Bringing Student Choice to Assessment in Science Classes
When I was teaching Biology I to a group of students, I once noticed that several of them were doodling instead of taking notes during a lecture I was giving about the life cycle of ferns. Having gained the wisdom to know when and how to pick my battles, I chose to disregard this rather than making a big deal out of it.
When class was done, I approached one of the students who was doodling and asked if I might look through his notebook. I was astounded to discover that he had produced a number of drawings that were virtually spot-on representations of the life cycle of ferns.
He explained that he was trying out a new method of taking notes that involved art as part of the process. He’d been doodling his way through a few other classes, and he was pretty sure that it was helping him learn and recall the material better. I advised him to keep doing whatever was helping and to keep me updated on how things were going.
Throughout the course of the semester, I was aware of the many ways in which other students thrived. One found great enjoyment in providing oral reports that included video clips and digital bits of proof in support of their claims. Another student produced eloquently written essays, while still another served as a motivator to the members of her small group while also guiding them through some quite complex problem-solving.
HOW STUDENTS SHOW WHAT THEY KNOW
During the course of the semester, I evaluated each of my students in a variety of different ways, and I decided to compile a list of all of those methods. There were seven in total: writing in a journal, doing lab work, presenting oral reports, participating in a writing cluster that included drama, fiction, poetry, and essays, working in small groups, creating artwork, and taking written exams.
At the beginning of the spring semester, I informed my students that I would be evaluating them in a new way that would incorporate student choice into the evaluation process. I would be using this new method to evaluate them.
The structure that I devised looks like this: During the course of the nine-week grading period, each student would select at least three modes from the list provided above. They would be able to utilise alternative means to demonstrate the learning that I would have tested in the past if they didn’t want to take the tests, which they wouldn’t be forced to do if they didn’t want to. After they had made their decisions, they were required to adhere to them during the entirety of the grading period.
It is essential to keep in mind that pupils were only graded based on the modalities that they chose for themselves. Take for example a student who decided against doing lab work. This student accompanied us into the laboratory and was able to participate, despite the fact that he or she would not be graded on their work. I made sure that no pupil was ever left unattended, and I always gave them the opportunity to take part in the activity.
I produced Fact Sheets, one for art and one for writing, that were a pretty easy way to evaluate their writing and art in an impartial manner. This is not a frequent practise in science, so I was surprised to find that it was necessary. If a student wanted to demonstrate their learning by creating a poster, they were required to attach a “Art Fact Sheet.” This sheet had ten facts from the material covered in that aim that were demonstrated in the poster. For instance, they might write on a poster depicting a normal animal cell something along the lines of “Animal cells feature mitochondria that are involved in the creation of energy.” They would create a legend that laid out their facts in a way that was easy for me to recognise.
When it came to writing, I followed the same process. For instance, if a student were to write a short play based on the principles of bioengineering, they would affix a Writing Fact Sheet to it, highlight the facts from the material that relate to that purpose, and number each fact so that it is simple to identify them.
Writing about scientific topics in journals can be quite subjective; how can I evaluate a student’s ideas? At other times, I would ask very explicit questions that required answers. Credit was awarded to the student if they provided an answer to the questions. At other occasions, I requested that they compose a half page essay on the subject at hand. If they had, I would give them the utmost credit for it.
I held three open houses and invited several of our local business partners to participate by bringing snacks and a few cool door prizes because I really wanted to encourage participation because it was important that parents understand how my system would work. This was done to ensure that their parents and guardians understood this system. There were representatives from around 75 percent of the homes of my students.
WHAT STUDENTS CHOSE
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that only a small percentage of pupils signed up to take the tests. I made sure there was a comfortable place in the breezeway that connects the classroom and the lab for the two or three students in each class who selected traditional testing as one of their forms of assessment. This was done so that they could take the test. While those kids were busy taking the test, the rest of the class worked on their projects. It turned out to be a very positive outcome.
Despite the fact that the student preferences were all over the place, the following is a breakdown of the total percentages for the first semester:
95 percent of students participate in lab work.
Work done in small groups: 93 percent journaling: 90 percent oral reports: 40 percent of the cluster is devoted to text; 15 percent to artwork; 12 percent of the evaluation is based on written tests.
The combination of lab work, work in small groups, and journaling was the one that was chosen the most frequently. This is a combination that appears to be naturally designed for an active scientific classroom and lab. Students were not required to take part in the activities associated with the learning modes that they had not selected. As a result, five percent of my students did not complete the lab work, seven percent of them did not take part in the work done in small groups, and so on.
Because students frequently forgot what decisions they made, I wrote their decisions down and displayed them in a list on the back of the door to the classroom. Large poster boards were used to display the processes, rules, and deadlines that I had outlined.
I staggered the dates such that no student had more than one project due on any one single day; the products in each mode were due on different days. This was done so that I could avoid overloading students with too many deadlines.
REALITY CHECK: MY PRINCIPAL’S INPUT
My principal was interested in learning about my new system, and she was worried about whether or not my pupils were meeting all of the requirements and goals. He requested that I give a single written examination at the conclusion of each grading period. In spite of the fact that I didn’t believe it was essential, he was the headmaster.
As it turned out, the majority of my pupils fared well on those examinations, and after one year, my principal appeared to be convinced that the new system functioned effectively without them.
When I first started offering students a say in how I would evaluate them, my primary objectives were to instil a sense of ownership in the process, place the onus of responsibility for learning squarely on the shoulders of the students, and facilitate as much success as possible for each individual student. In addition to that, I desired for them to find out on their own which modes were most successful for them. The majority of students found it reassuring to know that they will have another opportunity to correct any poor decisions they made during the subsequent marking period.
An unintended consequence was that I never experienced boredom since the students never ceased to amaze me with the works they produced and the way they appeared to comprehend the material. And by replacing traditional means of judging student progress, such as written tests, canned lab exercises, and the occasional report, with a choice system, an environment was created that encouraged genuine comprehension of scientific principles and ideas. Students began to see that they were behaving and thinking in ways consistent with scientists.