Monday, December 7, 2015

Silly Questions

Teachers like to say, "There is no such thing as a silly question." This is a facile and pointless thing to say to students, because they know perfectly well that there are, and that everyone will laugh at them if they say something stupid out loud. Or, more accurately, that it sometimes feels like everyone is laughing at them. Denying that one can accidentally ask a stupid or wrong question just makes matters worse: not only are students faced with the risk of exposure, they can expect no support from someone who refuses to even acknowledge problem that such a problem exists. (Like my telling my daughter she can't live in residence at X university because their Dean of Students insists no student has ever been raped in residence. Since that is not remotely credible, I am not sending her to a school which operates on the basis of denial and cover up. I want her to go to a school that is addressing the problem face on, and which is going to offer its residents every conceivable support, not ask her to shut up about it lest it ruin the Dean's perfect reputation. Saying "there are not stupid questions" is like confabulating 'no reported rapes" with "no rapes": kids know what you're really saying is, "You have no grounds to complain about how I handle your questions because I will never acknowledge that I was being condescending...")

Students learn they can ask silly questions by the way the teacher models appropriate responses. If one resists the urge to say, "Really?" in condescending voice, then students will never know it was a stupid question and the issue will never arise. If other students are inclined to giggle, cut that short by saying, "I'm glad you asked me that because that is such a common point of confusion I have to remember to go over that at least a couple of times each term." And so on.

If one feels the need to announce that this particular class is intended as a safe environment, than something along the lines of "There are stupid questions, but that's okay, you are likely not the only one wondering about that topic/issue, so please have the courage to be the one to put that into words." Reframming from 'stupid' to 'courage' goes a long way to creating that positive classroom environment.

Further, even the stupidest question may not be stupid at all—it just came out wrong. Making fun of that slip of the tongue is NEVER a good idea. Even if you think the kid is 100% okay with such banter, chances are s/he isn't. One of my student teachers shared with the class how in grade 7 he was trying to ask about how long the war of 1812 lasted, but it came out "When was the War of 1812?" The teacher made a joke of it, and my student laughed right along with everyone else because, although thoroughly embarrassed, one has to be seen to be able to laugh at oneself, right? But the teacher didn't let go of it and would ask, "When was the treaty of 1615 Zac?" and so on every opportunity. Worse, other teachers in the school took it up, until it became a daily humiliation for the student. But he never said anything or allowed any of his teachers to suspect how he was responding to their jibes because he wanted to appear 'cool'. But he was not cool with it. It made that term hell for the student, and his grades nosedived. He stopped wanting to go to school. And his voice still quavered recalling that term a decade later when recounting it to my class.

It always amazes me how much rhetoric there is about taking a stand against bullying in the schools, when in fact it is the teachers who are often the worst bullies. Just saying.

Which brings us to the issue, what do we do with the student who asks deliberately stupid questions? You know the kid I mean, the wisenheimer in the back row who has figured out how to disrupt class by asking time-wasting obvious questions.

Step one: stop thinking of that kid as a wisenheimer. Again, you can't assume that the kid in the back isn't seriously asking, even if he is projecting a strong image of "I'm only asking this to be disruptive, because of course everyone knows that answer already, right?" Not so much. To be cool, kids have to pretend in front of their peers they know everything, and posing as a wisenheimer is a very effective strategy for them to be allowed to ask questions to which they really, really need the answer.

Step two: real or not, treat every question with the same dignity and give as serious a reply as you would to an honour or transfer student who really needs to know. If the student really wanted to know, they will be grateful; if they were being a jerk, well, treating their answer as serious defeats the purpose of derailing the class. "I'm glad you asked that Roldand! Because that's the key to it all!" (Or "that's more complicated than one might think!" or "I can't emphasize / go over this enough times" or etc) Suddenly they have been cast in the role of legitimate helpful student. There may be a brief period of confusion where they try to figure out whether you are really that gullible or whether you are playing them but either way, extinguishes the (apparently) negative attitudes and the next thing you know, they are fully participating in a class where someone is suddenly taking their input seriously--whether they started out that way or not.

Finally, there is the not-as-silly-as-you-assumed question. If a student asks a stupid question, respectfully poke around a bit by asking why they are asking to ensure you understood the actual question. It may not be a silly question at all, but merely that you did not understand the context or significance of why they were asking. Think of Giant Pandas next time you get a stupid question in class....

Monday, November 30, 2015

Detecting Plagiarism

As referred to in the previous post, students sometimes plagiarize passages from the Internet to insert into their written assignments. Even in large classes where one does not know students or their work that well, one can usually spot such insertions immediately because the diction, style, thoughtfulness, etc does not match with the rest of the paper. In fact, it is often hilariously discordant because weak writers do not know enough to be able to assess their own weaknesses, and cannot themselves detect the errors in their own work that make the lack of such errors in the plagiarized passages so blatant.

Proving the copying, however, is sometimes a bit trickier. The quick and free way to start is to select some distinct phrase from the suspect passage and googling it. About half the time the passage will immediately pop up as Google recognizes the source for that phrase or sentence. Miscreants will be astounded that one found the article in some book or article they had assumed to be too obscure to come to one's notice, but of course one has at least as good a command of Google as they do, and most of them have never heard of Google Scholar, and one is searching by phrases not topics, so likely nailed it a good deal faster than they had unearthed it originally.

There are a couple of student tactics for getting around such simple counter-measures, however. First, some students figured out that if they run the original passage through Google translate to switch the passage to say, Italian, and then back again into English, the original phrasing will be sufficiently garbled that a Google search will not be able to find the original passage. Of course, the diction and style is so garbled by these measures that the plagiarized passage virtually leaps off the page. Similarly, if you get a nearly incoherent essay that says sort of the right content, it may have been a complete paper lifted off the net and transmogrified. Of course, such writing is so atrocious, it may not be necessary to even raise the issue of plagiarism, since an 'F' is an 'F', but if the references have been left intact, those might be a good place to start a Google search.

Another student technique, with which I had been unfamiliar until brought to my attention by Murray Hay, PhD, is that they can insert hidden characters with a passage so that when one copies the phrase to search for, Google looks for the phrase including the hidden character(s) and so does not find it. The solution here, obviously, is to type the phrase into Google oneself rather than cutting and pasting.

Another quick strategy for identifying stolen passages is to check for paragraph styles. Students usually have the wherewithal to do a 'select all' and change the font to be consistent throughout, but may well forget to change (or not understand about) styles in Word. Doesn't always show up, but if you spot a variety of styles for different paragraphs, the question has to arise why the student would do one paragraph in this style, the next in something else, rather than stick with the default.

