Monthly Archives: August 2016

Scaling up SBG for the New Year

In my new school, the mean size of my classes has doubled. The maximum size is now 22 students, a fact about which I am not complaining. I've missed the ease of getting students to interact with simple proximity as the major factor.

I have also been given the freedom to continue with the standards based grading system that I've used over the past four years. The reality of needing to adapt my systems of assessment to these larger sizes has required me to reflect upon which aspects of my system need to be scaled, and what (if anything) needs to change.

The end result of that reflection has identified these three elements that need to remain in my system:

  • Students need to be assessed frequently through quizzes relating to one to two standards maximum.
  • These quizzes need to be graded and returned within the class period to ensure a short feedback cycle.
  • There must still be a tie between work done preparing for a reassessment and signing up for one.

Including the first element requires planning ahead. If quizzes are going to take up fifteen to twenty minutes of a class block, the rest of the block needs to be appropriately planned to ensure a balance between activities that respond to student learning needs, encourage reinforcement of old concepts, and allow interaction with new material. The second element dictates that those activities need to provide me time to grade the quizzes and enter them as standards grades before returning them to students. The third happens a bit later in the cycle as students act on their individualized needs to reassess on individual standards.

The major realization this year has been a refined need for standards that can be assessed within a twenty minute block. In the past, I've believed that a quiz that hits one or two aspects of the topic is good enough, and that an end of unit assessment will allow complete assessment on the whole topic. Now I see that a standard that has needs to have one component assessed on a quiz, and another component assessed on a test, really should be broken up into multiple standards. This has also meant that single standard quizzes are the way to go. I gave one quiz this week that tested a previously assessed standard, and then also assessed two new ones. Given how frantic I was in assessing mastery levels on three standards, I won't be doing that again.

The other part of this first element is the importance of writing efficiently targeted assessment questions. I need students to arrive at a right answer by applying their knowledge, not by accident or application of an algorithm. I need mistakes to be evidence of misunderstanding, not management of computational complexity. In short, I need assessment questions that assess what they are designed to assess. That takes time, but with my simplified schedule this year, I'm finding the time to do this important work.

My last post was about my excitement over using the Numbas web site to create and generate the quizzes. A major bottleneck in grading these quizzes quickly in the past has been not necessarily having answers to the questions I give. Numbas allows me to program and display calculated answers based on the randomized values used to generate the questions.

Numbas has a feature that allows students to take the exam entirely online and enter their answers to be graded automatically. In this situation, I have students pass in their work as well. While I like the speed this offers, that advantage primarily exists in cases where students answer questions correctly. If they make mistakes, I look at the written work and figure out what went wrong, and individual values require that I recalculate along the way. This isn't a huge problem, but it brings into question the need for individualized values which are (as far as I know right now) the only option for the fully online assessment. The option I like more is the printed worksheet theme that allows generation of printable quizzes. I make four versions and pass these out, and then there are only four sets of answers to have to compare student work against.

With the answers, I can grade the quizzes and give feedback where needed on wrong answers in no more than ten or fifteen minutes total. This time is divided into short intervals throughout the class block while students are working individually. The lesson and class activities need to be designed to provide this time so I can focus on grading.

The third element is still under development, but my credit system from previous years is going to make an appearance. Construction is still underway on that one. Please pardon the dust.


P.S:

If you're an ed-tech company that wants to impress me, make it easy for me to (a) generate different versions of good assessment questions with answers, (b) distribute those questions to students, (c) capture the student thinking and writing that goes with that question so that I can adjust my instruction accordingly, and (d) make it super easy to share that thinking in different ways.

That step of capturing student work is the roughest element of the UX experience of the four. At this time, nothing beats looking at a student's paper for evidence of their thinking, and then deciding what comes next based on experience. Snapping a picture with a phone is the best I've got right now. Please don't bring up using tablets and a stylus. We aren't there yet.

Right now there are solutions that hit two or three, but I'm greedy. Let me know if you know about a tool that might be what I'm looking for.

Numbas and Randomized Assessment

At the beginning of my summer vacation, I shared the results of a project I had created to fill a need of mine to generate randomized questions. I subsequently got a link from Andrew Knauft (@aknauft) about another project called Numbas that had similar goals. The project is out of Newcastle University and the team is quite interested in getting more use and feedback on the site.

You can find out more at http://www.numbas.org.uk/. The actual question editor site is at https://numbas.mathcentre.ac.uk/.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 8.23.01 PM

I've used the site for a couple of weeks now for generating assessments for my students. I feel pretty comfortable saying that you should be using it too, and in place of my own QuestionBuilder solution. I've taken the site down and am putting time into developing my own questions on Numbas. Why am I so excited about it?

