, get rid of misconceptions and jitters, etc.
And that's what we did.
I didn't really have a good idea about how to do this the first time, so I was kind of loose with everything.
"Work on the test for 10 minutes, then we'll take a walk. Come back, work for another 30, we'll do it again. then 20 minutes to finish."
The idea here was to have some time to get into it, then ask questions that might have come up, then some more work, then final questions.
I didn't talk or answer any questions. I let students take notebooks and pencils with them, and bring them back into the room.
After each class's first test walk, I asked for some feedback about the process:
Ok, nothing really shocking there. I used the "cheating" results to have some conversations about why I write assessment questions the way I do, why I ask for so much from one question, why my assessments are only 1-2 questions.
The next few questions on the survey gave me some more interesting feedback (summarizing and cherry-picking some results here).
Did anything bother you about taking a break during the test?
Describe any suggestions you have for how we can make tests less stressful.
Teachers with more foresight than me probably know exactly what went wrong with this: some students used the breaks, especially the last one, to just copy each others work. Of course they did!
The process with the rest of the classes in this first round of tests allowed us to have some great discussions about how to show your understanding (and how to show that it's YOUR understanding).
I pretty quickly stopped letting students take notes or any paper with them, instead sending a basket of whiteboards and markers with them that got erased before they came back into class. I also got rid of the second break: work 10 minutes, 10 minutes to discuss, 40 minutes for the rest of the test.
I don't have really good data on this. Visual modeling increased, but also paragraphs of writing where some good algebra steps would do just fine. "Less tell, more show!" became my most often used comment on assessments.
I think it "felt" better, at least to me. At least most of the time. It also gave me some more freedom (along with some more directed test-prep on my part) to ask more open-ended questions: "Make up your own triangle and solve it to show me you understand trigonometry".
Then there was
The oblique asymptote incident:
So, one of my precal sections, my "difficult" class, last period of the day, test over rational expressions and functions, Illustrative Math question about fuel efficiency...
In this class, I have one student who's way ahead of everyone, a transfer this year from another school where his algebra 2 class covered most of what I have to cover to meet the needs of the students here. He's the "go to guy" during test walks, the one the other students crowd around. He and I had had a discussion about a similar problem, and and how to tie the idea of an oblique asymptote to the context and the solution. It wasn't something that most of the students were ready for, but he was. Here's some of the nonsense I got back on this test:
I threw these and a few others into a presentation (yes, along with some positive things, too) and used it to have a very pointed discussion about cheating. I also found ways to remove this student from the conversation during walks (by having my own conversation with him) so that the others wouldn't get distracted by things they're not ready for.
I settled on a 3 minute reading period (look over the test and strategize: no talking, no writing, no calculators) followed by a 10 minute walk before each test, with whiteboards if students want to use them. Some students still try to memorize the entire problem and get classmates to give them the "answer" (whatever that means), but this is where I think I can feel comfortable. This is what I did for the rest of the year.
Reflection: Why do this?
Test walks are a pain in my ass, mostly because they cause me to spend so much time thinking about and watching for academic dishonesty. I'm not sure if they really help with assessment results because I'm too lazy to do a real look into the scores, and my records aren't good enough to call this useful data yet. I still have assessments where the majority of students miss the mark completely and/or give nonsense answers to questions.
I do this, and I'm going to continue to do this, because of the mathematical discourse it produces. The "pressure" of these discussions produces the best mathematical discussions I ever get to witness, even from the students who are the most disengaged in the classroom. Students argue their case, critique the reasoning of their classmates, ask questions, and don't stop asking until they get it. On one of the last walks this year I tried to capture this in a video. It's kind of hard to hear what they're saying, but you could probably get the idea with the sound off.
So, the question I'm working on now is: How do I get this kind of engagement as a normal part of my classroom... without having to give a test every day!
I had a really rough class last week with my 8th graders. They'd been using a Chinese word pretty regularly in class that I suspected was a swear word. So I decided to call them out on it. When I heard a student using the word, I'd ask them what they said. And what did they do? As you can probably imagine, they totally lied to me. Then their classmates backed them up.
I left that class pretty furious and went directly to the Mandarin teacher to confirm my suspicions (it's like the worst word you can say in Mandarin). Then I started stewing... Losing sleep... Plotting my revenge...
Because of the schedule, it turned out that I didn't see this class again for a week, which was probably a good thing. I asked a colleague for five minutes with them at the end of her class the next day, and I let them know that I knew what they were saying, and I was really disappointed with them. I tried to make sure they understood that it wasn't the profanity that really bugged me (I use profanity, although I don't throw it around in public), it was the dishonesty. Also, that this was an indicator of a bigger problem with this class: the lack of academic language in our daily discourse.
Silence... Blank stares... Some guilty looks... Some grins...
So then we all had a week to think about it. I spent a lot of mental energy on it, although I doubt they did. I got an email from one of the students involved apologizing for the profanity, but didn't hear anything else.
The next time I had them in class, I started out by making sure they understood the problems:
I sat at my desk in the corner and left them to have a conversation. Slow start... leaders emerge... They ended up having a pretty decent conversation for 8th grade students.
After about 45 minutes, I stepped in and gave a little direction to solidify and wrap things up, and then led them through some roleplaying scenarios (1 plays teacher and 2 play students).
The school trip is coming up, so again, we have a long period of time until our next class. I feel like they did some good work today, and I hope it sticks. At least it got them talking and thinking about this.
Take-aways, Lessons Learned:
Let's see if I can keep up with a blog!