Category Archives: Assessment

My iPad Ate My Homework!

wordleAs ICTs increasingly become commonplace in our classrooms, it is often the case that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Certainly listening to the excuses for non-submission of homework I am often amazed at how little has changed. “I left my book at home” has now been replaced in the popularity stakes by “I couldn’t upload it.” The real reason for failure to hand in work is, of course, the same. I know that the student got home too late from hockey practice, that they had been overloaded with work by other teachers, and that, after the dog vomited on the bedspread, the whole evening got a bit too much, and my homework was relegated to the “heck it’s too much” pile! I know this because I have kids!

As a parent I seldom see my kids by sunlight, we live a vampire existence of dusk till dawn. So, as a teacher I am reluctant to give homework that I know will only pile on the misery at home and rob families of precious quality time. All too often I have burned the midnight oil with one of my sons who is conscientiously trying to figure out what some dumb question on a worksheet means. It’s amazing how little work that teachers give can stand a harsh analysis at 11 pm on a school night!

Don’t get me wrong. Some homework is necessary, and not all questions are dumb! But what I want to highlight is how the shift to increasingly digital output has changed homework. Kids are kept busy in schools so that they don’t hit the streets and get up to no good. I get that, and I am also grateful for the wonderful opportunities that extra-mural programmes offer! But it does mean that some days end well after dark, and even early days we are seldom home by five. Kids don’t really have those long afternoons where you could procrastinate over your homework by riding your bike or playing cricket in the street that I remember as a kid.

My sons are both conscientious and they try to fit their homework into the gaps between afternoon sport ending and choir practice beginning, or between drama rehearsal and the inter-house debate. If the work is on paper, you can manage to get a few questions done. But if it requires digital research and writing up, it gets more complicated. We can’t afford to give the kids laptops to carry around school, or iPads. The school computer room closes at a certain time, and then your child is left with no ways of completing the assignment till they get home at 9 pm.

I firmly believe that the digital flipped classroom model absolutely requires a firm commitment from teachers to refrain from setting digitally based homework. Work on devices should, as far as possible be done at school. Not just for reasons of equity – not all kids have access to adequate bandwidth or computing power – but also because as a teacher you should never assume that students will be home early enough to recharge their device, or complete the work. In South Africa the vagaries of our electricity infrastructure also often interferes.

Now clearly this cannot be a hard and fast rule. The sheer volume of what is done digitally now precludes never setting digital homework, but it should be a rule that anything that requires a device should be given several days or weeks in advance so that homework schedules can be adequately planned.

I know – it will still be done at 11 pm the night before it’s due. But as a parent in that situation I always ask my son, “How long have you known about this?” If he says he’s had the whole week, I side with his teacher. If he says they were given it that day, I tell him to go to bed, and I write a stern note!


Flipping Your Feedback!

memoThe Flipped Classroom is a model of classroom management which is gaining traction. Much of the focus has been on transforming instructional input – using “lecture” style videos, podcasts or documents which are posted online and viewed ahead of class so that classroom activities can be freed up to embrace more intensive and personalised interventions safe in the knowledge that the content has been explained.

A somewhat neglected aspect of any classroom routine has been the feedback part of the loop. Sometimes it is extremely useful to go over a test or assignment in class, unpacking the questions carefully. Sometimes, however, it is not necessary to do so. Where answers are either right or wrong, it is probably best to post a memo online rather than waste time in class poring over it.

I would argue, however, that online feedback can also be beneficial where more intensive analysis of an assignment is needed. Just as the ability to stop, rewind and replay a video “lecture” is valuable, so too with feedback. In my computer skills classes, for example I make a memo video using videopad and debut screencasting software to go over any test. I post this on my Moodle page and make access to it dependent upon completing the test. In other words it is available only after the student’s work has been assessed. This system seems to work well. As soon as a student’s test or assignment has been assessed on Moodle, the memo document or video for feedback discussion becomes visible to them. Feedback is thus as instantaneous as possible. It does not mean that student responses will not also be discussed in class, but it does mean I do not have to go over the assignment in detail, I can highlight key areas of concern, safe in the knowledge that students can access a complete break-down online.

In my English classes I usually hand out the printed memo when handing back assignments. This memo discusses not only model answers, but approaches to answering that type of question. For open-ended assignments I prefer to use student feedback in the form of questions and discussion after a presentation.

