Sunday, September 22, 2013

Assessing Assessment

Assessment is an aspect of my classes that seems to change every year.  I have yet to find a model that I'm completely happy with.  It really comes down to the essential question, "How do I know what my students know?"  Assessment looks different in all of my classes, but what binds them together is that assessment is always a tool for me to see how the students are understanding in the moment, where they are on the learning continuum, and provides feedback to adjust my teaching.

I've taken a leap into Project Based Learning in my Biology class this year.  To be honest, I have no idea if I'm doing this the "right" way, but I do know that I want students to be more engaged in authentic learning experiences and less concerned about passing a test.  The Unit 1 project question is, "What types of factors are threatening food webs?"  Students have been completing in-class research for their individual projects, and production of the projects will begin soon.

In the meantime, I designed a ten-point quiz to "test the waters" of student understanding for the same objectives upon which the project is based.  As I explained to the students, everyone will receive 100% on this quiz, but it might take some students longer than others.  I set up the quiz on Schoology, so students were able to see what questions they got wrong right away.  Before the next class, I created individualized review assignments for each student based on their areas of misunderstanding on the quiz, and they worked with partners in class to review those concepts.  Any students who did not score 100% on the first quiz then retook the quiz (same concepts, different questions).  More students were able to pass the second time around, but there were still some who did not score 100%.  During a research day in class, I visited with each student who still had errors and discussed any misunderstandings 1:1.  They then took the quiz a third time.  If there were errors on this version, I went over their mistakes with them verbally, and in all cases the student was able to explain why s/he answered the question incorrectly and what the correct answer was.

Positive aspects of this quizzing scheme were that students did not experience the "pressure" of a typical quiz.  I think they understood that this process was intended to help them learn more, not assess if they had learned everything they were "supposed" to learn by a certain point.  I also saw some great interactions between students as they taught each other during the individualized review activity.

There are a few parts of this process that I need to work on before the next quiz, however.  It takes a lot of time on my part to create all of the individualized review and multiple versions of quizzes.  I'd like to find a more automated way of doing this.  Secondly, the class time that is required for me to individually review with students between Quiz 2 and Quiz 3 is an obstacle.  I haven't yet come up with a way to make that process more efficient either.  There is still a handful of students I was never able to meet with last week during class to discuss their errors on Quiz 2.  I don't want this process to stretch on forever.

And finally, I'm still asking myself, does this quizzing process truly assess what my students know about food webs?  Is this really the best indicator of what they have learned?  I'm waiting to pass judgement on this for now, as the student projects have yet to be unveiled.  In my mind, these projects will be the true testament to the depth of student learning.  It is my hope that the quizzes and projects will eventually work hand in hand.  For now, it's on to my next to assess the student projects. I will happily take advice on this or any of the questions I've described above.  As always, the one constant in my classes is that assessment will continue to evolve.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Feedback, Part II

The editor of our local newspaper contacted me this week wanting to write an article about what flipped learning looks like in my classroom.  Since my science-teaching colleague has also starting flipping this year, I asked her to participate in the interview as well.  She had a great idea - "Why don't we survey our students and include some of their opinions in the article as well?"  So I whipped up a quick Google Form and we took a couple of minutes in our classes Thursday and Friday for students to complete the anonymous survey.  I have been stewing over the results ever since.

Now, before I launch into the crux of this post, I want to say that the survey revealed that the majority of our students prefer the flipped classroom to traditional classes.  Here is an overview of the questions and results:
  • A "flipped classroom" allows more time for teacher and student interaction than a normal classroom.  76% Agree, 24% disagree  
  • A"flipped classroom" gives students more time in class for help from the teacher when compared to a normal classroom.  72% Agree, 28% disagree
  • I would rather watch a video for homework than work on a problem set (typical homework).  72% Agree, 28% disagree
  • A benefit of the "flipped classroom" is that it allows students to work through class content at their own pace.  70% Agree, 30% Disagree
In the free-response portion of the survey, students had many positive things to say about the class, such as loving the ability to watch the videos at their own pace and appreciating the extra time in class to work with other students and their teacher.  But of course, in typical teacher-fashion, it is those unsatisfied students that are occupying my thoughts right now.  I went through all of the comments of the students who do not like the flipped format, and categorized them into seven different areas of concern.
  • Students think that videos take up too much of their "free time."  They don't like to do homework, even if it is videos.  (13 comments)
  • Students feel they don't understand the video content as well as they would if it was in lecture format.  (6 comments)
  • Students worry that if they have questions while they're watching the video they won't get them answered during class.  (6 comments)
  • Students commented that if they're going to watch videos at home for class, the entire class might as well be online. (3 comments)
  • Students were concerned about internet access for watching the videos.  (3 comments)
  • One student felt there were too many distractions at home while watching videos.
  • Students commented that learning from the video was harder than learning from an in-class lecture.  (2 comments)
I have to tell you, I've been agonizing over these comments.  I don't want my students to dislike my class or feel like it's a waste of their time.  Some of the students who made these comments were very livid in their opposition to flipped learning.  It stung a little bit to have something I believe in so strongly and have put so much blood, sweat, and tears into ripped apart by a few caustic comments.  I should have known better to open up an anonymous survey, but I wanted the students to be honest.  

