Since the beginning of this grading period, I’ve adopted a back-to-basics approach to grammar instruction in the hope of presenting the writing of strong sentences as more formulaic (and thereby less intimidating) to my 8th graders who are gearing up to take their standardized writing prompts. To provide incentive, to help them learn how to set goals, and to help them see that teachers don’t design tests and quizzes to punish them but rather to gague their mastery of the material, I’ve divided each class up into “improvement teams” of about 4-5 each: one exceptionally strong student, one weaker student, and several in-between students. At the end of each week of instruction, every student takes a quiz on the topic we’ve covered that week (so far: parts of speech, pronouns, transitive/intransitive verbs, sentence fragments). After the quizzes have been graded, I announce each student’s score and the amount they improved by. Team totals are calculated (and sometimes bonus points are given to teams that showed the most improvement from the previous week’s score, or to teams who did exceptionally well on other activities throughout the week), and the winning team is invited to eat lunch with me–we order food from local restaurants. So far, a perceptible change in motivation has come over the room, and I was pleasantly surprised by this.
But what surprised me more was the complaint (and painfully obvious observation) that led me to realize my students are still figuring out how to “think;” this, after a student turned in her quiz: “I don’t think I did very well–I was expecting it to be multiple choice. That’s the only kind of test we ever take.” *Blink. Blink. Blink.* Are your eyes as wide as mine right now? Let’s analyze this quote, shall we?
First of all, I should mention that there is some validity to the latter part of her statement. The way my English department is set up we all periodically give “common assessments” designed for the primary two-fold purpose of getting students used to the format and type of questions they will see on their standardized tests this spring, and to ensure that all the 8th grade English teachers are covering the same material and using teaching strategies effectively. Of course there are secondary benefits to this kind of testing as well, such as analyzing the types of questions that students consistently missed for re-teaching purposes. But I realized that even in her other classes, this student was probably always tested in a multiple choice format.
Second, this student revealed to me how infrequently she is asked to use higher levels of thinking such as evaluating, analyzing, and even applying (which is the lowest of these three in Bloom’s taxonomy). I’m not bashing multiple choice tests, however. Some of the hardest tests I ever took were multiple choice tests (namely Biology 101 and Intro to Cognition). So the fact that the student thinks it was difficult because it wasn’t multiple choice concerns me because this means a) she’s not used to being asked to interpret information, and b) the multiple choice tests she has experienced have been mostly asking her to simply recall information. Though recall questions are certainly appropriate to an extent, when you’re not required to synthesize the information you have learned, it’s pretty easy to score well on multiple choice tests merely by process of elimination, unless the answer choices require you to think about the information.
So, this student’s poignant observation has opened up a rather large can of worms for me. But it has forced me to think about assessments. A lot. One of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the school year was to help my students learn to begin thinking for themselves and forming their own opinions–rather than doing or saying what they think the teacher is looking for. Assessments–in all shapes and sizes–help me measure this goal. I still plan to include all kinds of questions on my quizzes. But giving them projects or assignments (also forms of assessment) that involve analysis, evaluation, and creation will help my students re-learn the skill of thinking so that, effectively, when confronted with a “test” (which, at this point, still seems to be the school term of most importance in my students’ minds), they will be able to say with confidence “I know this.” And though it might take some effort to think through these questions (heaven forbid I actually ask my students to do something), I hope to be able to hear “It was a tough test, but I think I nailed it” by the end of the year. Because the reality is, we can’t approach real life as a series of options that we just take a stab at (well…you could, but you may not always be happy with the outcomes). In real life, thinking is definitely required.