Of course, there are services, such as, that will provide a much more sophisticated analysis of a paper for a fee. I recommend strongly against the use of such services. First, as mentioned in my previous post, I dislike the assumption of guilt whether directed at 'suspect' papers, or routinely applied to the entire class. The damaging effects of false accusations make identify specific suspect papers morally untenable; and applying the process to all papers denigrates the entire student population and undermines the trust required for effective teaching. Further, there are many copyright issues around a service such as, as the company adds any paper analyzed to its database. Student work is the student's, not the faculty's or the instructor's, so cavalierly handing it over to a third party strikes me as a highly questionable practice. I suppose your faculty can impose any testing it wants as a contractual requirement for receiving a degree from the institution, but such high handed actions have about the same character as drug testing. So, you know, good luck with that.

If one does use a service such as, it is important that this be noted in the course outline; otherwise, one runs the risks of lawsuits.

Term paper mills are another concern of many instructors, but these are usually not worth worrying about. Yes, a student can buy a generic paper off the net, often at quite reasonable rates. No, they probably won't fit the specifics of your assignment&mdash>unless one are designing very bad assignments. A generic paper on MacBeth might fit a generic assignment on MacBeth, but if one is designing your assessments on the questions at the end of the chapter or the package that came with the Powerpoint for the course, than one deserves what one gets. Authentic assessments do not lend themselves to generic answers found on the list at some term paper mill. If one's says, "I need a paper on MacBeth", then students will try to find one for you. More interesting questions generate more interesting papers (which are also more interesting to mark). If on the other hand, one has questions that more accurately reflect the needs and interests of one's students, then the generic paper is going to be off topic. Students too weak or too rushed to write credible answers of their own will be correspondingly unable to adapt the plagiarized paper to the specific demands of the assignment.

Wealthier or more desperate students could theoretically commission a specifically targeted paper through some of the more sophisticated paper mills, but I've never encountered one worth more than a 'C' (in a class with a B+/A- average). Better than a 0 for no submission, I suppose, but that student wasn't making it through the final anyway.... Detecting the plagiarism is likely easy for anyone with classes small enough to know individual students, since the paper's style and the student's will usually sufficiently diverge as to be obvious. Certainly, their in-class performance will not likely accord with the knowledge, skills, and opinions expressed in the commissioned paper. One then just asks to discuss the paper with the student, asking questions about their reasons for decision to do this or that in terms of the content. If the student is able to answer fluently, then hey, they actually know the content, so what's the problem? They perhaps beat an arbitrarily imposed deadline, giving them an unfair advantage over their peers, but it might be better for the instructor to re-examine one's deadlines than worry obsessively about plagiarism. More likely, students commissioning such papers forget to even read it, and their lack of knowledge about their own submission will give them away.

The problem is more serious in larger classes where students can count on their anonymity to protect them from too close scrutiny. One way to cut down on cheating is to have students post their work to a secure class website to share. Although you and your marker may not be able to identify the plagiarist, their peers often know. Habitual cheaters will be often fingered by long suffering peers, and those papers can be examined more closely. I have colleagues who identified several such cases by opening up the Personal Information page (which few students ever bother with, or even know about) and noting the paper was written by someone other than the student.

Ultimately, the best way to address plagiarism is to design better assignments. Is the term paper even an appropriate format for one's course? There has been much ink spilled in defense of this traditional assessment, and it does indeed hold the potential to assess student writing ability, critical thinking skills, and so on; but that is equally true of many other, possibly more relevant, written formats. Further, although essay assignments could test critical thinking and writing skills, they mostly don't. Badly constructed assignments often amount to little more than asking students for an info dump on some topic, regurgitating the instructor's analysis rather than their own. Such assignments encourage plagiarism. Instructors using an Inquiry Approach, on the other hand, instead ask students to research personally relevant questions for which answers do not yet exist, which makes plagiarism rather irrelevant. If one honestly believes plagiarism to be rampant on one's campus, change up the assignments rather than clamping down on students. Widespread plagiarism indicates structural problems with the institution's assessment practices: bad assignments, poorly administered; administrators who fail to enforce official policies when instructors identify plagiarism; unnecessary and unrealistic pressure on students with a program; policies that enforce unfair grading practices (e.g., limiting the number of high grades in a class, regardless of actual student mastery), and so on. Fix the problems, and plagiarism will largely disappear, with the exception of a few sociopaths clever enough to get through the above screens. And really, are these not the future engineers and executives of, say Volks Wagon, that our institutions are intended to produce?

Oh, and speaking of plagiarism, I cannot tell you how many times I've heard colleagues go on and on about students stealing whole lines from the net, who, when I pass by their classrooms, have Powerpoints filled with images they've stolen off the net. Whenever I challenge then about this practice, the inevitable answer is some variation on, 'that's just pictures' or 'well, I can't be expected to draw that', without any apparent recognition of the irony of their actions. Unless you have received permission and cited the source for every illustration in your own presentations, stop saying you "don't understand why students think it's okay to plagiarize," because you've been role modelling the same behaviour.

(The illustration for this page, is from

Monday, November 23, 2015


I am not a huge fan of homework, especially in the elementary and middle grades. I understand homework as something assigned to students who were unable to complete the task during class time, either because they were goofing, or because they need extra time because they are slow. Slow and steady wins the race and all that. Assigning homework because the teacher was goofing or slow, however, is another matter entirely.

As a parent, I was constantly amazed at the apparent expectation that we teach our children the school curriculum while being regaled with stories about "Thursday afternoon film parties" or "Friday candy parties" or whatever. Every time we went to show our daughters a movie, we inevitably got "We saw that in school already" but when we asked about math or English, we were told "she gave us the worksheet and told us to do this at home". I might not have believed my kids version of things if my wife hadn't been in the classroom at the end of the year when the teacher said, "I forgot to teach printing this term, so here's the booklet, take it home over the summer and have you parents do it with you." I kid you not. I might not have believed my wife, had the same teacher not told me that she wasn't doing parent-teacher interviews during the two days set aside for them (i.e., classes cancelled and school closed for parent-teacher interviews) because she was going to Los Vegas with her boyfriend. (I actually get there may be circumstances when skipping out may be necessary, but should you be telling parents you're blowing them off? What drives me the most crazy is that many of my best graduates can't find permanent teaching jobs, and yet this lazy incompetent is teaching my kids...)