Flipping Feedback is not something I would do all the time, but it does add a useful string to my bow. It also adds variety, which as we know, is the spice of life!




Using Mailmerge for Feedback!

Over the years my handwriting has deteriorated to the point where even I cannot read it! This makes writing feedback for students a somewhat fraught experience for both of us! I wrote last week about the digital layer that sits above the physical layer in your classroom and a neat way to work around a poor handwriting is to use this digital layer to facilitate feedback. I have found that the mailmerge function, available in Word, for example, is very useful for painlessly providing students with feedback on their work which is both legible for the student, and useful to me.

mailmergeThe method I use is to create a spreadsheet with student names and email addresses at the start of the year. Because my Moodle uses LDAP authentication – in other words students log on with their school email account, this information is already sitting on Moodle in downloadable form in the Gradebook module. I can then use this spreadsheet as my mark-book for the year, even if I am not capturing grades on Moodle. A mailmerge document is a document, such as an ordinary Word document that can draw in fields from a database, such as a spreadsheet and display them in a letter, or email format. At the end of every term, for example I email students the marks I have recorded against their name, and this helps spot any errors, or jolt memories that a piece of work is outstanding, allowing any discussions about this to occur well before reports go out to parents! In its own right this is a powerful tool which has considerably lessened the load of classroom administration. Students respond well to this because it gives them a chance to see how they have done, sort out any issues, and because, as a process, it preserves privacy.

You can also type in feedback comments, however, and I believe it is this which elevates the humble mailmerge into a transformative tool in the classroom. Your mailmerge document can pull through student’s marks and comments and display these in a letter or email which can be given or sent to the student after an assessment.

This is especially useful for assessment on oral work, or other presentations where you cannot write comments on the script that has been handed in! As an English teacher, one of the more awkward moments is the need to give feedback on oral presentations. General comments can be made to the class as a whole, but one does not really want to give personal feedback to the whole class, as it is too personal. I always make notes and hand these to the student after their speech. But my handwriting renders these all but useless. What I do now is type my comments into the spreadsheet after the class, and then email the assessment and comments to the student as a mailmerge. A great benefit is that I then have a record of the comments in my spreadsheet, which helps me keep tabs on different aspects of a student’s performance, and spot improvement, or lack of it, more easily. I do the same with major pieces of writing, and end up with a tool of considerable diagnostic power when compared to a simple gradebook which only records marks achieved. The true power of the gradebook is the ability to record impressions and comments, and keep these on record painlessly!

If you use skills ladders, as I do when teaching computer skills, you can use similar techniques to record progress across a wide range of criteria, and provide feedback to students at the click of a mouse!



My Teacher is a Zombie – Marking by Rubric on Moodle

bczI have just finished marking a whole bunch of flash animations as part of a grade 8 computer skills examination, and the topic of the animation task just happened to involve a zombie. After assessing about a hundred of these things, I felt pretty zombie-like too! But the point I wanted to make is actually about rubrics. When I was a kid, teachers never used rubrics, or not that I was aware of anyway! The mark you got seemed fairly arbitrary for it appeared at the bottom of your essay with a circle around it and a disembodied comment such as “Good” or “Poor”. After a glass of wine, we speculated, the comment might have become more expansive, but also more illegible! Perhaps this is an unfair assessment of my teachers. There were, after all, helpful annotations in the form of underlined spelling mistakes, and red lines through phrases felt to be inappropriate or colloquial. I have to say though that I seldom understood why I had been given a particular mark, or how to go about improving my performance.

These days, the emphasis is on using rubrics to try to help students understand the criteria by which they have been assessed, and there is no doubt that a well-designed rubric can lay bare where marks were gained and lost. There is, though, still something awfully mechanical and routine about the whole assessment process. Anyone who has ever had a sizeable number of scripts to mark will know that catatonic, zombiesque state that marking induces. The petty nit-picking, or the cavalier acceptance of partially correct responses, the moments of self-doubt and angst over whether to deduct marks for spelling or not! Even intelligent human beings can be reduced to mind-numbing pedantry when faced with the challenge of assessing a pile of scripts that need to be finished before Monday 8am!

