Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What is acceptable evidence?

I often try to keep the goals of my course in mind when designing a course, and when making decisions day-to-day in a course. But I have a harder time thinking about evidence of student learning. As it turns out, verbs are helpful.

Through my work with teachers, and in partnering with teacher educators, I came into contact with the book Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. In their model for developing curriculum and lessons, there are three stages, embodied in the three questions: What are the learning goals? What is acceptable evidence? What activities, experiences, and lessons will lead to the desired results as evidenced by the assessments? 

I teach a range of courses, some for aspiring elementary teachers, some for math majors, and some for practicing secondary teachers. In planning any of these courses, I generally begin with my learning goals for the course. While the official course syllabus sets a direction for the course, I sometimes find it helpful to rephrase the goals, and to prioritize them. For purposes of illustration, one phrasing of a course goal from the course for future elementary teachers is: Students will understand fractions and their representations, and be able to solve problems involving fractions. My rephrasing of that goal is: Students will be able to explain operations on fractions using models such as the area model and the number line, apply the models in realistic contexts, solve problems involving fractions, and interpret their answers.

Pivoting from goals to assessment, I am now faced with the question, What am I looking for during and after the unit on fractions that will let me know if students have reached the goals for the unit? Whereas the initial phrasing of “understand fractions” does not translate easily to something that can be assessed, the use of the verbs explain, apply, solve, and interpret give more direction to how to assess student learning. It lets me know that I am going to assess the students via problems in context that include a requirement to interpret their answers, as well as problems that require explanation of diagrams or models. I will know students have succeeded if their explanations are coherent, their diagrams illustrate mathematical reasoning, and students are purposeful in interpreting their answers in context, for instance by using appropriate units, or rounding up or down as appropriate to the problem. Although I am sure it is possible to have shallow goals using the same verbs, I find that using words such as explain, apply, solve, and interpret translates an abstract concept like understanding into a measurable quantity. 

Rethinking my goals with assessment in mind has helped me keep a focus on what is important in my classes. Having clear goals phrased with verbs that make them measurable makes it easier to write exams. But more importantly, because I am interacting with students at every class meeting, if I feel students are not reaching the goals, I know what is important to emphasize, or what is important enough that we need to slow down, since it is embedded in the goal statements.

Have you worked with your goal statements? Do you find that you assess progress toward your goals regularly? 

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