Don't be that teacher: don't send work home because you lacked the motivation or classroom management skills to actually cover the curriculum in class. Occasional homework for the few students who didn't get the job done because they were having trouble focusing that day, or for a whole class that was having one of those days, okay. Part of learning to manage time and deadlines is that if you miss the deadline, there is going to be homework. Kids get that, and parents get that. But if 'occasional catch up' turns into a regular pattern, then the problem is structural—i.e., you. Assigning out of class work to the whole class routinely is just bad teaching in the lower grades, and probably way overdone in the higher ones.

The cartoon at the top of the page nicely illustrates one of the problems: most parents aren't professional teachers and won't necessarily know anything about whatever you're teaching in class. Asking parents to teach for you by asking them to supervise homework is saying "anyone can do this, you don't need an Education degree or have any content knowledge." Do you really want to send that message home on a daily basis? Because that is not a good thing for the public to believe when it comes time for salary negotiations. Just saying.

But the cartoon is about a middle-class stay-at-home dad working with his average kid. In reality, one has to be careful sending work home when one knows nothing about what 'home' is like. Sending work home to my house is great: my kids have two professors for parents, both of whom happened to have trained as teachers as well. As professionals we have the resources to find the books, computers, study area, and—if necessary—even tutors to ensure that our child can keep up with (or get ahead of) the rest of the class. Oh, and our kid's parents are happily married, so there is not a lot of yelling or drama interfering with quiet homework time.

Ours is perhaps not an average household. I stopped sending homework home when one of my students explained that her parents didn't speak a word of English when I asked her why she hadn't gotten her parents to proofread her essay. Well, duh. A moment's reflection and it should be obvious that relying on parents to take charge of the student's reading program or math facts or whatever else you're sending home ignores the fact that many kids come from ESL homes; or working class homes where both parents have to work, work two jobs, or shift work, or otherwise aren't available; or unstable homes where parents may have other preoccupations than spending an hour on spelling practice; or just a home with three other kids, all of whom have been assigned the same two hours of homework; and so on. You don't know what their home life is like, and by counting on someone else to do the teaching for you, you are widening the gap between the haves and the have nots. School is supposed to be the great equalizer, the one fair and safe place in the world for kids. Not so much if you routinely ignore the very different opportunities available to kids outside the classroom.

Or how about this: maybe home time should be about family, not work that the teacher didn't have time for in the six or seven hour work day. My kids have Tae Kown Do four nights a week (with some of the best teachers I have ever encountered) and music lessons, and recitation, and all the extras our incomes provide. Fitting that in with supper and actually having time to talk with my kids is already making me wonder if I am over-programming my kids—I am therefore not happy to find my family time has been appropriated by apparently lazy teachers who feel they have the right to program, not just my child's time, but mine too! And I'm a ridiculously privileged white male. If I resent teachers intruding on and colonizing my child's after school hours, how do you think the average parent feels.

So, you know, don't do that. If my kid brings homework home because she was goofing and that means she has to miss out of some fun family activity that one day, fine. That's teaching her about consequences and I am all for it. If I have to cancel Tae Kown Do or music lessons altogether because homework has become a routine timesuck, then that is not okay, especially in the lower grades. My oldest is currently in Grade 12 IB, so okay, there is going to be some homework because a Grade 12 IB student is developing the time-management and self-direction one expects of an adult. But if you are sending anything home in elementary, or more than 20 minutes/day in Junior High/Middle school, you're making a mistake.

Monday, November 9, 2015


This happens more often than one would think. My favorite example were the three classroom teachers in one of my graduate courses (who had complained throughout my course how much they hated the rampant cheating by the students in their own classrooms) that turned in a group webpage assignment to me that they had obviously downloaded off the Internet. Leaving aside how stupid they must think me that I wouldn't already know every relevant website and recognized it immediately, I was greatly amused that they thought they could pass this plagiarism off by the simple expedient of substituting their names on the title page. When confronted, the leader of the team bald-faced told me that this was entirely their work and "that other site must have stolen it from us". The other two just looked at their feet and shuffled a bit, leaving it to their team leader to hang them all. So I used the "page source" tab to show them the HTML in their browser, and scrolled down to the metadata tags which included, "Author: Debbie E. Middleton" and "Creation date: 1999".

Students always seem so amazed that one can spot the material they've downloaded from the net and dropped into the centre of their paper, but of course they have no understanding of the (to me) obvious differences in diction, sentence structure, and thoughtfulness. Most students who cheat lack sufficient knowledge and skills to get away with it; because if they knew enough, they probably wouldn't have bothered cheating in the first place. At least for written work.

The exception here is multiple choice tests where a quick glance to the desk next to them gives them the answer to #24. Higher IQ students cheat less often because they know the odds of getting a correct answer from a lower-performing peer are lower than figuring it out for themselves, but everyone gets panicky sometimes, or has a momentary lapse. But this is an easy one to address: simply print four or five versions of the exam, identical in very way, except the order of the questions / alternatives is reordered so the answer to 21 is A on this paper but c on that one. Being identical in all other respects, no one is disadvantaged. Being a different order, everytime a student cheats by looking at their neighbour's paper, their grade goes down 1 point. The greater the cheating, the lower the mark, with no intervention from the instructor required. As you collect the papers, you sort them into the appropriate pile for version A through D and apply the appropriate answer key. With word processing (or better yet, one of the software programs for online tests) this is ridiculously easy to manage and saves a lot of unpleasantness, recriminations, and (worst of all) false accusations of cheating.

On the whole, though, don't become obsessed with issues of cheating. Unless you have reason to believe there is a serious problem, normal precautions are usually sufficient. No precautions does, unfortunately, actively encourage cheating since it sends the message you don't care. But standard invigilation of exams—no leaving the room, no doing your own work at the front of the room, no asking the secretary to cover for you—sends the message that you and your institution care, but it's nothing personal. Taking excessive precautions sends the message that you do not trust students, which can ultimately undermine classroom learning because participation in classroom discussion requires some level of trust. Instead, take the position that you know students are anxious to find out what they know and can do (i.e., that they wish to complete an authentic assessment). If you really believe that, they will too. Our actions convey our expectations, and students generally live up to our expectations for good or ill, which argues against going overboard in a campaign against cheating.

On the other hand, we owe it to good students to not allow them to be penalized for being honest while all around them cheaters prosper. Middle ground, then, eh?