One hears stories about teachers who deliberately lose scripts rather than mark them, or the legendary stair method – throw the scripts down the stairs. the ones at the top get an A, the next step a B, and so on! Go into any staff-room during exam time and listen to the hysteria build after days of being forced to sit in front of piles of marking, armed only with a red pen and the promise of caffeine and nicotine at predetermined moments of the day, rewards for each batch of twenty, or every half-hour crossed off the boredom of the day! Some teachers mark a whole script at a time, while others tackle questions or batches of questions in sequence. If it gets too much you can count the scripts remaining. Some mark in solitary isolation, others in groups calling out particularly juicy answers to each other as they draw a red line through the page!

I’ve drawn a pretty gloomy picture about what is probably every teacher’s least favourite part of the job – the part that is least rewarding, and perhaps the least affirming both for student and teacher. Even loving, caring individuals become like zombies when marking!

rubricOne aspect of marking online is the magnificent affordance offered by rubrics. The screenshot shows my rubric for assessing the zombie flash animations which have haunted the last few hours of my life! The rubric module on Moodle allows you to set up a rubric, which you can then use for delivering feedback and assessment. After opening the file to be assessed, you simply click on the relevant box in the rubric, and attach relevant comments for each question, and a comment at the end. You can attach a feedback file if you wish. The one assessed here was perfect, except for one error, which has been noted. At the end I attached a positive comment and the software automatically adds up the marks and appends them to the grade-book which can be downloaded as a spreadsheet at the end!

Using a rubric in this way minimises a great deal of the pain, and possibility of error associated with adding up manually, or transferring to a grade-book, leaving more time for helpful comments! Rubrics can be saved as templates, and re-used, edited, or tweaked over the years. As soon as you have marked an assignment the feedback, rubric and mark becomes available to the student on their Moodle page together with any memo or exemplar you upload. I often make a screen-cast video of myself doing the exam, talking through sticking points and why something has been assessed in the way that it has. I post this on the Moodle page so that students can check their work against the exam questions. I find this works very well, and makes the task of handing back exam papers less fraught!

I do worry though that using the rubric module has made the process so slick, that I am running the risk of just going through the motions. Using an electronic rubric frees up the time to prepare a memo video, and to write out longer comments, but it is in many ways as zombiesque a process! Electronic or otherwise, … tick … tick … tick! Click … click … click!



Posted by on November 20, 2014 in Assessment, Graphic Software, MOOCs, Moodle


The Assignment Amnesty!

amnesty2Being a library recidivist myself, I really appreciate the annual library amnesty! You know how it works, bring back your overdue books this week and no questions will be asked! One thing a large number of students struggle with is the pressure of submitting work late. The modern schooling environment places a huge demand on students, and many end up falling foul of late submission penalties. In my IT classes all submissions are made on Moodle, and I find that there is always a percentage who do not hand in work.

As a teacher I feel I need to incentivize proper submission, so anyone who hands in work before the due date can re-submit work electronically after feedback and will get an improved mark. Those who submit after the due date, cannot re-submit and will receive a penalty, but if they submit before the cut-off date they will still be assessed. After the cut-off date (usually a two week grace period) the assignment is closed and no further submissions are accepted.

All of this is handily automated on Moodle. If a student provides a valid excuse Moodle allows me to grant an extension, and they will be given a new, personalised deadline. This system works well, but there is always a group of students who somehow manage to fall behind – way behind in their work. At this stage, their problem becomes my problem because I have to start emailing their parents and making noises about failing grades because of non-submission. This was always a difficult conversation because parents invariably ask for their child to be allowed a “second chance” and if you do it for one you have to do it for everyone. What I therefore do now is grant an assignment amnesty once a term, and carbon copy parents into this notice. This makes the parent aware of the fact that their child has fallen behind in their work, and makes them aware of the new deadline.

The response from parents is overwhelmingly positive because they see it as a life-line being offered. Sadly the kind of student who falls so far behind invariably does not meet the new deadline either, but at least I have done my duty in informing the parents, and this makes the conversation at parent evening more productive as well.





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Posted by on September 9, 2014 in Assessment, Classroom Management, Moodle


Differentiated Tasks and Flipping Foward

poetryprojectOne benefit offered by technology is the ability to offer students differentiated tasks, and to administer this relatively painlessly! You can do this on Moodle by setting conditional statements, which release particular assignments to students based on performance on other assignments, and this can be very handy, but a bit of a nightmare to set up! It also smacks of almost dictatorial teacher power!

