Tomorrow is the last day I’m allowing kids to reassess for this first quarter. For those just getting up to speed, I broke calculus into discrete skills and I’m testing kids on these skills. If they do well, great. If they don’t, they get the opportunity to show me they’ve learned what they were missing.

I told them on the first day, and now that I think about it, I have no idea why I don’t say this every week…

I want assessments to be opportunities to show off what you’ve learned, not opportunities where you are scared to make mistakes on.

So now that the first quarter is over, I am contemplating slightly switching my reassessment routine. Slightly, but just for my own sake.

Here’s the context. I have 27 students total in my calculus classes. I’ve tested them (some, a few times) on 17 skills.

My assessments tend to have straightforward and involved questions…

I expect full understanding. And my kids have risen to the challenge. For the most part, I think I can deem this a success. I have a number of rags to riches stories — where students struggled, but then were able to figure things out and saw their understanding, their confidence, and their grades all dramatically increase simultaneously. Seeing that alone is enough to justify my extra hours of work and the increased stress resulting from keeping this project afloat. (Again, it’s not like anything is hard individually, but together, it’s a lot of names, skills, grades, meetings, grading to keep together… it’s juggling a lot of balls and trying to keep them all in the air…) There are probably a few students frustrated to be at the B level, who just can’t make it to the A level. And there are a few students who have dug themselves into a calculus hole, and it’s been a hard time going. But for the most part, I feel good because I know these grades MEAN something, and that students have OWNERSHIP over them. Kids are reassessing.

Now to reassessments. This quarter I wrote 70 reassessments. I’d say all but 5 or 6 covered two skills. So let’s say each covered 2 skills. That’s 140 extra questions I’ve had to compose, set students up, and grade.

(For context, I assessed 17 skills, but a few twice, so I get that to come to 594 skills I’ve graded this quarter.)

To me, that proportion feels about right. Especially for the first quarter, where kids are adjusting, and figuring out how much work (and what kind of work) they need to put in to succeed… without me breathing down their necks.

But as I lamented above (and here)… individually the writing, setting them up, grading, and recording these assessments don’t take long. But collectively, it is overwhelming. A lot to keep track of, all the time. I have been holding onto hope that students have now figured out: this works for me in calculus class, and this doesn’t. So next quarter they’ll put some of those ideas in actions. (I had them explicitly articulate those things yesterday and I’m going to read through them this weekend.)

Luckily, my school has a nice thing set up where during lunch periods, we have a study hall and teachers can put tests in their for students to take. (As you can imagine, near the end of the quarter, recently, the study halls have been flush with calculus students.) I tell my kids they must email me by Sunday at 5pm to reassess in Tuesday study hall, and by Wednesday at 5pm to reassess in Friday study hall. So I don’t go crazy when making these, I only let them choose 2 skills to reassess.

This system has helped me A LOT — restricting things to 2 days. But I am still overwhelmed, because there’s a constant flow of things.

I’m thinking of switching things up next quarter.

1. Students can only reassess in Study Hall on Friday (we have 2 of them on Friday, both of which don’t have classes in them…)

2. Students can only reassess 3 skills per week (in this Study Hall).

3. Students have to email me by Tuesday at 5pm if they want to reassess on Friday.

Why these changes? Both personal and pedagogical.

I need a break from the constant stream. Having only one day for these will make the week more manageable. And students will have the convenience of picking which of the two times works for them — instead of having it only be their lunch period (or having to work with me to find a common free in our schedules to proctor them).

I want to reduce the number of reassessments per week, because there are a few students who are using the reassessments as a crutch still. They aren’t a safety net, but a lifeline. And by the end of the year, I hope to see them weened off of reassessments. This is one tiny step in that direction. The other steps to achieve that involve a lot of talking with students one-on-one about working smarter, not harder.

I’m not 100% sure I’m going with these changes. But I’m leaning towards it.

FWIW, I want to say Good for you for refining your structure-slash-container for retests. I think this is a TOTALLY reasonable policy.

One of the hardest things our team of teachers is working on this year is accepting the fact that it is not sane or healthy for any of us to try and be constantly and endlessly available to kids any moment they think of something they want or need. We’re not mothers of newborns, and our students are not infants who will die if they can’t take a retest right this very second. It’s appropriate to distinguish between “wants” and “needs” and in these cases, this is a “want,” and it’s a want that is appropriate to address on a reasonable schedule such as you have developed.

One of the developmental skills our students must be learning in order to be successful in life is deferred gratification and working within a system.

And just like taking the driver’s test to get your driver’s license, if you flunk the test, you cannot expect to just show up at the DMV the next day and demand an immediate retest and have an evaluator drop everything to take you out and give them a second road test.

This is an adult-person soft skill that they need to learn in order to function in the real world. University will be no different. In fact, speaking as a former college instructor and corporate manager, I can say with confidence that annoying your instructors or bosses is not a helpful approach to negotiating what you want or need.

I think that by setting up this very reasonable framework, you are actually empowering your students to develop good judgment about making healthy and sensible requests of their instructors. And that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

So don’t hurt yourself, but please pat yourself on the back.

I’m about to start teaching next year – and I tried something similar on a much smaller scale in my internship – so watching this with great interest.

Is there any way the students can manage some of this re-testing themselves? Anything that could be automated? Or perhaps use the time and skills of some of the more advanced students to help out?

It does seem to me that you are building a set of resources which is highly re-usable – so next year should be much less stress for you (hopefully :-)

Here are a few thoughts:

You’re saying it’s all about giving the students a chance to show you what they know. So couldn’t at least part of the assessment be based on them showing you, by giving YOU some examples of questions they are now able to answer, and show the solutions? Yes, you’d run the risk of the students just copying the work from elsewhere. But maybe if they also had to explain each step of the way…?

Also, I’m doing this thing in psychology class where I only accept essays in for reassessment after they have been improved and the student’s classmates (at least one) believes that the essay now reaches a significantly higher level than before (I hand out assessment criteria and have them mark each other’s essays). This saves me a lot of work. Maybe your students could assess each other somehow before bringing the work to you?

Sam:

I’m in much the same boat right now. I have freakishly large class sizes because of the way that our seniors’ required classes were scheduled (argh), and I’m being swamped at all hours of the day with reassessments.

My kids came up with the idea that each class gets one day of the week to reassess, and if they can’t make that day, they just have to wait (and retain the knowledge) for the next week. I think this still leaves the avenue for reassessment, but it definitely stems the tide that was my insane classroom, and I think it makes them really plan for that day and have something to get done rather than trying the shotgun approach (which is counterproductive to our movement.)