Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What my students liked about my mastery-based class

I asked the students of my differentiated, mastery-based biology for some feedback at the end of the year, and I don't know why I was surprised by their answers. They pretty much summed up exactly what I'd hoped to achieve.

Here's how they answered the question, "What was the best thing about this class?"

"I liked how we got to work on computers and also how many different projects we could have done."

"Having you give us freedom to see how responsible we are, and the due dates so we can take our time learning about the topic."

"How we had to learn on our own."

"We had fun and learned at the same time. Very unique and creative class."

"The freedom of the curriculum."

"That we controlled it by doing things on our own."

"The best thing about this class were the assignments/projects and Dr. Green."

"Everything. All students got along,  fun learning, non-stressful, interesting material, good options/alternatives to tests."

"How we could do assignments at our own pace."

"The freedom of [sic] we can do what we want."

"Take things at your own pace."

"We go at our own pace on the assignments."

"The best thing was not having actual due dates and working in groups on projects for every unit."

"The best thing was having an option of how we got to learn."
"The vibes this class brought"

And two students blew me away with their answers to "What was the most important or interesting thing you learned in this class?"

"School/grades don't define you, but you should try because education is important."

"The most important/interesting thing I learned in this class was to always do your best and keep trying and never give up."

And that is what it's all about, isn't it?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Measuring (and teaching) responsibility

We all want our students to learn responsibility--to turn assignments in on time, but are late penalties the answer? Giving zeros for missed homework and subtracting 10% per day from late reports seems to make sense at first, but consider this:

I always have a couple of students who have trouble submitting their formal lab reports on time. They are worth 100 points out of a total of 500 points per quarter. If they turn in a report 5 days late, and I subtract 50 points, then 10% of their quarter grade depends only on whether or not they could turn this one report in on time. If we throw late homework and other assignments into the mix, it's conceivable that turning assignments in on time could end up amounting to 50% or more of a student's grade.

Heck, if we assign zeros to missed work, a kid's entire course grade could be nothing more than a measure of his or her inability to meet deadlines.

I agree that teaching responsibility is important, but is this really what we intend?

My goal this year in my mastery-based, differentiated biology class was to teach and measure mastery of biology and six non-cognitive skill areas, called GLEAMS. The A in GLEAMS stands for Aim, and I used this to measure goal-setting and deadline-keeping.

I had started by using rubrics to assign ratings to the six areas, keeping them separate from the overall course grade. I had planned to require mastery of each one in order to get credit for the course. I had done this with some success last year in geology.

The idea behind this is that the course grade itself would be a measure of mastery of biology, not the ability to meet assignment deadlines.

I ended up abandoning the GLEAMS system about half way through the year, not because it wasn't working, but simply because I had trouble keeping up with it. I even included GLEAMS in the student planning and self-assessment Google forms the kids were doing for every project, so the data was there--I just didn't have the time to track it.

And there were consequences.

As much as I tried to motivate students to work at a fast pace using only autonomy, mastery, and purpose, I think something was missing. I was no longer teaching or measuring mastery of the goal-setting and deadline-meeting skills.

I tried to remedy this with some encouragement in this area (Problem, Probe, Product, Pronto), but without measurement, I feel like it had little power. We all need immediate feedback in order to tap the motivating power of mastery.

I have a band-aid, temporary fix idea for this I'm going to try out this summer for my online science enrichment course, The History and Philosophy of Science (In 6 easy Steps): I'm simply going to make deadline-meeting a fixed percentage of the course grade--say 5%, and keep it in it's own category.

This isn't ideal, because the course grade will be a mix of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, but it's better than simply deducting late penalties. For one thing, at least it will be clear in the grade book where the mastery lies. And secondly, the value of deadline-meeting will be kept to a fixed level.

Now, I just need to be more intentional and explicit about teaching responsibility. After all, if we're measuring it, we'd better be teaching it, and measurement isn't the same as teaching.

Friday, June 5, 2015

When the end is in sight

Boom! That's what happens to engagement as the end of the year approaches in my mastery-based biology class.

Well, not exactly. Last week it was plummeting. But this week it went through the roof. At one point today, every student was working on a quiz or project. And for the past two days, I was unable to get all of the engagement measurements I wanted because I was too busy answering students' questions.

So what happened?

Yesterday I started class by reminding them that they had little time left to complete all of their projects, and that this class could run into the summer for some of them. (They have to complete everything to get credit. That's part of the master-based deal, I tell them.)

I hate doing this--using negative ways of motivating them, and part of me really doesn't like the fact that the imposing end of the course has motivated them better than autonomy, mastery, and purpose could.

But the other part of me understands. My efforts at making meaningful objectives, giving them plenty of choice, and unlimited opportunity for mastery have not been perfect. Especially the objectives part. I feel like the projects and objectives have a long way to go before they are really meaningful to students.

But I also understand how our brains work. We drastically discount the importance of events the further they are into the future. It's called present bias or hyperbolic discounting. This is why we procrastinate. And it's especially true for some teens who haven't yet learned how to worry about the future as much as grown-ups like me. (Sometimes I wish I were a bit less concerned about the future.)

So it makes sense that my students kick it in gear as the end comes into focus.

So my goals for next year:

1) Teach them how to see the future more clearly and not discount it quite so much.
2) Make my projects and objectives so meaningful that that's not even necessary.