So even though a large percentage of my students report flipped learning is working for them, I still feel like I need to address that 30% of dissatisfied students on Monday.  I've been thinking about how I'll approach each comment.  Here is what I've come up with so far:
  • For the number one complaint, "too much homework," I added up the total number of minutes of video I've assigned in these first four weeks of school for all my classes.  For my Biology and College Biology classes, it was a total of 40 minutes of video in four weeks, averaging out to 10 minutes a week.  Now I know that it takes longer than the run-time of a video for students to do their homework, because they take notes and fill out a form as well.  From my observations of students who watch video in class, it can take up to twice as long as the run-time to complete an assignment (although it's faster for most students).  So, if I use this highest estimate of video time for homework estimation, it ends up being 20 minutes of homework per week.  I just don't feel that this is too much too ask of 10th and 11th graders.     
  • I am okay with the second comment that students don't understand the videos as well as they would content from an in-class lecture.  I feel like learning a new topic should be confusing at first - otherwise you're not really learning anything new.  I don't intentionally make my videos confusing, but if students come to class with some uncertainty, I'm positive that what I do with them in class will help to sort that out.  There is research showing that students making initial mistakes in their understanding is actually a good way to learn, as long as those misconceptions eventually get cleared up.  Does this mean that students are comfortable with feeling like they don't understand everything?  No way.  Which leads into the last comment - learning from videos is harder.  Yes, it might be more challenging.  And that is okay because we have the classroom space to work together.
  • I feel like the the student comments about asking questions is an area that I can improve upon.  I have the students ask questions on an online form every time they finish watching a video.  I really do look over all of these questions before the next class and tailor what I'm doing in class that day to address their questions.  Most of time I know that what I already have planned for class will take care of a lot of the questions that came up because I was able to anticipate what would confuse the students during my lesson planning.  But occasionally I will verbalize to the students, "A lot of you had questions about _________, so we're going to do this in class today to help with that."  I need to do more of this - I need to be more clear with my students about the fact that I am paying attention to their questions and structuring class in a way that helps to answer those questions.
  • As far as the comments about the entire class being online, I have to defer back to my calculations for the time spent working on video assignments.  Twenty minutes a week are spent in the "online" format.  My classes are 53 minutes long, five days a week, so approximately 250 minutes a week are spent in class, working face to face with students.  I'm not sure how students could learn the material if those 250 minutes we're spending together simply disappeared, as some students suggested.  Enough said.
  • The final comments deal with home environments, either lack of internet or too many distractions at home.  I do worry about marginalizing these students.  I have kept my videos short this year so that they can be watched during lunch, before or after school, or in a study hall.  I try to give students a couple of days notice before a video needs to be completed.  I know which students don't have access because I did a technology survey at the beginning of the year.  I have offered to put videos on flash drives and/or DVD's for these students, but they would all rather find time at school to watch the videos.  It is not a problem I have solved yet, but I continue to try to find better ways to serve these students.
So, now I forge into Monday, ready to discuss these concerns with my students.  I don't want to make a huge deal out of it, because many students are really excelling in the flipped classroom.  However, I do want to make sure that the students who are not liking the class right now know that I hear them and take their comments seriously.  I know that many students will be afraid to speak up when I initiate this conversation in class on Monday, so I'm also going to encourage students to send me messages via our class Schoology account when they're feeling frustrated with class.  I think I'm done with the anonymous surveys for now (!), but I will continue to look for ways to continue this conversation with my students.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Week 3 Review

After three weeks back in school, it's beginning to feel like classes are getting rolling now.  Students are getting used to routines, new technology, and are settling into some more intense learning cycles. What follows is a brief overview of what has been happening in my flipped classes.

