Tag Archives: assessment

Critical Thinking Assessment

Those of us teaching physics have made a lot of changes this year. One major change is a focus on depth of understanding and critical thinking, which results in fewer topics covered. While I have qualitative evidence through formative assessments that students this year have developed stronger critical thinking and long-chains-of-reasoning skills, I’ve been bothered that I don’t have a summative assessment to measure this. Ideally, I would like an Force Concept Inventory pre-test/post-test equivalent for critical thinking. I’ve bookmarked the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA), but that isn’t an assessment that I can administer to my own class. If you know of another, please let me know!

Due to our crazy calendar and snow days, seniors graduated two weeks ago and I’ve had relatively few students in my regular physics classes since then. We’ve been investigating color, polarization, mirrors, and lenses. Since these students had already completed their final with the seniors, I decided to use the scheduled final exam time this week to try a critical thinking assessment. I wanted them to read a passage that describes a physics phenomenon with which they were unfamiliar, make several observations of a somewhat related physics phenomenon that they had never seen, and propose and defend an explanation for this observed phenomenon based on the prior knowledge. They read about diffraction, observed various wavelengths of light passing through various double slits, and tried to formulate an explanation. We had previously learned about interference of waves (slinkies and beats), but not in the context of light. This is quite a series of inferences and connections for students to make during a final exam; so, I prepared a series of guiding questions to help them make the connections. When a student said they were stuck or were off-track, I gave them one of the five guiding questions. Some students needed all five; one, amazingly, didn’t need any.

Here is my reading passage, observation procedure, and guiding questions:

Download (PDF, 231KB)

The students did quite well connecting what they read about diffraction to what they observed to what they already knew about interference. Here are some of my favorite student comments.

The black parts are shadows, I think we see them because the light is being destructed?

In order to have constructive interference, one ray must travel one wavelength further than the first.

The blue filter causes the lines to be closer than that of the red filer because blue has a shorter wavelength and when it travels to the plate, it forms more concentric circles. Thus, there are more intersection of circles and more lines formed.

and my favorite (written without any guiding questions):

… It’s like light beats.

I also had some really creative explanations of the interference pattern. Students mentioned internal reflection in our eyes as well as lens effects due to the slits.

Students commented that this was unlike any final exam they had previously taken. In fact, several students in one class didn’t want to leave until they were satisfied they had a complete explanation. It certainly seemed more worthwhile than giving students a list of equations and a set of problems with numbers for them to plug in on their calculator. I think there is a kernel of a good idea here, but I need to develop it more. In my largest class, it was hard to manage since I had to interact with each student during the assessment, read their explanations, and give them the appropriate guiding questions. Sometimes this required me asking my own clarification questions and the ensuing discussion could be overheard by other students. If you have tried anything like this, please share your experience!

I Grade Homework

Last year, myself and a colleague jumped into the standards-based grading pool with both feet with our honors-level physics class. We appreciated that homework was for practice and should not be graded. I was very excited about this departure from the traditional model of checking homework every day and keeping track of completed homework and absences which wasted valuable class time.

At first, students attempted their homework as assigned. However, before too long, it was apparent that a vast majority of students were not attempting the homework problems before we were to whiteboard them in class. After one particularly ineffective whiteboard session, due to a vast majority of students being unprepared, I attempted to use that experience to illustrate the importance of using the homework problems as practice.

Why did this happen? Did we fail to explain our standards-based grading philosophy? No, I think students appreciated the importance of the learning activities. Students were engaged in learning activities such as labs even though they were not graded. Were the homework problems unnecessary busywork? No, this class moves at a fast pace and, for a vast majority of students, practice outside of class is essential. Students weren’t attempting just the problems they felt they needed to practice; they weren’t attempting any problems.

After this ineffective whiteboard session, a few students with whom I had stronger relationships made a point to talk to me about why they hadn’t attempted their homework. All of them said that they appreciated that they needed to practice these problems. All of them said that they knew that they wouldn’t be able to effectively whiteboard the problems without having at least attempted the homework. All of them knew that eventually they would need to practice in order to do well on the summative assessments. However, all of them also explained that not doing their homework was a conscious decision. They explained that they get home late due to soccer/marching band/play practice. They explained that they have more homework assigned then they can possibly complete in a night (another issue to address). If they don’t complete their math/social studies/other science homework, they lose points, their grade is impacted, their GPA is affected. They believe the only logical choice is not to do their physics homework.

When other classes assign points to homework, overloaded students that are grade-centric won’t do homework that isn’t assigned points.

