Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Aside - Online Self-Assessment Learning

In addition to reading conferences and our Smartest Generation Projects (see previous and next posts), we are doing final touches on grammar self-assessment via online exercises, which I find really push most students to an understanding of commas, apostrophes, semi-colons, and pronouns.

We are ALSO completing the online information literacy (research methods and process) assessment designed by ILILE (The Institute for Library and Information Literacy Education - Trails). The overall profile of this 8th grade will inform our librarian and ELA teachers about research skills that must be taught (eg - have been missed). Our kids are taking this seriously, even though they do not get a "score." They are asking the questions that help them to learn - like about Boolean search terms.

Why does this self-assessment thing work?

I think it works because middle school students are, in an environment that is comfortable for them, put under the microscope in one small area - and measured. Sounds terrible - and that terribleness is part of the success of the exercises. Note the key word: small. The assessments, which are often auto-graded exercises (all except for the Trails), are no more than 20 questions long. The "scoring" is instant, or at most it requires the student to self-check against a digital answer sheet. It works because students know how they measure up and how they can improve their scores. Surprise! This is the same system used by edutainment software and online curricular/intervention packages (like Plato). These systems, which I have been evaluating since forever it seems, are still in production - because they work, for many skills, for most students.

They work because a small isolated skill is assessed intelligently at a serious level. The bar is not low. Students have to work to do well. Redo's (cheating) are possible, but with the best tools another and different exercise can be taken immediately.

It is the nature of the process that students complete the exercises at different times. Teachers can therefore work 1-1 on problem skills, both during a test (I allow students who don't know an answer to ask for instruction) and after a test. For students, this is a win-win learning situation, as every student exits a skill lesson/assessment with a 90% (my standard) or better score.

It is important for the teacher to set some guidelines for students. I do this is a NoteShare notebook, which has the advantages of allowing student to get ALL of the exercises in one download, to work at home if necessary (they take screen shots to prove completion), and for me to update exercises (add, improve) on the fly (it will be necessary).

My guidelines are:
  • I provide a GOAL for students to meet in order to EXIT the exercise. It is always at least 90%, often mastery (95 or better).
  • For high-importance skills (like commas), student must complete a practice before they shoot for mastery. This allows for teaching moments - very successful.
  • Multiple exercises are available for every learning skill. This is important. If you don't master Exercise 1, you can try again in Exercise 2. Otherwise, kids will just do Exercise 1 over again (the smart ones screen shot the results too).
  • You have to show me the results (if I am grading this, as I am this year) OR you have to log your own progress (if I am not grading this, as I did last year). Frankly, I don't see any difference in the student learning outcomes, but students liked the logging-of-progress so much that I think I will return to logging rather than grading. The demonstration of learning shifts from me to student, which is healthy. It will come in handy during parent conferences too. Of course, you have to trust your students.
So what are the best tools?

It is the teacher's job to locate the best tools and send students to . I have always placed a high level of trust in Purdue's OWL. Unfortunately for me, the exercises that supported the grammar instruction part of the site are being removed, as we speak. One day students can use them, the next day they are gone. The end result is going to be a very fine tool for self-instruction, but for now it is unreliable. So I have had to scrabble.

It takes time, but generally speaking a simple Google for "____ exercises" will lead to several good exercises (apostrophe exercises). The best online exercises:
  • Focus on one specific skill
  • Provide feedback (right - wrong answers)
  • The very best tell you why an answer is correct and/or incorrect - instruct! Exercises made with Hot Potatoes tend to have this teaching feature.
  • Are correct in terms of the grammar or skills YOU teach - some exercise creators follow a different set of rules, so it is a very good idea to check the answers against what you want students to know!
Getting back to the Trails lessons (information science). The online tool meets the criteria above. I highly recommend it. Teachers should consider taking an assessment - find out what you don't know! Working students through a difficult question has been a great teaching experience for me. In a back-door way, this simple assessment has provided me with a window on how kids think through problems, not to mention a confirmation about how they read questions... I am using the individual "unit" tests for grade 9 because I took the General test myself and found it exhausting. I think that by doing 4 sub-tests of 10 questions each, our students will learn, and we will focus in on the research skills and vocabulary that are most important.

How much time does this take in my classroom: 15 minutes of 75 minutes. Big gain for good organization.

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