Group Assignment in an Asynchronous Environment

Last week has been a hectic week for my classmates and me in my Assessments class. A week prior, we were asked to sign up so that we could be assigned to groups. I was one of the first to sign up because I wanted to plan my schedule around my activities at work.

The assignment guidelines were posted by Monday and we were given a week to prepare a tool that will test our understanding of the course. We were also asked to make rubrics for peer and self-assessments about our contribution to the assignment.

By midweek, the only posts in the group forum were simple messages of “hi” and “hello”. The deadline was set on the 18th and by Friday, there were only two of us who had so far communicated. I was busy preparing drafts for my Bio exam which was due that week and also preparing for an Ecology seminar we were hosting. I only had time to actually focus on the assignment by the following Saturday. By then, we only had three days left before the deadline to work on the task.

I was lucky that the only other person who replied to my posts (and who was based in another country) was as eager as I to really finish the assignment as early as possible. We spent Saturday throwing ideas around and were able to come up with the Rubrics by early Sunday morning. I spent the next 20 hours working on drafting 30 questions for the assessment tool. By 7pm, a new member was assigned to our group because she was the only one “actively” working in her group. A latecomer joined us by early Monday and was able to do her share of the task.

I learned how to attach HTML codes while I made this homework, as comments and suggestions flew between me and my groupmates. I was reminded that patience, indeed, was a virtue and that one of the disadvantages of online learning was differences in time management as well as external factors.

What made this homework challenging was the fact that we had to conduct discussions in a workspace assigned by the teacher (for monitoring and assessment purposes). This was further complicated by the fact that we were in different places, with different schedules, and with different accessibility to internet connections.

Nonetheless, I am willing to try to do this again. I welcome the challenge of putting together a project despite having members in different time zones, or in our case, different places. I hope, though, that next time, I will be less cramped with work and activities and that next time too, everyone will be active (and not just two or three).

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Of Grades and Numbers

Society places too much stock on numbers that we usually equate high grades with intelligence. When I was a student, it was important for me to get good scores out of all my tests. As I moved to higher learning, I realized that there were certain types of exams I was partial to and some others that do not sit well with me. I have talked about the prevalence of rote-memorization tests that I have had when I was a student. And that always reminds me of my Grade 5 History teacher. For her, the best students were those who could repeat verbatim what she says in class. The same went with her exams.

I think that scores do reflect student progress in some ways. This, however, often lead people to attach labels to students, effectively boxing them into categories which can influence assessment (and therefore, subsequent grades).  I have seen teachers who readily give consideration for students who miss a test because that student “performs in class” – that is, that student is known to be one of the “bright ones”. I have also seen how those same teachers can easily dismiss a student’s efforts (or the lack thereof) because they don’t talk in class or usually get poor grades.  On the few occasions that these “slow ones” do get a good grade in a test, their performance even becomes suspect.

Grades serve a purpose of ranking students and reflecting a facet of their learning. However, we need to change our perspectives in how we view these numbers. Acing a test does not always indicate a critical mind. Failing one does not always mean lack of understanding or lack of ability. I believe that when we fail to give our students opportunities to demonstrate what they know in ways that fit them best, we fail them as teachers. Grades should not define people and what things they can or cannot do.

How I Like My Tests to Be

When I was in fifth grade, I had the (mis)fortune of having a History teacher who had a reputation among the students as a “terror”. She rarely smiled, humiliated students in front of the class, and gave the “hardest” exams. I think it would be safe for me to say that all of us in class had a fair measure of anxiety even before the year started. True to form, she was stern-faced and frowned more than smiled at us. She knew the exact dates of historical events without the need for cue cards or anything. I remember diligently copying pages and pages of her lecture until my notes resembled a schedule of activities of some sort.