The best way to decrease cheating is to assign tasks that actually have meaning and matter to the students, that allow students to take some ownership. Ironically, in an attempt to avoid students downloading material from the web, many instructors assign obscure topics that aren't even on Wikipedia to ensure that the student is forced to produce original material. But a topic too obscure to be on the Web is too obscure for any course; a topic so narrow they cannot cheat is too narrow to be meaningful. By increasing student alienation from the assigned task, one increases the likelihood of cheating. (And there is no topic too narrow or obscure that they can't hire someone on the web to write it for them.) Instead, let them loose on what is relevant and authentically useful to them, and students will happily do the work. Occasionally, students will cheat on even a worthwhile assignment if their workload becomes too overwhelming to do it all, but then maybe instructors in your program should get together to talk about student workloads....

When students do cheat on authentic assessments, it's almost always obvious. A colleague, for example, used a journal assignment in his course, and one ESL student downloaded an online diary instead of attempting her own. Of course, it was immediately obvious that the diction was too Canadian to have been written by this ESL student, but when the student denied it, it was a simple matter of point out diary entries that could not possibly apply, given that the student was not of that church, did not grow up in that country, did not in fact match any of the particulars of the diary entries.

So assume no one is a cheater, unless the system in which you are teaching is promoting cheating through careless disinterest. If cheating is a problem where you teach, look first to bad structures and poorly thought-through assignments and then at the administrators who are turning a blind eye; rather than glare at students. Lobby for best practices among colleagues before blaming student populations. Once those administrative and collegial issues have been addressed, the majority of students will not want to cheat, and the (vanishingly small) minority of habitual cheaters may be addressed on a case by case basis. Or, to put it another way, if you are encountering a lot of cheating, the problem is you, not (primarily) the students....

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Defining Learning/Assessment Objectives

Bob Parson (University of Ottawa) said:

In my continuing quest to refine, define and sublime learning outcomes, objectives and competencies I would like to share a new challenge. All of the above require clarity (both parties should be able to agree on what that goal or outcome is) and be able to be assessed. I thought of one that fit both those requirements but…

In the department of “That sounds simple, yes I agree, and of course, I’ll get right to it!”, I would like to offer an example of how the warm reception of an agreed-upon outcome/objective can be misleading:

“At the end of this lecture/course/event the student will be able to… get their ducks in a row"

This is a very common expression. We use it all the time: it can be agreed-upon as an outcome or objective because it sounds reasonable, constructive, observable and easy. But, have you ever thought of how difficult it would be to actually get ducks in a row? How would you do it? Who do you know that can talk “duck”? and if they did would the ducks pay any attention to them? I don’t think so.

If you had treats they might come to you, but in a row? Are you kidding me? (Perhaps polite Canadian ducks might line up but I wouldn’t bet my B+ on it.)

Is this an impossible goal that we keep striving for?

Perhaps this is a complete misunderstanding on my part, a trick question. Perhaps it is very easy to get all the ducks in a row. They would have to be immobilized (as in tranquilized or shot) but I never considered that as an option when contemplating the task: sounds pretty nasty even if it does get me the B+.

For an “A” I think you have to herd cats, but that’s another story.

Beware the simple-looking objective my friends.

As I often say “Every job is easy!... until I have to do it.”

To which I might add:

If it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck, probably a duck. If they produce six duck-like ducks in a row (i.e., multiple data points) then pretty sure that's an 'A'. So I don't have a problem with students getting their ducks in a row.

It's what grade to give the student who turns in a goose that I have a heard time with. Is that an original, better-than-asked-for duck...or did that student miss the target completely?

[Which is why, when multiple markers weigh in on the same paper, a small percentage of papers get an F from some instructors, an A+ from others. Doesn't mean marking is completely and randomly arbitrary; just means one interpreted objective literally and sees answer as off topic, while the other saw paper as thinking outside the box.... (In Alberta provincial exams, such a paper goes to a special committee to decide which of the two markers is correct in this instance.)]

Monday, October 19, 2015

I'm An A Student, But You Only Gave Me a C

I get this from students fairly often; enough that I wrote a paper on how to turn such incidents into a more positive learning experience for the students: I'm An A Student, But You only Gave Me a 'C': Addressing Student Misconceptions of the Grading Process. The introduction provides some general strategies for reducing student confusion (and therefore complaints) but the best part is the section entitled "Sample Responses to Common Student Misunderstandings" that provides solutions for the most common (and annoying) student complaints.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Reading Warrior

Great post on Dangerously Irrelevant by Pernille Rippon on teaching reading. Not entirely focused on assessment, but seemed to be appropriate companion to my previous post. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Teaching and Evaluating Writing (Part 1)

I am attending a writers' conference (When Words Collide Festival, Calgary) this weekend, and especially enjoyed listening to the Keynote Address by Diana Gabaldon. In it, she talked about how writing is taught in schools: in every grade 5 class, the teacher has the students write down bullet points about their topic; then break up into groups to share and critique their bullet points with each other; then use that corrected list to write an outline; share outlines in pairs or small groups; take outlines home to parents for proofing; then turn that into the teacher to provide feedback; then use the teacher's feedback to produce a good outline; then use that outline to write a rough draft; have the students breakup into pairs to read and review each other's rough drafts; then take rough draft home to parents to correct (rewrite); then have them write a good draft; break up into pairs to proof each other's good drafts; and then hand that into teacher. [Well, she actually described the process in greater detail, but you get the idea, and most people recall something along this line from their own experiences.]

Then Diana Galaldon asked the banquet hall of writers, "Does anyone here actually write like that?" And of course, everyone agreed that "the writing process" as taught in schools has almost no connection with real writing or real writers. Diana Galaldon then described her own personal writing process to gales of laughter, because (almost) no one else in the hall wrote remotely like that, and could not begin to fathom how anyone could possibly work like that. It's not that Diana Gabaldon is weird, it's that anyone else's approach to writing seems unworkably bizarre.

What real writers know is that there is no one process that works for everyone; on the contrary, every writer has a different approach to the process of writing. Derrell Schweitzer interviewed something like 1,000 American SF authors about their writing and writing process, and the one thing that stood out for him was that (1) every writer in the sample said there was only one way they could write; and (2) no two writers in the sample wrote using the same process. (Sociologist Howard Becker, in his book Writing for the Social Sciences, came up with the most credible explanation for why that is, but going into that is beyond the scope of the current posting. Sufficient to say, everyone's process is inherently unique.)