Another approach is to allow students to choose what types of assignment they want to do – within reason, of course. In the example on the right, students can choose from any three poems on the list, and any three assignments. The only rule is that they cannot present on the same poem, or the same assignment type. They therefore need to present three assignments (on three different poems and three different assignment types).

Assignment types can vary from traditional essays, blog entries from the point of view of a protagonist, to prezis, slide-shows, videos, voicethreads, posters, quizzes and the like, I use a generic rubric which assesses the content, the structure of the assignment – how ideas are organised, and the presentation – how the technology is used. You can also get students to submit their own rubric, which forces students to think about what they are doing in a slightly different way. You can also do peer assessments (Moodle has a workshop module for this).

The great strength of this way of working is that it gives students some control over how they study the content, and how they show evidence of their learning. I think this is not only more engaging and motivating, but it also delivers a wider variety of assignments which can be used for further learning and Flipping Forward. By this I mean that the posters, slide-shows, prezis, films and so on that students produce can be used as the basis for follow-up activities, such as an in-class discussion based on the materials created. Having digital submissions really helps as everything can be stored on the LMS where it is readily accessible for Flipped Classroom purposes.

I find that students get quite excited by the idea that content they create will become the content for future lessons. They seem to take more care, and certainly turn in work of a high quality.



Questioning Assessment in the Light of Social Learning Theory

If cognition and learning is social, then why is assessment individual?

Increasingly modern psychological theories have stressed the social component in learning. One of the most influential theories is Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Bandura stresses first of all the importance of observation.

Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.

-Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977

In a famous experiment, the Bobo Doll experiment, Bandura demonstrated that children tended to copy aggressive behaviour towards a large blow up doll when it was modelled by adults. Modelling, for Bandura would include verbal instructions and behaviour modelled symbollically in books or TV shows, for example, in addition to behaviour modelled directly in front of a child.

Bandura went on to develop a Social Cognitive Theory which is based on the idea that learning is a triadic reciprocal relationship between cognitive, behavioural and environmental factors. Learning in the classroom is shaped by a student’s thoughts and feelings as well as the behaviour of others and other contextual elements. Bandura also saw people as goal-directed, able to influence their own outcomes and their environment. Learning can also, crucially, occur without an immediate change in behaviour. The two are seen as separate processes, an idea which put it apart from Behaviourist notions of stimulus and response.

Other key ideas within Social Cognitive Theory include the idea of self-efficacy, the level of self-belief an individual has about their ability to achieve their goals, and self-regulation, the ability of learners to regulate their own learning behaviours, to monitor their progress and set goals.

Social Cognitive Theory presents, therefore, a view of the classroom where individual learning is crucially influenced by the environment and social factors.

Another key theoretical input, Social Constructivism, comes from the work of Lev Vygotksy. For Vygotsky learning is first social, we learn to do things with the help and guidance of others, and then it is internalised and becomes part of what we can do on our own. This difference between what we can do with the help of others and what we can do on our own he calls the Zone of Proximal Development. It provides a powerful model for visualising how learning is social.

Accepting that learning is largely social presents a huge challenge to the way we traditionally do assessment in schools. At the very least we would want to say that our assessment should measure both what we can do with the help of others, and what we can do on our own. In my computer skills classes I always make sure that students are assessed both on in-class  assignments and projects, often group-work, where they will have been able to get help from those around them, and on class tests where they have to demonstrate their computer skills on their own, under pressures of time. This way I get a picture of who has reached levels of internalized knowledge and who still depends on others for support.

forumI have started introducing this approach in my English classes as well, by assessing reactions to literature formed in discussion groups. Using forums on Moodle is a good way of doing this.

The quality of student writing appears much higher when in the context of being able to bounce ideas off each other. This is evident in in-class discussion, but using a forum allows one to assess students on the quality of their responses.

Traditionally forum contributions have been assessed on quantity alone, but there is no reason not to assess both form and content of students’ writing in whatever form it presents itself. I use a rubric which assesses both the number of responses and posts made, and the quality and accuracy of expression of the content in the posts. This forms part of the students’ writing assessment.

I found students sceptical at first, but when they realised I was serious about giving a mark for something they did on the Internet, they entered into the task with some engagement and intelligence.


Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Assessment, Learning Theories, Pedagogy

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