Then came our first grading exams. It was a hundred-item test that had matching type, true-false, and identification questions that asked the same thing: match the exact dates with the event in History. After that, I lost any interest in History, or at least, in her subject. I hate memorizing dates.  Except for those dates well-remembered even by my parents (like Martial Law, for example), I don’t really remember what happened in, say, 22nd March 1897. History was supposed to teach me patriotism and nationalism, but memorizing those dates as though my life (as a student, at least) depended on it hardly helped.

I did not really particularly dislike matching type, true-false, and identification questions as long as they are not too specific as what that teacher did in hers. I preferred essay questions because they did not require me to memorize anything. I could go and argue a point or give counter-arguments as long as I understood the concepts. I enjoyed multiple-choice tests the least because the amount of words printed on the paper made me anxious.  It felt as though I would never get to see the end of the test. As a student, I made a habit of scanning the whole test before answering it. That way, I could pace myself in answering the questions, helping lessen my test-taking jitters. I also made a habit of answering multiple choice tests starting from the last number back up because this way, I know that I have already “seen the end” of the test.

As a teacher, I learned that with good training, multiple choice tests are quite easy to handle. I do employ them in my tests because they do not take a whole lot of time to check (and I can even ask help from my sister). I generally prefer the odd-one-out type of test because it allows for analysis on the part of the student. Aside from picking the concept that does not belong, I also ask students to state the reason why they picked it. When I first used it, I realized that some items can have multiple answers, depending on the reasoning behind it. My coordinator pointed out that such questions are actually helpful for both my students and I. It allows students to map out concepts while showing me how they process what I teach.

When I started teaching, I had a hard time designing performance tasks for my students. We use the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework in our school. This meant I first have to figure out what I want my students to learn and plan my instruction around it. I still find it challenging sometimes especially when I’m stumped at Stage 2 and could not effectively plan Stage 3. Slowly, thanks to practice and the modules that have been provided in my classes so far, I have come to see the importance of authentic assessments.

I have seen how more relaxed my students are when preparing for performance tasks than when it’s exams week when they all look harassed. I have also witnessed how they are able to tap into their creativity and how they readily research facts that they think will help them turn out better products or performances. In such less formal settings, they also gamely ask clarifying questions that they would otherwise keep mum about in lecture settings. Of course, pencil-and-paper tests cannot be totally eliminated in the curriculum. However, well-thought out alternative assessments, as pointed out by Cornally, Wiggins, and Mueller (in the module’s resources), make for a more holistic assessment of student learning.

Integrity Clause

Last October 3rd, the online Quiz 1 for my EDS 113 class was made available online. I was apprehensive because I was only barely able to finish reading the second module before the Quiz was put up online. I have been having internet connection problems lately, on top of all the things I usually have to do for school, so it has been quite a stressful week.

Usually, these online tests have time limits and we are only allowed a single attempt. Like all online quizzes I have taken thus far, Quiz 1 also had what I call an “integrity clause” at the start. The clause basically reads something like “I promise not to cheat in this quiz” which we had to agree to before we get redirected to the test questions. However, Quiz 1 caught me by surprise. Not only was there no time limit in taking the test, we were also allowed unlimited attempts. The highest score we can get out of the attempts will be our final quiz grade.

I have to admit, my initial score was a measly 7 out of the 15 items asked. I reviewed my notes again and attempted another try. I scored higher, scoring an additional 2 points. It was after my second attempt that I noticed the “REVIEW” link in my scoreboard. I clicked it open and saw the items I got wrong. I barely looked at the multiple choice part, I could just try to click each choice in my next attempt and see which one I’d get correct. I focused instead on the second part. There, we had to indicate where a given sample assessment fell under Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive domain. I took note of items I got wrong then went back to my notes. I attempted the quiz a third time and got 12 out of 15. I clicked review again and that was when I noticed that the answers were actually indicated on the bottom of the page! I had not scrolled down during my first two attempts that I had not seen it.

I thought to myself, “Was it a trick? Were we actually expected to really get a perfect score?” But then, there was that clause at the start of the quiz, right? I checked the Learning Tools page. Usually, check marks automatically appear on the tick boxes after each activity we finish. The quiz had no check mark, on account that we had unlimited attempts, so I assumed I had to be the one to tick the box.