The problem is that by insisting on this one outline-roughdraft-finaldraft approach to writing, teachers get passable product out of our kids that allows teachers to assign grades as if these grades were meaningful. It is easy to confuse this manufacture of product for the teaching of writing, but the production of 'final copy' under these conditions has little to do with learning how to write. In the late 1870s, the newly invented public schools decided to pay teachers by the linear foot of writing produced by their students. That seemed fair, because the more your students wrote, the more you got paid. Payment by results. But of course, it only took teachers twenty seconds to figure out that if they set their students to copying out the bible, they could significantly increase their salaries. Consequently, schools became factories that produced written work, without any regard for actual learning. If we know, as we emphatically do, that "The Writing Process" as it is generally taught in school is largely unrelated to the actual process of writing, then someone needs to explain to me how the current approach in schools is in any way an advance over the obviously ludicrous situation of paying by the linear foot in the 1880s?

But suggesting there is only one The Process of Writing" not merely a mistake, it's a destructive lie. I spend a lot of time when I give writers workshops undoing the damage caused by high school English teachers who have dictated "The Writing Process" as "how you write". Because many people believe their teachers that this is the only way to write, if that one approach isn't working for them they come to erroneous conclusion that they cannot write. This is actively harmeful! to the majority of students. I think teachers should also subscribe to the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm. But our assessment practices for writing do a lot of harm. We are supposed to be teaching kids how to write, but the vast majority learn instead the more fundamental lesson that writing is not for them.

I am perfectly fine exposing everyone to the notes-outline-rough-final-draft approach as one possible option with which students should experiment. But that is not the only or even best way to write. I remember one of my English profs talking about how he used to teach THE WRITING METHOD and developed a four stage assignment structure that force students to do the notes and then the outline and then the rough draft before the actual paper as essentially four separate assignments, because it was the only way to force students to do all the require steps. Then one day a girl brought in a paper because she had seen something on TV the night before that had totally inspired her and she had sat down and pounded this (brilliant, as it turned out) paper. Then she said, "sorry, I didn't have time to write an outline yet, I'll do that for Monday if that's okay." And he had suddenly realized that half the class wrote the outline by writing the paper first, and then deconstructing it to come up with the outline. And he smacked his forehead because he finally 'got it', and he stopped using that industrial-model assignment and started designing assessments that helped students become actual writers by helping them discover theirprocess.

I have in workshops and in my editing business occasionally told writers they had to make an outline. This tends to come up more frequently for nonfiction, and especially academic, writing, but even sometimes fiction as well. Notes and outlines help some specific writing problems, and when I see people with those problems and they take my advice to use an outline, they improve rapidly and say things like "thank you for teaching me about outlines." Sometimes that's exactly what they need to become proficient. But it is not universal, and for other writing problems, not only would that advice not be helpful, it would actively make the problem worse.

This should not be hard to grasp. Yet when I teach my English Major student teachers that the traditional approach is the wrong approach to assessing writing, they resist. Because actually assessing writing is complex, challenging and requires getting to know each student to diagnose their individual needs and remedies. The old way is simple, easy, and can be applied to the class without knowing anything about anyone. But um, if your job is to teach writing, then you should probably do that and not turn your class into a factory producing writing by the linear foot.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Displaying Student Work

It is inappropriate to display only some students' work. If you lack sufficient space for all, rotate through on basis of alphabet or row, never on basis of quality. Feedback on quality needs to protect student's privacy, which public display--or omission therefrom--does not.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Meaningful Feedback

extensive feedback on any assessment is fundamental--no point doing the assessment if not accompanied by meaningful feedback in terms student can understand.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Meme: Item Analysis

But sometimes the complaint is justified and the solution is item analysis before the exam is given back to identify questions that were too hard, not taught, off topic, or badly/confusingly written, and then eliminating those questions (except for those who got them correct) to produce a fair assessment...use anchor question to ensure standards across years.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Meme: Setting Writing Assignments

Another example of a student far more creative than the assignment structure. Also an assignment that makes assumptions about student lives that may not be valid and therefore discriminate against those students. But mostly, if we give students lame stimuli, we should not be surprised when we get mediocre work. Good on this kid for rising about both issues.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Meme: Item Writing

"Tell me what happened in your brain" got exactly the answer it deserved. You want clear answers, ask clear questions. (But really, what was the kid supposed to answer? What process is involved here that is so complex it requires an explanation?) What more diagnostic information was being sought? if the kid answers 14, then they know how to do this one. Stop wasting student's time and yours.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Exam Cheats

Thanks to Barbara Bloemhof for drawing this brief video to our attention. And, as she notes, "remember that one country's technology is completely importable to any other country by anyone (of any nationality... is my point...) We will never win a game of "My cheating detection technology is better than your technology to cheat" - so the alternative is to win hearts and minds over to choosing integrity, through sound argument and assessments."

(or here

As a former test development specialist, I can attest that the provincial exams faced all sorts of technological cheating. It took us a bit to notice that many kids travelling overseas to visit families for the holidays would bring back, say, calculators that were three or four years more advanced than those available in Canada. For example, we didn't know there were such things as graphing calculators until after one was confiscated from a student during provincials. I'm not convinced that was even cheating since no one had said you couldn't use a model x100 calculator or whatever. The initial response was to simply ban all calculators, but of course that's stupid. We can't pretend that technology isn't out there and in use on a daily basis so it is obviously stupid to make students work out by hand problems that are never worked out by hand in real world. Better we design better tests (better problems) that actually assess whether students know what they are doing and then give them ALL graphing calculators. To take just that one example.

My favorite example, though, was the kid they caught with an early (this was 20 years ago!) precursor to Google Glass. Kid is idly tapping his fingers on the desk while thinking, and examiner is on his way over to ask him to stop that because it is distracting to others, then realizes that there is a pattern to the taps-- kid is projecting virtual keyboard onto the desk, and typing questions and getting answers via glasses. Very alert examiner to catch that way back then, though (as the video mentions in passing) such "cheater spectacles" fairly routinely available these days.

The solution, of course, is to set assessments for which cheating is not helpful. Although one colleague did have one student who downloaded entries from the internet for her 'personal diary' assignment, that is a lot rarer. (And more obvious--really, you grew up on a fishing boat? I did not know that. Neither did your parents, apparently.) As long as assessment is focused on regurgitating facts, then access to the internet/cheatsheets/accomplice is helpful; but once one moves to more authentic assessments, not so much. Defeat cheaters by making it an open book exam; or drop exams and ask them to complete assessments that are personally meaningful, and that generate meaningful feedback, not just a grade. Have multiple assessments, not just one high stakes test that makes cheating worthwhile, even 'necessary'. If assessments serve as a means to an end (i.e., to help people learn) rather than as the end in itself (e.g., teaching and learning to the test, just to get a grade) then the problem of cheating just goes away.