In the Biology classes, students have been working through models of food chains, food webs, and energy pyramids.  The next concept they were ready for was the rule of 10% in energy transfer, so instead of just telling them about this, I set up a whole-class simulation in which the students could "become" the trophic levels and calculate energy transfer.

I used some whiteboarding in this activity to do formative assessment of the students' table-creating skills.  The students worked in groups to create a table from the simulation data on their whiteboard.  The students then passed all the whiteboards around the room to compare and evaluate other groups' data tables.  Not only was this a way for me to see what table skills the students were bringing with them into the classroom, but the student groups had some great discussions and I was able to bring in all of the little "details" about tables that I look for when I grade them.

After completing this simulation in class, I assigned the students a video to reinforce the math that supports the 10% rule.  I gave the students 3 days to watch the video outside of class.  Out of approximately 50 students, only 4 didn't watch the video.  I was able to check this on my class Schoology account.  So, to make sure they were ready for our class activities, I tracked them down during their lunch period and asked them to take a "working lunch."  They brought their trays into my room and watched their video while they ate.

Later in the week, students worked in groups to create arctic food webs and determine how changing one organism in the food web could affect many others.  I set up questions on Socrative for some peer instruction work on food chain energy transfer.  This week they started work on their "Food Webs" research projects.  I used gClass Folders to hand out the Google Doc research document I had prepared for all the students.  The students also started their weekly Current Science online discussion.

College Biology started out the year with Ecology topics as well, but since these students have already had Biology as sophomores, they dive right into the topic of biodiversity.  I took the students down to our local river and a water tower area right outside our school to sample biodiversity using hula hoops to make "quadrants."  Students watched a 10-minute video on biodiversity equations as homework and then practiced using the equations in class by calculating biodiversity of various "bean" populations in Petri dishes.  Students read an article about the Spotted Owl controversy and participated in an online discussion regarding protecting habitat for endangered species.  As a hook for learning about exponential and logistic growth, I put together a simulation using Starburst candy that explored different strategies organisms use to deal with their carrying capacity.  Then students watched a population growth video as homework, and they practiced the problems in groups.  I had most of these students in my flipped Biology class last year, and I have had 100% of them watch all of their videos.  This class LOVES Remind 101.  They have told me repeatedly how helpful it is to get reminders for their assignments.  I've sent them a few sillier texts as well, which they always comment on.  The CB students are in the middle of creating "Mystery Biome" videos.  They collaborated on storyboards using Google Docs, and I'll be giving them feedback this weekend using Kaizena (which I'm very excited to reveal to the students).

Finally, I did it!  I am so proud that I was able to figure out how to make Auras for all of the chemistry lab equipment.  Students took the classroom set of iPads around the room and used the augmented reality app, Aurasma, to learn about the equipment.  They were definitely engaged and learning.  The one thing I'm looking forward to doing next year is making Auras with my own students' videos.  This year, I had to use random You Tube videos because I didn't have anything else from which to draw.  So this year I'll be recording videos of the students talking about equipment so that I can add them to the Auras for next year.

The first three weeks of this school year look completely different from the first three weeks of last year.  Because of all the changes I'm making to my classes right now, it's probably analogous to planning three different classes from scratch.  I feel like I'm putting an inordinate amount of time into working on my classes, but most of that time has payed off and is really benefitting student learning.

Monday, September 2, 2013


My Biology students watched their first "flipped" video of the year last week.  I have flipped my classes for two years, but this is the first year I've intentionally used the Explore-Flip-Apply model.  We spent the first week of class in the "Explore" phase:  spending time down by our local river observing organisms, taking photos, and asking questions about the observations.  When I felt the students were ready for the "Flip" phase, I stepped through the majority of the first video with them in class.  The video was an 8-minute introduction to food chains and food webs.

I gave the students an outline to help guide their note-taking while watching the video.  Secondly, I described how to access the videos (I use Schoology for my classes), and how to enlarge, pause, and rewind the videos.  Finally, I modeled how they could watch the video and take notes at the same time.  Their homework for the night was to finish the remainder of the video and fill out the "Feedback Form" I had also posted on Schoology.   