What did we do? We started grading the homework the next semester. We reconciled this change by framing homework as both a learning activity and summative assessment. We continued to whiteboard homework problems (learning activity), but, by the end of the unit, students were required to submit their homework solutions via WebAssign (summative assessment). We used WebAssign since we were able to randomize the numerical values in otherwise identical problems. This allowed students to collaborate but not copy final values.

We haven’t satisfactorily solved the problem of homework. Our current approach is simply the best idea we have at the moment. Over time, this issue may be mitigated as more and more classes in our high school adopt standards-based grading and fewer and fewer teachers grade homework.

If you’ve encountered this problem and are taking another approach, please share! We can always make a change next semester!

I Like Reading Lab Reports

When I first started teaching, I loathed grading lab reports. I had a seemingly never-ending pile of papers almost a foot tall sitting on the front, right-hand corner of my desk glaring at me with that look of “we’re not going anywhere, you know.”

Eventually, I would grab a chunk of labs and my green pen and start reading. I would read each lab and deduct points for errors and omissions. Sure, I would write comments and feedback as well, but I found it challenging to have both a point-deduction-centric perspective and feedback-centric perspective in my head at the same time. Even with a rubric, I spent a lot of time debating with myself, “Is this vague statement close enough to receive full credit?” “This paragraph shows some understanding, but I can’t tell what this student really understands; -1 or -2?” After grading a lab, I would flip back through each page counting how many points I had deducted. Not being a very number-centric person, I would at times ask myself, “Wait, is this lab out of 20 or 25 points; let me check.” I would then check to see if I had made a note on the lab that it was submitted late in which case I would apply a late penalty as well which wasn’t always simple: “Okay the 20th was four days ago but I think we didn’t have class one day; let me check…. Ah, we didn’t; so, that only counts as three days late.” At times, I would question if a specific error or omission should result in a one or two point deduction and, under the guise of fairness, I would search through previously graded labs to find one that I vaguely remembered having made the same error or omission. I spent hours and hours grading lab reports.

When I finished grading a lab for the entire class, I would hand it back but worry that, once I did so, students who hadn’t turned in the lab would copy a friend’s graded lab and submit it as their own. When I did hand back the labs, I would watch students’ reactions. If I put a grade on the front of the lab, they would look at the grade and apply, perhaps subconsciously, an algorithm that resulted in a positive, ambivalent, or negative feeling and then file the lab in their folder. Many wouldn’t even flip through the pages to read my comments. After noticing this pattern, I started writing the grade on the last page. Many students would then skim their graded labs, but they weren’t reading my feedback; they were scanning for the grade that they knew must be in there somewhere. If I forgot to total the points and write the grade on a couple of labs, they would certainly ask about their grades. However, the students were so entrenched in the grades game that I never had any ask for feedback if I didn’t write comments.

This sucked. Grading labs was my least favorite part of teaching. There had to be a better way.

Last year, myself and a colleague integrated our fledgling standards-based grading philosophy into our honors physics classes. We categorized most of labs that were previously graded as learning activities which we defined as “activities that don’t directly affect your grade, they are essential in that they are your opportunity to explore, discover, take risks, make mistakes, ask questions, help each other, practice, and get feedback before having to demonstrate mastery.” We explained this to our students and started our first lab activity. The next day, everyone turned in their labs.

I went home that night and I didn’t grade their labs. I read them. As I read them, I wrote comments, asked questions, made minor corrections. I never thought about points. I didn’t calculate a score. It was wonderful.

The next day in class, I handed back the labs. This new standards-based grading methodology was unfamiliar to the students and many hadn’t internalized the role of these learning activities. I observed some students scanning their labs for a grade. “Mr. Schmit, what is my grade on this?” “It is a learning activity, no grade; just feedback.” As they began to understand that no matter how hard they looked, they wouldn’t find a 18/20 anywhere in their lab, I saw students actually reading my feedback. Some students even asked questions about what I had written.

Lab reports got better. As students embraced the standards-based grading philosophy, they started taking risks because they weren’t worried about losing points. The vagueness of statements was diminished. Students began to write what they actually thought instead of what they thought was sufficiently generic to result in credit. Some students even started writing questions in their lab reports to ask for clarification. Many times, after a productive class discussion or whiteboarding session, I wouldn’t feel that I needed to collect the lab reports and provide additional feedback. The students had already provided all of it to each other.

I had a number of goals, hopes, and dreams when I started standards-based grading last year. Liberating students from grading such that they could focus on their learning was one. Liberating myself from grading such that I actually enjoyed reading lab reports wasn’t one of them, but it was a very pleasant surprise.