On a related note:

(March 21, 2015 BBC) Photo shows parents/friends climbing walls outside Bihar school Inda to hand cheatsheets to students writing finals inside. "3 to 4 people helping a single student...a total of six to seven million people helping students cheat," he said. "Is it the responsibility of the government alone to manage such a huge number of conduct a 100% free and fair examination?" Well, um, yeah.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Meme: Punctuality

Although punctuality is important, if someone is habitually late, it may mean they are caught in structural problems not of their making--day care dropoff opens ten minutes before class, the bus runs late, classes are scheduled with too little time between for distances between classrooms. (Lowering grades for late or absent is inaccurate assessment and inappropriate unless an official course objective.)

Monday, July 6, 2015

Taking Student Questions

An important and often overlooked component of good assessment practice is monitoring and responding to the class' reactions while one teaches. Nothing is more frustrating to students than having a question that an instructor will not pause to answer, and nothing is more useful to instructors than knowing if the students are 'getting it' while one is still teaching the concept, rather than weeks later on an exam (when it is too late to easily correct misunderstandings). Successful instructors are the ones who watch for signs they may be losing the class' attention or comprehension, and immediately adapting the lesson to get it back. Asking students questions is a good way to get a sense of their level of understanding, but one must always be prepared to take questions from students as soon as they come up. If a student misses some point early on, their confusion may quickly spiral out of control, whereas a simple and timely clarification can resolve such difficulties.

Not that I have always followed my own advice.

Possibly my worst teaching moment was when a student in the front row started searching through her purse, eventually pulling out a pen and yellow sticky note. I found her lack of attention distracting but managed to carry on lecturing...but then she scribbled a note on the sticky pad and pushed it towards me. I said something like, "Just hold your questions for a moment, until I get through the next few slides" but she persisted in pushing the note at me, even lifting it off the desk and waving it a bit. Highly annoyed at her impatience, I snatched the note and read out, "Your fly is open."

Moral: It really pays to take student questions as soon as possible.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Meme: Bias

Good example of how assessment can overlook cultural differences...check your biases at the door, make sure your grading is evaluating student knowledge of official curricular objectives, not your own assumptions.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

3 Minutes with Scott McLeod

Scott McLeod of Dangerously has a three minute video presentation on how schools need to change that pretty much sums up what I think is wrong with schools and how they need to be fixed.

Scott is an IT innovation guy, so he naturally sees IT is the driving force of reform, but I think assessment runs a close second as a potential engine of change. If we move away from assessments based on regurgitation and move towards more authentic assessments that require students to assume more responsibility for, ownership over, their own learning, then the classroom as a whole will move to a better model of learning. The authentic assessment petered out, not because teachers, students or parents rejected it, but because conservative politicians brought in policies (e.g., no child left behind) that effectively killed any attempt to improve schools in America--and what's big in America slops over the border into Canada. I cry a little every time I find learning reduced to "read the chapter and complete the 'scavenger hunt' worksheet--yeah, that's how we encourage kids to think deeply about what they have read and to contextualize their learning. Head::Desk. Change evaluation, change what we tell students we are looking for--give them learning targets that are clearly defined, worth learning, and which allow them a modicum of control and ownership, and we could change schools overnight. Continue to use traditional models of assessment, and it doesn't matter how much our policy statements claim schools are about life long learning or critical thinking or whatever the buzzword for actual learning is these days, because none of that will matter in the face of students knowing what counts for marks is regurgitation and compliance.

Watch Scott's 3 minute video for a succinct overview of the problem and the real targets and then ask yourself how we would have to change assessment if we took him seriously.

(Also watch his TEDx talk here which contrasts extracurricular learning with the lack of learning within schools."Get out of their way, and let kids be amazing,"Scott concludes....By the same token, how can we change assessment from anxiety producing exams that get in the way of learning to helpful feedback that strengthens and extends learning?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Meme: item writing

If the answer answers the question you asked, it gets the mark, whether what was intended or not. Write clearer questions.

But it is okay to acknowledge humour and then ask student to verbally tell you answers so that you can still assess actual understanding to ensure learning--but you still have to give them the marks, regardless.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Meme: Write Better Instructions

Well, duh! If the answer answers the question you asked, it gets the mark, whether what was intended or not. Write clearer questions.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Meme: Grade Deadlines

Every prof ever...except maybe for the bad ones who decided on your grade BEFORE marking....

Registrar once told me 25% of profs don't get their grades in on time, so make that "two days after grades are due". I always struggled to make the deadline, but it made me feel a lot better to know that getting marks in at the last minute still better than a lot of my colleagues.

On the other hand, students should not be in the dark about their grades until they are posted. Grading processes, including how grades on assignments are weighted, should be completely transparent.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Meme: Item Writing

Think about your distractors as carefully as you do the correct answer. Get a colleague to review your questions for double meanings and so on before using them with the students. When a student correctly answers a question with an unexpected alternative, give that student the mark, and then change your question for next year immediately, before you forget.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Meme: Exam Anxiety

This is pretty common response to exam anxiety...and research says probably good idea NOT to spend night before cramming because just increases dysfunctional levels of anxiety...better to do the laundry, go to a movie.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Meme: Examination Organization (Question Order)

An important principle of exam design: start with an easy question to ease students into exam mode. The attitude expressed here is real, so defeating student on first question interferes with accurate assessment. Better to start with "well, at least I got the first one right" mind set....

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Meme: Test Blueprint

The experience of many students -- why we need to have test blueprints to ensure the test is fair, accurate and makes sense to the students. Only tiny percentage of teachers know what a blueprint is, let alone use one.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Meme: Assesment is about Instruction 1st

Problem I sometimes have with first-round student teachers: if you do your lesson plan, and the kids don't get it, you have to come up with another way to teach that concept. And if they still don't get it, you try a third way, and when some of them still don't get it, you go to strategy #4, etc. Thinking that you taught it because you went through your lesson plan is not the same as students learning it. The primary purpose of assessment is to inform instruction: know where the students are today to decide what to teach tomorrow.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Inappropriate Large-Scale Standardized Testing

New post on Dangerously Irrelevant today about standardized testing that is excellent summary of absurdity of the whole testing movement. The post quotes Diane Ravitch critique of NY state exams, which serve no educational purpose. (They serve a political agenda, and the sociological purpose of 'cooling out' the educational aspirations of the working class, but the post doesn't address those.)While the debate was about the exams used in NY, the arguments apply everywhere in the US.

