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Letting my students fly solo during assessments

August 27, 2011

A while ago, I remember reading some blog post or another about how a particular teacher enforces a code during class assessments of complete silence and no questions to the teacher. At first, I thought this sounded particularly draconian, and then I started to take notice of home my very lazziez-faire attitude toward asking questions during assessments was playing out. Students who didn’t have a complete understanding of the particular concept started hoping that by coming to me with a bunch of questions, I would eventually give them enough of a hint so they could assemble something that looked like understanding on paper (and I’m sad to admit that this probably worked more times than I care to admit).

I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and before we took our first assessment yesterday, we talked about flying solo, and amazingly I had a student who is in flight school that could describe what flying solo really is. Flying solo means the instructor takes his hands off the controls, and sometimes, literally puts them behind his/her head (or sits on them, if he/she can’t be that relaxed). The student’s job is to show that he/she can fly the plane on his/her own, without any help. I’m sure there’s a similar analogy that one could with getting a driver’s license as well.

In having this conversation with the class, my goal wasn’t to set up an atmosphere of fear, but instead say that assessments are places where I want students to face challenges on their own, and feel the senses of accomplishment from surmounting those challenges by themselves, and I worry that having me to turn to with questions will lessen their ability to both surmount these challenges and feel the accomplishment of doing so.

It was one of the first times I’ve talked about the atmosphere I want us to create for taking assessments (rather than the post-assessment atmosphere, which I talk about often) and it seemed nice. I also was able to then give out the assessment (a short 10 minute quiz), which the students, good luck, tell them to leave the papers on my computer when they finished, and leave the room, confident that they both understand the honor code enough not to attempt to cheat, but also the utter futility of trying to cheat in a SBG system, where they will only have to demonstrate the understanding they faked their way through over and over again.

However, there’s still a part of me that has some pangs of uncertainty about this entire approach to assessments. Why must every assessment of a concept be on paper, done alone, without asking any questions? Surely the real world isn’t like this at all. And while I agree with this, I think one of the things I most need to work on right now is helping students to see that they can understand physics, on their own, and they can show this understanding in a traditional “on-paper” kind of way, without any assistance. Too often when I find myself trying to evaluate understanding in other ways—an oral assessment, for instance, I find myself asking the student questions and offering hints that leave me (and possibly the student) wondering if he/she has really mastered this particular concept.

Right now, that collaborative, interventionist understanding can be developed through capstones, which allow students to really take risks to explore their interests and develop a deep understanding with some guidance, while the fundamental understanding that I want to guarantee each student reaches, must be shown individually, on paper, without assistance. To me, this seems a bit like the distinction between the qualifier exam in graduate school, which is often a pencil and paper test that you must meet some minimum score to pass, and the thesis defense, where professors aren’t trying to see if you “qualify” as much as they are trying to push your thinking as you get ready to launch a career as a newly minted PhD. I’m not sure grad school is best model of education, but it does seem to offer both types of assessment I’m thinking about (assessments of minimum competencies, and opportunities to explore). In my physics class, our weekly assessments are a much, much, lower stakes version of the qualifier exam, given that with SBG, students have many chances to show understanding (though this is sometimes also true in grad school), and the capstones serving as a sort of thesis defense opportunity to push one’s thinking.

So, if you come into my class during assessment, you’ll hopefully see me relaxed with my hands behind my head as students are comfortably flying their way through physics, and not, with me sitting on my hands trying to swoop in and correct every mistake before a student has a chance to learn from it.

Update: Here’s blog post that talks about reminding people in emergency situations to “fly the airplane.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2011 1:49 pm

    My policy is that working on a problem (or set of problems) can be a tutorial or an assessment. If they talk to me, it becomes a tutorial. Do they really want that? Mostly no, when I put it to them that way. “You don’t really want me to answer that, do you?” “Oh! No!”

    On the other hand, sometimes they will come up to me and say, “This needs to be a tutorial. I thought I was ready, but I’m not.”

    But for in-class teacher-initiated assessments, I always require them to keep it an assessment during class. So that is more for the out-of-class stuff.

    During tests, they can only ask me questions if they don’t recognize a word (basically this exclusively applies to international students). I usually respond by doing a quick google image search and showing them the results. “Ahhh, that’s a Ferris Wheel. Thanks.”

    I definitely need to do the front-loaded chat like you’re describing, though. A few of them seem to rely on asking questions during tests, and they just don’t believe that I won’t answer them, then get frustrated each time they come next door to find me and I actually don’t answer them.

    The great thing with SBG is that if they just totally misinterpret a question, or if it was poorly worded or constructed, then I just know not to use that as a source of data. No hassle at all, and so no questions during the test needed (and no need to stress out about not being 100% confident what a question means when they know they will always have more chances at the skill).

    • August 29, 2011 12:35 am

      I agree with you100%. In fact, it was conversations with you that helped me to craft this policy.

  2. August 28, 2011 10:58 am

    I like your concept of flying solo. I think it is something all teachers should strive for in their administration of assessments. I’m wondering why we don’t let students “fly alone.” Wouldn’t you think that after 13 years of practice and instruction in doing mostly summative assessments that students should be able to “fly alone?” Is the reason that we don’t trust them to not “cheat?” Therefore, we have to be at the controls all the time, watching over their shoulder. Maybe the problem is that most of our assessments are summative and not formative. If they were formative, and if students were more intimately involved in assessing their own learning, maybe we would be more comfortable relinquishing control. I do think creating an element of trust is most important. For students, most assessments seem “high stakes.” It is hard to think creatively when the pressure is always on. So flying solo is great, especially if it moves towards a model of flying alone, which is what good pilots who have their license and have logged hours get to do.


    • August 29, 2011 12:38 am

      One of the great things about SBG is that it helps to remove some of those fears of high stakes, but it takes a lot of work for students who are used to having every stroke of a pen from a teacher reduce their grade unlearn these habits.

  3. September 3, 2011 11:28 am

    The practice of teachers answering questions during exams is a relatively new one in education. It never happened when I was in school. At most, if a student found a badly worded question, they could point it out to the teacher, who may or may not post a correction on the board. There was never an individual answer.

    As a professor, I found it very strange when students ask about the content during a test—it never occurred to me that teachers had taken to diluting their assessments by trying to tutor during the test time.

    Of course, I rarely use tests these days, as the skills I want to measure are better assessed by 10–30-hour projects than by 1–3-hour tests.

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