On the Feedback Form, one of the things I asked the students to do was rate the video on how it helped their learning on a 1-3 scale (1 = didn't help, 3 = helped a lot).  Finally, the students explained their rating of the video.  The responses to this section were very eye-opening for me, so I thought I needed to share them with my fellow flippers.  I have included any comments that specifically addressed the use of video, both positive and negative.  Also, I left all of the comments exactly as the students wrote them, so please try to ignore the grammar and spelling issues!  (My reflections on the feedback follow all of the comments.)  

  • I don't like it a lot because you have to go online and watch it. 
  • I felt that it was better than being taught in a classroom because there were no distractions. 
  • All I had to do was pay attention. 
  • The video helped a lot. 
  • I got to see some examples and I like that. 
  • Would like to do this more helps me so much. 
  • I chose a 3 because it helped me that I could pause the video when i needed to, I could go at my own pace. 
  • I would like to actually learn in class and listen and have more hands on things not just listening to someone talk. 
  • I chose three because in the video, I'm able to stop and go back. This way I get a better understanding of it. Also, I was able to do this on my own time and take all the time that was needed to finish the task. 
  • It really helped me to understand this video because pictures or examples are usually pretty helpful to me when learning something new or different. 
  • You talked at a perfect speed, and I only had to pause it a couple times. 
  • I enjoyed watching the video because I liked the visual aids in the video. It helped when you drew the lines to show how the food chain works. I also liked how you took everything step by step. 
  • It was easier to understand the concept better. 
  • I found it better than sitting in class and listening because I can pause the videos. 
  • The commentary was easy to understand. 
  • The pictures really helped me understand how everything fit together. 
  • It was very detailed and I could visualize it instead of just hearing it. 
  • it was better than taking notes and we got an under standing on how the food webs flow. 
  • It was easy to work at home by myself and it was easier not to get distracted by friends. 
  • It was very explainable I thought it did well at supporting the information with a great base start to form a good video to learn from. 
  • I feel that these videos are going to make a bigger impact on my learning ability. 
  • I chose a three because it really did help me understand, and it made me feel like I was still in the classroom learning with you. 
  • Also, i am not sure if I like this way of teaching better or the class room teaching because its easier to ask questions that way, but here you can pause, and go back on the video. This makes it easier to write things down i spoke truthfully and honestly. 
  • I could pause the video and write down notes when I needed to resulting in me not missing any of the information given. 
  • It was a big help because thats how i learn best I learned many things and it was very understandable. 
  • i understood it for the most part. I learned alot of things but got lost a few times. the video did help because if i dont understand something i can easily just pause the video and watch it again. But also if i have a question about something i cant ask cause well its a video, but i also can message you and ask. 
  • I really think that the video helped me understand this better. I think it helped because I as able to stop the video when I needed to, and I was able to go back and listen to it a few times to really understand the concept. 
  • Everything was explained well it was easy to follow along and answer questions.

There were only two students who expressed any negative feelings toward watching the video.  This is pretty typical in my experiences with flipping; most students like watching videos (more than I would guess like sitting in a real-time lecture).  As a teacher, you're never going to find a mode of learning that satisfies every student.  I am confident that although not every single one of my students prefers watching videos, they will learn more as a class in this mode.  Also, the concerns that students have regarding getting online to watch videos and asking questions are common "beginning of the year" worries that are quickly put to rest as students get a better idea about how these issues are addressed in the class.  Students learn that there are multiple ways to get at the content and ask questions - it's just in a different manner than they're used to.

Regarding the positive comments, it never fails to amaze me how often I hear students say they like the videos because they can watch them at home where they are "less distracted."  It reminds me how easy it is for students to be thinking about a whole host of other issues, usually social, while in school - despite how "quiet" the classroom might be.  When they watch a video at home, they can find a comfortable, non-threatening environment and really focus on the content.  I had one student last year tell me, "I loved watching your videos!  I just sat down on my couch, put on my headphones, and grabbed a snack to eat while I learned."  I also find that the ability of students to pause, rewind, and re-watch videos is very compelling for them.  I have many students who typically struggle to keep up in typical lecture classes that are so grateful for the chance to consume content at their own pace in Biology class.  It truly reduces their stress-load and gives them the confidence that they can handle this course.  

I don't think I'll include video rating on every one of my feedback forms, but I'm planning on using them every once in a while to continue getting snapshots of how this format is working for students.  Not only does it help me to modify and improve my teaching methods, but it also lets students know that I value their opinions.