As someone who spent a decade working for the Student Evaluation Branch of Alberta Education as a researcher and Test Development Specialist, designing large-scale standardized tests, it may seem incongruous that I am such a vehement critique of large-scale standardized testing. The difference is, the Alberta tests (currently being phased out at the lower grades, as it happens) were written by committees of Alberta classroom teachers (experienced teachers in that grade and subject and still in the classroom), and were based on the Alberta Curriculum. That means, teaching to the test in Alberta meant actually teaching Alberta curriculum, which is, you know, mostly okay. The tests corresponded to what was taught

This stands in sharp contrast to the American situation where the tests are provided by private, for-profit publishers whose tests may bear no relationship to the curriculum being taught. That alone disqualifies the tests as appropriate measures of what children have learned, and leads to 'teaching to the test' meaning away from what students are supposed to be learning. Further, as publishers try to sell across as many jurisdictions as possible, the tests are geared to the lowest common denominator, rather than set to encourage excellence. They serve no useful purpose because, again in contrast to the Alberta exams, they collected no diagnostic information. Nor are the publishers tests written by experience classroom teachers currently teaching those course (and so, people in touch with the realities of the modern classroom, of the digital generation and so on) but rather by a tiny team of professional test writers. Who are not accountable to anyone other than the sales department.

So, I could make a case for the limited use of standardized tests as those programs are set up in Alberta, though I would be okay with their going away. They can be used to improve teaching, but not sure that money would not be better spent other ways. But I have yet to hear anyone make a convincing case for the use of publishers tests.

Anyway, go read the post on Dangerously Irrelevant. I'd have asked for permission to reprint it here, but it's a great education blog and has something great very day so want others to discover am pushing you there directly.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Meme: Scheduling Exams

Every instructor always believes that their subject is the most important and they have to schedule the exam when it naturally falls in the course, so coordination is difficult. Of course, this begs the larger question of why one is using examinations to evaluate learning in the first place....

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Is there an appropriate failure rate +++

[This post was in response to comments on the STLHE list serve, but I got a little too long-winded for length limits in that forum, so posted my response here for whomever was interested. ]


I don't think it matters to me that there is and there is not a natural bell curve, what i have tried to say that in large classes there seems to be a normal distribution that appears if the class is designed to have both failures and excellences. It is not a question of naturalness, but that there is a curve that appears where students tend to cluster around the midpoint of system of evaluation and it tends to look like a normal distribution model. Now that is in part from the design of the class, but what i also have said that there is agency of students across the whole spectrum of grades.

But um.... It is in fact a question of belief.

First, standardized tests produce a normal curve because when an item fails to produce a normal curve, it is pronounced too easy or too hard (or in some other way flawed) and removed from the test bank. When I worked for the provincial examination branch, the minister would phone down each term and say what he would like the test average and range to be that year, and I always hit within ½% of that target. There was only ever one test development specialist whose test was 20% off that target, and the next week he was literally removed from that position and placed in charge of the loading dock. Tests have normal curves because we expect and ensure that that happens (assuming test population is large enough) It is an artifact of how we choose to assess.

It should be obvious that if we use competency based assessment, we do NOT get a normal curve. If we are going for mastery of skills and knowledge, we get almost everybody to the same level of mastery--if we are any damn good as an instructor at all. I've given out like 6 Ds in 20 years of teaching, because one really has to work at screwing up my assignments--but nobody who looks at the product of our student assessments could say that our standards are low. Rather, because we have authentic assessments tied directly to the professional skills the students actually want to learn, we get success, not a lot of failure.

Normed reference assessment serves the purpose of sorting students from top to bottom, not assessing their competencies. Norm referencing makes sense only if one is 'filtering' -- i.e., adopted the 'talent hunt' model. In this model, one is seeking to identify that minority of students who may go on to become professional chemists or lawyers or engineers; the rest are considered chaff to be stripped out at the earliest opportunity. Some of us are offended at the idea that any student is 'chaff' (well, I did hand out six 'D's as hopeless cases, so not an absolute here :-).

This 'talent hunt' model then leads to modes of assessment that identify students with 'superior' knowledge and skills-- the problem being, that these superior skills turn out to be based as much on social capital as on actual ability. Students who competitively succeed are those who come from the dominant cultural group, are native to the language of instruction and that mode of thinking; whose parents have supplied them with the right computers, books and tutors to out-compete those with less capital. The students who don't have to work a nine to five job to put themselves through university; the students who don't have the family responsibilities of single parents; or of elder care; or of the extended families of first nations and immigrant populations.

To take one example: when I challenged one colleague in the hard sciences about the logic of including test items on material not actually covered in the curriculum or his lectures, he replied that he was looking for the exceptional student, the one who saw beyond mere course material. He pointed out several students who had done well on these untaught questions as proof they could be done by superior students. So I tracked down those students with him and asked them how they were able to answer the question --two said it was because they had taken prerequisites out of order and had in fact happened to have been taught the relevant skill in another course; and the third had had a private tutor who had anticipated the out of course knowledge from this instructor. Where the instructor thought he was evaluating 'superior intuitive knowledge and skill' he was in fact measuring 'luck'. Realizing that he was being 'tricked' in promoting the 'wrong' students as superior, and further hearing me say that he was alienating the other students from his discipline (which might not be a good long term strategy if he wanted an informed citizenry on his topic) by treating them as chaff, he stopped doing that and started assessing what he actually taught.

If one cannot demonstrate meaningful gaps between the top and bottom students on a bell curve, than what is the point of the curve other than to justify social inequalities. "I'm sorry you don't get to go on to next term, but you were ½ a mark lower than this other guy." It is ludicrous on the face of it! Our assessment instruments are not sufficiently accurate or reliable enough to allow these judgements.

If, on the other hand, you can demonstrate that the differences between the top and bottom of the bell curve in your class does n fact represent significant differences in competencies, then why not move to competency based assessment system and forget worrying about the curve? Of course, if one uses competency as the basis of grading, the question immediately becomes, why did students admitted to the program fail to achieve the minimum required competency to go on? I'm prepared to accept that for some students, its because student life in the bar/bed distracted them from studying to the point where they failed to live up to their potential. (My six 'D' students, for eg.) But otherwise, if they are good enough to be admitted, and then fail to acquire the skills one is hired to teach them-- something wrong with the instruction. (NOT, he hastened to clarify, necessarily the instructor, just somewhere in the curriculum, instruction, peer group, racism/sexism/etc mix, something is interfering in the outcomes promised to students in the admissions process.)

