Monday, December 28, 2015

Planning Assessments

I’m going to break down the way in which I devise formative assessments to determine whether my students are meeting a learning objective I have defined. The course I will be teaching is college-level History of Christianity and the students are prison inmates in a community ministry program.

The objective is: Identify the relevant characteristics of a new independent group (Protestant denomination) that formed as a result of decisive differences with the mother church. By formative assessment, I mean bite-sized opportunities to grasp how well the students understand the material we’re covering while we’re covering it.

The formative assessments I will use are:
  • Assess an ‘opening thoughts’ writing assignment: at the start of the class, the students will write on a card, what they found interesting or relevant in the reading. I will collect the cards and use them as the basis for a brief discussion of several of the points raised, asking the contributor to elaborate, and then another student to suggest what they’d add or revise about what’s been said. This will help me tune the lesson to areas that actually matter to these students, who could use affirmation and anything that would bolster their motivation.
  • Ask questions of students throughout the open-book discussion: I’ll have a series of discussion points which I’ll introduce as questions to both engage students and help me gauge the level of understanding in the room.
  • Assess an in-class ‘very short essay’ writing assignment: realistically, my evaluation wouldn’t happen until after the class. This exercise, early in the term, is designed to help me understand where each student is in terms of writing and analytical capability, in advance of the first major writing assignment.
  • Revisit the key topics with a series of quick questions at the end of class: for those topics that will appear later on a summative assessment (an exam), I’ll ask for definitions or a quick explanation of their significance. This will help the students to grasp what “big idea” really matter in this course.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Applying Standards

I just completed a series of activities unpacking a standard, backwards mapping, and writing objectives. The logic of this sequence is very clear to me, and I am fully bought into it. Whatever complaints are voiced about Common Core in the public sphere, I now, through completing this exercise, have a full appreciation of standards-based teaching and learning. I think the bellyaching comes out of ignorance – people don’t understand what standards are about, and assume Common Core is dictating content.

Anyway, I find the process gets more difficult as you progress through it. The starting point, unpacking a standard, is a pretty simple exercise, in my view. But that’s not to understate its importance. What I found was that a well-written standard is a very powerful, highly compact distillation and call to action. If it is not that, it needs a rewrite. If it is, it provides the rationale for teacher and student to be in the classroom.

Backwards mapping, in which you define and design proficiencies, assessments, and learning experiences to fulfill the standard, was also pretty clear sailing. If you know the material, it’s a fulfilling imaginative exercise to plug in content and activities that have the effect of building up student knowledge and capability to achieve the standard. 

Where I got into difficulty was in defining SMART objectives to promote student learning related to a standard, in two respects. Using a college-level course made it difficult. I think if I had used a Common Core standard would have been an easier exercise. One problem was that the standard I chose was very content-oriented, and very high-level stuff (“be able to recognize how Christianity’s internal struggles have impacted the church”). I mean, to demonstrate achievement of that, you’ve pretty much had to progress through the whole course. And college-level teaching to adults is just going to have fewer touch points with individual students than K-12. So the examples I gave seemed a bit strained – I tried to consistently deal with factional division of the church, and perhaps I was being overly specific and too high-level. I don’t know.

And some of the SMART objectives I found hard to meaningfully define for the activities I created. In particular, I found “Attainable” pretty confounding, and “Targeted/Timely” got a pretty generic definition in most cases. While I’m glad I’m getting the chance to develop my curriculum plans for this course in this way, it’s probably not the easiest starting point for me to master the pedagogica concepts.

Standards and Backward Mapping

The following is an exercise in which I describe some components intended to achieve a standard for a college-level course I'll be teaching to prison inmates starting in January. The course is History of Christianity II: Reformation to the Present. Specifically, we'll look at several proficiencies, assessments, and learning experiences designed to fulfill the standard.

The standard is:
  • "be able to recognize how Christianity’s internal struggles have impacted the church." 
You can learn more about the standard here

Here are three proficiencies that students should achieve to meet this standard:
  • Identify the two main perspectives on any divisive issue around which a group formed in opposition to the prevailing orthodox view (example: the appropriate age for baptism in the sixteenth century)
  • Identify a new independent grouping that formed as a result of these differences
  • Express in written or verbal form an understanding of the significance a breakaway sect or denomination
Here are three assessments that will indicate that students have met the standard:
  • A one-page reflection paper on how a specific historical instance of factional division within the church had a long-term effect or legacy
  • A series of questions on the mid-term exam that probe specific knowledge of important instances of sectarian formation
  • Observation of student answers and engagement during class discussions which address the existence of opposition from within the church to some aspect of the subject under consideration (there are many instances)
And here are three learning experiences or activities that will help students develop the knowledge and skills to meet the standard:
  • An in-class reading and discussion of a primary document such as a section of a formally adopted confession of faith addressing an issue on which groups split irreconcilably
  • An in-class “Socratic Dialogue” in which we seek to arrive at a consensus answer to a question around which historical divisions were apparent, such as the appropriate age for baptism.
  • An in-class debate between students representing the views of specific historical leaders, one side from the church hierarchy and the other spearheading a breakaway grouping.
The preceding has been an example of how to develop course plans by working backwards from the standard, which should have the effect of focusing greater attention on the purpose of any activity and enabling us to better judge its efficacy in achieving its intended goals.