Was it a test? Like some sort of test within a test? Believe it or not, I thought I sounded like Steve Rogers (for those of you who saw Captain America). I thought about the integrity clause. Sure, we all had to agree to it so we could take the quiz – I mean, that would be the default answer. Still, having been able to see the correct answers and then attempting to take the quiz again was something that went against what was stipulated in the agreement, right?

So I went ahead and checked that box, despite no perfect score (though I had to ask my prof if it was ok for me to manually check it afterwards).

Perhaps the test was more about whether we would actually abide by the clause we agreed to. Of course, honesty is the best policy. I took something else out of that quiz. Through it, my professor taught me that we can still impart lessons to students even while we are doing assessments. More than quantity, quality is always better.

Frustrating Strategies

When I was in Nursing school, I had a subject called “Strategies of Nursing Education” where the instructor conducted his lectures by throwing questions to the class and asking us, one by one, for our opinions.   This instructor hardly wrote anything on the whiteboard.  He did, however, had a PowerPoint presentation about the average income of nurses working in the US and elsewhere around the globe.  Nonetheless, his classes were fun though sometimes nerve-wracking, especially during those times when my brain cells just refuse to think anymore and I’m two people down the row being asked.

I remember him giving us copies (copies, not lecture, take note) of the PowerPoint on the different strategies in nursing a week before the only exam that was required for the course. Needless to say, the exam come the following week was something that threw the entire class: we all expected to answer essay questions, similar to how our question-and-answer lectures were done.  Instead, we were given situational questions about the practice of nursing in the hospital and perhaps a spattering of identification questions on nursing strategies.

I remember feeling angry frustration while taking that test. I mean, where does it all fit? He probably thought that providing us with the slides would suffice.  It did not.  I do not mind reading and discovering things on my own, mind you.  I just resented the fact that the main point of the course was skimmed over and hardly taught by the instructor who probably expected us to do self-study. I did pass that test and even got high marks but I vowed to avoid classes by that instructor ever again.

This just shows how the conduct of class encounters can drive learning and expectations on the part of the student.  Now that I am teaching Science, I try my best to help my students understand concepts.  My quizzes also give them a sample of how certain skills will be assessed so that they are better prepared for the summative assessments at the end of each grading period.

Test-taking, Then and Now

When I was still a student, much of the assessments used in school only tested our knowledge and comprehension. I grew up memorizing page after page of my History and Science books. I took notes diligently and even copied whatever my History teacher drew on the board. Success on a test back then depended on rote memorization. Even scores on essay tests relied on canned answers and how well we can construct our sentences around them.

I guess this was the reason why most of my classmates disliked the content-rich subjects. There was simply too much to memorize!

When I went to college, we were challenged to think outside the box, thanks to academic freedom. I went on and got my degree in Communication Research then went back to school to study Nursing. It was the exams that frustrated me. Much of the materials used in school were pooled from American textbooks and sample tests from the US Nurse Licensure Exam (NCLEX). These assessments tested little of our knowledge and targeted higher-order thinking skills instead, particularly application and evaluation.

I remembered one comment my aunt, a Nurse in the US, had said about how different schooling here in the Philippines is from the US. This was what she meant. We were so used to knowledge-based assessments that the US-patterned tests stumped many of us.

When I went to teach in school, the Science department where I am under used a table of specifications based on Bloom’s taxonomy that aimed to help teachers vary test questions with emphasis on HoTS. It was a challenge for me. I was sent to a seminar on Test Construction at the Ateneo during my first year of teaching and it had helped me understand that assessment should direct learning and instruction, rather than limit it.

Assessments nowadays, at least in our school, have improved from the rote-memory dependent tests I had growing up. They are much more varied and much more challenging. There is, however, still a lot we can improve on. I hope that after this term, I will be able to turn out better assessment methods for the benefit of my students.