If the admissions process is designed to collect fees from 30% or more of the entering population for which officials have no provision for teaching in subsequent semesters, that's pretty much just straight fraud. I personally would not be okay in being complicit in that system. Further, telling students '⅔ of you won't be here next year' (or whatever) creates a violently competitive structure that intensifies discrimination (against women, minorities and any other criterion one can invent to promote oneself over others), intensifies cheating; undermines group work (though don't get me started on what else is wrong with group work!); and ensures the absence of any collaborative learning within the class. (Ensuring students are trying to undermine rather than help each other, instantly removes a significant element from the successful learning process.) Whatever the instructor is trying to do in the classroom, a competitive environment will undermine it. A competitive environment intensifies the problems that discriminate against students who don't come from the dominant population. It creates an environment that leaves so many students below their potential, that one can produce a population one feels comfortable in failing. (That's called a self-fulfilling prophecy.) So one needs to understand that the failure is an artefact of the system, not a force of nature.

I don't have any hesitation handing out Ds and Cs when they are deserved, but I'd rather work with students to help them get the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in the class. (I can't remember giving out an 'F' for course work, but I do get the occasional student self-selecting out in first week who perhaps saw an 'F' in their future after reading the course outline)

I'm lucky that for most of my career, entrance requirements ran so high I never saw a student who couldn't have mastered the skills I was teaching; I sympathize with those caught in a system with massive first year intakes and low admission standards make it hard to succeed. But, um, agitate to change the system; don't buy into it as inevitable.

So, I would argue, it is indeed very important whether one "thinks it matters to me that there is and there is not a natural bell curve" It matters. It matters a lot whether it is ideology or something real.

Let us assume that the student body is varied with varied motivations and varied commitments, in fact let's just assume students have rich and complicated lives that precludes some students from always turning in their material, thus some students will not pass some of the assessments.

Here the author is assessing whether students have lives, rather than on their abilities. Nothing in "varied motivations and commitments" related to gender, class, ethnicity etc., eh?
So you're saying you're okay failing the single mom who missed an assignment because her child was sick, in contrast to the white male living in his mom's basement was able to get it in on time? That the guy deserves the better grade, will make the better graduate?

this is where the normal curve comes from.

That's what I'm arguing too, only my antecedent for 'this' is irrational biases rather than your presumption that 'this' signifies effort or talent.

you can play with a model and populate it with different assumptions, but as long as you let some students perform differentially across multiple modes of evaluation, it looks like a normal curve in large classes of 300 or more.
Or, you set up authentic assessments that represent the actual skills required and give students sufficient resources and time to achieve to that level.

so long as you allow for student agency and their capacities, you will get some variety of a normal outcome where some students will have over the course performed ostensibly always excellent, most will have performed around the C range, and some will have performed in the lower ranges.

Again, my argument is "their capacities" may not be talent and ability in the subject, but their ability to meet the logistical framework arbitrarily imposed upon them; that given their ability to meet the entrance requirements (unless these are fraudulently low) means that by definition they have the intellectual and academic capacity and that they are therefore being screened out by the artefact of the curve

that's all i'm saying, in large courses with designs the way we are supposed to design,

"we are supposed to design" What you are hearing on this list is people saying, "that's not how you are supposed to design it". It is a common design, for sure, and one supported by hegemonic ideology of meritocracy, but not all of us subscribe to that 'talent hunt' model. Will have to agree to disagree that this is an inevitable, mandatory, unchangeable design.

Can you design that away, i argue no, because students have agency. can you teach it away, i'd need proof because i've not seen it.

Will have to agree to disagree. Haven't seen a normal curve in my faculty in 20 years, and our grads have top reputation in their field.

Does this analysis work for small classes, no, it does not.

Well, we agree on that. And I certainly have to acknowledge that teaching large classes of 300 or more introduces a lot of logistical barriers to change, and bit facile for the rest of us to throw bricks.

Hey, thanks for standing up for your perspective. Feels a bit like we kind of ganged up on you there. My sincere apologies for wherever I let my enthusiasm get the better of me....I'm told I sound better in person than my in-print personality would tend to indicate.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Meme: Assessing Values

Another example of an attempt to impose our values on students and student resistance. This had better be a "for discussion" activity and not for grades. Just make sure you're 'right' answers are in fact right (supported by research and explicitly stated in official curriculum) or you could be the one in trouble with parents.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Meme: Group Work

Don't get me started on group work! So many assessment issues here--how does one assign individuals grades on work done by the group? Group work only makes sense under very special circumstances, the first of which is that learning to work in groups is an official objective of the course--not just done because instructor wants to cut # of papers to mark by factor of five


Negative outcomes of group work: preventing good students getting scholarship by placing them with weaker students; (b) encouraging biases against minorities, disabled, and unpopular students by letting students choose own groups; (c) exaggerating gender politics (e.g. males do most of the talking in small group discussions where no instructor to moderate; women delegated 'secretarial' roles, etc); (d) allowing weak students to sneak through on the backs of other student's work; (e) encouraging academic misconduct: students sign project submissions to which they did not in fact contribute.

It is unusual for everyone to contribute equally, and even less likely that everyone will perceive that everyone contributed equally.

If you insist on doing group work, what assessments are you doing to evaluate whether group work is achieving the claimed benefits? How are you assessing things like "collaboration" or "teamwork"? If you are not assessing or even monitoring these characteristics, you cannot claim these benefits. Because the outcomes pictured above are as likely as those benefits being claimed. If you are going to claim a benefit, be prepared to document it. (Teachers, like doctors, should have take an oath to 'do no harm'. Without careful monitoring, group work probably does much more harm than good.)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Meme: Posting Student Work

Actually, this makes good sense. It is inappropriate to post only some student work and not others; and one should never post only 'exemplars' because that may discourage students whose work is never chosen....use work by professionals, older students or alumni as exemplars. Using a digital frame that rotates content through all the kids' work is a great idea.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Meme: Homework

actual problem with are not assessing children on a level playing field since some families do not have resources to help, while others do.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Meme: Test Anxiety

For some students, exam anxiety makes it impossible to get an accurate reading on what those students know and can it is inappropriate to make an evaluation on the basis of an inaccurate assessment, and it is incumbent upon the teacher to come up with an alternative assessment strategy for such students.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Meme: Bias

Good illustration of principle that assessments should not contain racist, sexist, ableist assumptions, and so on. Test developers need to be mindful of the hidden curriculum and ensure their tests assess the students' understanding of official curricular content without requiring them to share the instructors' biases and preconceptions.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Memes: Rote Memorization

This answer provides diagnostic information: this student is relying on memorization instead of understanding, to pass tests; this requires you to change instruction to deemphasize rote memorization and testing and choose assessment strategies that encourage learning