Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What a DA clasroom looks like

I have written about how I am changing the definition of test to allow for differentiated assessment in my class.  Some questions arose so here are the answers.
My current class sizes are in the low 30s, some classes I have done this with in previous years were in the low 40s while others in the 20s. With the right amount of planning, I believe this could be implemented with any class which has a reasonable amount of students. As for prep time, out of 8 courses throughout the entire year I teach 7 classes. 

How does it look?

First, if you walked into my classroom you would see some students working in groups, others alone, and others receiving one-on-one assistance from me.  Some students would be working on a laptop, some on paper and pen, and others researching on an I-Pad.  I encourage students to assist each other, collaborate on problems and research how the math we are using relates to their own life. 

I give students the whole “exam” at once and don’t set a deadline, nor do I ask students to work on it alone.  The directions are to work on the “exam” during class time, create your own problems and solutions, work on it in any order you would like, and to hand in the parts as you complete them.

Students are then given 1 or 2 classes (depending on the exam) to work on it.  As students complete a question, not the entire exam, I can start assessing it.  If I am not helping a student I will assess the question with the student explaining their reasoning and solution. This keeps my time spent on assessment low as not all students are handing in the entire exam on the exact same day.  This allows me to spend more time critically analyzing each student’s work.

Now here is the key:

I don’t grade it!

I either give them verbal feedback, or if I am assessing it outside of school, I will provide them with written feedback and comments.  Students then have the option of correcting their mistakes and re-handing it in.  This process continues to either the question is completed at 100% or the student chooses to take the mark I would assign as a regular exam.  This is how I have turned my assessments of learning to assessments of, as, and for learning.  I also have redefined the idea of 100% in my class.

What if a student does not like the project?

Easy answer, a traditional exam consisting of multiple choice, numerical response and written response is always an option.  However, only a rare few of students choose this option.  Keep in mind this is not a threat or a way to motivate students to complete the project but just another choice a student has as to how they are assessed.

What if a student does not complete the project in the time set?

I do not give them a zero, give them late marks, or use any kind of grading consequence but require them to start coming in during lunch, or anytime outside of class to complete it.  The first meeting starts with a simple question, “Why isn’t it done?” 

Some reasons are heavy workloads in other courses or outside school responsibilities and then I give the student as long as it takes to complete the project, with him/her still coming in during lunch.

Another reason I often hear is that they do not understand the material.  This solution has me re-teaching the material and still requiring them to complete an assessment on the outcome.

All other reasons are dealt case by case.

I realized, with a traditional test, if students do not understand the material we give them a failing grade and move on.  In the past, I have tried to have students complete their mistakes, but once I have shown them their mark all motivation to learn the intended outcome has vanished.  This is the reasoning behind the no grade on their product until it is complete. 

Students are enjoying this way of assessment as it gives them choice, autonomy in the way they can demonstrate their learning, and allows for authentic learning to occur.  If I have not answered a specific question, or you still have concerns, please let me know.


  1. Dave, when you say "authentic" learning you seem to imply that the other classes, like those we attended, involved non-authentic learning. And how can you use "authentic" and "not assessed" in the same sentence? I think in the end we are interested in what a student can do on their own, compared to other students. That is the reality of life, whether it is math, literature or art. Why do you see this as something to avoid, to fashion a pedagogy in something of a vacuum devoid of competition?

    Robert Hansen

  2. @Robert...."I think in the end we are interested in what a student can do on their own, compared to other students.."

    Is this True Robert?? If YOUR own son/daughter was being compared to other students in the class, and their assessment was based on the results of these other classmates, would you be ok with this? Do we really need some students to fail such that others can feel success?

    I would argue that if every student is required to do the same work, the same way, and arrive at the same answer this is NOT authentic at all. In fact I would go as far as saying this could be seen as standardized learning.

    You talk as competition is a motivator, and for SOME it may be but remember public education should be for EVERYONE.

    I do not want to teach my class in a vacuum but instead increase the learning of each and every student any way possible.

  3. Dave said...

    "Is this True Robert?? If YOUR own son/daughter was being compared to other students in the class, and their assessment was based on the results of these other classmates, would you be ok with this?"

    Yes it is true. That is how the world works. Where is this world where adults do not compete for a livelihood? What are you preparing your students for exactly?

    "Do we really need some students to fail such that others can feel success?"

    No, we do not "need" this, in fact we don't even want it, but again, this is the reality we have. Making grand statements that ignore reality is pointless, and not having assessments doesn't make that reality go away.

    And my real questions were, if what you promote is authentic learning then what was it that I and all my peers and associates partook of? Non authentic learning? And how can you say something is "authenticate" yet not "assessed"?

    Your theory of learning, any theory of learning, must be reconcilable with all past theory and success. Einstein didn't refute Newton. Apples didn't all of a sudden start falling up. He extended Newton. You on the other hand seem to be more interested in refuting traditional education and its whole purpose rather than extending it, for social reasons more than pedagogical ones I suppose.

    Bob Hansen

  4. This post has intrigued me greatly! I would love to see one of your "exams". Thanks for the thoughtful teaching and assessing.

  5. Great post Dave! Learning is a process, not a destination. Your approach to assessment is a direct reflection of this.

    The problem with traditional assessment is that it neglects it's own intended purpose. We have become so focused on assessment as a means of giving a grade that we've forgotten the purpose of assessment is to ensure that learning is taking place. The purpose of assessment should be to drive instruction in such a way that ALL students are learning and growing academically.

    Students benefit much more from the type of immediate feedback you're giving than from a letter grade that means nothing to them. I totally agree with your assessment about motivation! When a student receives a paper with a low grade, they are not automatically motivated to figure out where they are lacking in understanding. Conversely, when students receive specific, immediate feedback, they tend to become more interested in the learning process.

    In addition, you're not letting students "off the hook". You are holding them accountable for their learning by requiring that they complete the assessment even if it means coming in on their own time. This process allows ALL students the opportunity to get additional help if needed.

    Thanks for sharing how you are leading your students to success!

  6. A teacher friend recommended me to this blog and I found this and the previous post thought provoking. However - do your students take either AP Calculus exam at the end of your term? If so, what is your pass rate?

    If you are not preparing students take an AP exam, then what are the goals of your students? Is there some other class that requires Calculus as a pre-req? In which case, how do you ensure that your students have mastered the requisite skills to advance when they are permitted to delay mastery of a skill when their workload is high?

    I like the idea of some assessments being used as a learning tool, but aren't many tests meant to certify whether a student has mastered a skill or understood a concept sufficiently to advance?

  7. Sorry Sarah for taking so long to get back to you. Yes my students take the AP exam at the end of the year, and I appreciate your question about my pass rate. Before I answer that here are some thoughts:

    I do believe we should stay away from judging success of the teacher based on a standardized exam mark. Remeber ANY exam you give to a student will consist of ONLY a subset of the information you have taught them. There is no way the AP exam can test everything, and consequently we should not use the AP marks as the SOLE indicator of whether or not learning has occurred.

    I encourage you to check out my post on Learning vs. Achievement.


    Now to answer your question, my students did fine on the AP exam. I had a class average of 4.7, as well as my marks on our Provincial exam(in another course) were higher than provincial average.

    I do not tell you this information as justification to what I do, but instead I ask my students and my justification comes from their comments such as "I have learned this".

  8. After all the banter back and forth, I have one final question...Dave, how do you come up with a final grade? Is this exam graded? If that is the case, how do you assign a grade to a student who had the top student in the class "help" them out? Let's be honest, if the assessment is graded then copying the solution from some else isn't very authentic.