  • It has all of the randomization capabilities of my site, along with robust variable browsing and grouping, conditions for variable constraints, and error management in the interface that I put on the back burner for another day. Numbas has these features right now
  • LaTEX formatting is built in along with some great simplification functions for cleaning up polynomial expressions.
  • Paper and online versions (including SCORM modules that work with learning management sites like Moodle) are generated right out of the box.
  • It's easy to create, share, and copy questions that others have created and adapt them to your own uses.
  • Visualization libraries, including Geogebra and Viz.js, are built in and ready to go.
  • The code is open sourced and available to install locally if you want to do so.

I have never planned to be a one-person software company. I will gladly take the output of a team of creative folks that know what they are doing with code over my own pride, particularly when I am energized and focused on what my classroom activities will look like tomorrow. The site makes it easy to generate assessments that I can use with my students with a minimal amount of friction in the process.

I'll get more into the details of how I've been using Numbas shortly. Check out what they've put together - I'm sure you'll find a way to include it in part of your workflow this year.

Context and Learning Names

I wrote yesterday about my decision to try learning names of my students on the first day.

As of the middle of week two, I've learned the names of every student within each class with few exceptions. In some of the bigger groups, I mix one or two names that start with the same first letter, but I correct myself pretty quickly. I've come to recognize some individual traits that make each student unique within the group, and am feeling comfortable building on my knowledge of their names to find out more about who they are.

In the hallways, in line for lunch, and walking around campus, I struggle. Outside of the classroom, I lack the context of those names that I can usually lean back upon to remember them. With the students all mixed up together, including with students that I don't have in my classes, it takes longer to put a name with the face. As I develop an understanding of the students beyond names, this struggle will go away.

The analogy to learning in any classroom context stands on its own, so I won't ruin it with more commentary.

IMG_3451

Fail Early, Fail Often: Learning Names

Learning names this year was a bigger challenge this time around in comparison to the past few years. The first reason is that my new school is substantially bigger than my previous school, as are the class sizes. Another major reason: I'm the new guy.

The students generally know each other, so I decided the first day wasn't actually about them learning each other's names. I still included activities that got them interacting with each other, but I was the one that needed to learn their names. I decided the quick forty minute block on the first day was an opportunity to model my class credo: fail early, fail often.

When they walked in, I asked them their names, and what they wanted to be called. I've learned that these are not necessarily the same. These names were noted on my clipboard. I made a big show out of going around to each student, looking them in the eyes, and saying their name. Taking attendance then became my first opportunity to assess what I remembered. The order on the roster definitely didn't match the order that the students entered the classroom.

I then had them line up alphabetically along the back wall. I had them all say their names one in a row. I had my reference material on the clipboard and went reverse alphabetical order. I publicly made mistakes, lots of them. Then I had them say the name of the person immediately to their left. For me learning the names, this meant that the voice saying the name was different, but the name was the same. I narrated that I wasn't actually looking at the person saying the name - my attention was on the person whose name was being said.

I then had them get in line in order of birthday, but without any words. Once they figured out their order, I went down the line and tried to get names. I looked at my clipboard if I needed to, and I often did, but often had them just say their names back. I explained that I made them move around because I didn't want to learn names based on who each person was next to - I needed to connect the name to the face. This ensured I was learning the right information, not an arbitrary order.

Then I had them get into two or three random orders. If there was time, I had a student go down the line reciting names. Then I went again myself, now trying not to look at the clipboard unless it was absolutely necessary. The mistakes continued to come, but I generally was having more success at this stage. I again told them that I had quizzes myself enough - it was time to let my brain do connecting behind the scenes. I emphasized that this was why cramming doesn't tend to work: the brain is really good at organizing the information if it has the time to do so.

It was great putting myself in the position of not knowing answers and having to ask students for help. The students appeared to enjoy my genuine attempt to demonstrate how I learn information efficiently, and how essential failure is to being successful in the end.

Moving to Vietnam

After a whirlwind tour visiting family, friends, and taking care of many more errands than in a typical summer vacation, my family and I arrived in Vietnam mid-July. The 27 hours of travel went far more smoothly and quickly than expected. This was at least partly due to the fact that the under-filled coach cabin yielded our now eight-month old daughter her own seat.

All of this was a big step toward the next stage of my teaching career: I've joined the high school faculty at the Saigon South International School, located in District 7 of Ho Chi Minh City. This past week, I started my year teaching two sections of the first year of IB Mathematics SL, two sections of pre-Calculus, and a section of Algebra 2 & trigonometry. If you've heard me discuss my teaching load at my previous school, you'll know that this is half the number of preps, and one more open block in my schedule than I've had for the past six years. I've been amazed by my colleagues and their range of international experiences, both in and out of my department. The energy to try new things and a drive to challenge my teaching practices are both part of the culture here, and it's very exciting to be on this team for the new year.

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 9.19.47 PM

I'll continue to write on this blog, which has often played second fiddle to other obligations in the past couple of years. My hope is to reflect more regularly as part of an effort to do fewer things, but with greater focus. I hope you'll continue to join me.