Thursday, October 19, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Quizzing Basic Knowledge

Over the past 20 years I've served as a professional educator, my thoughts on basic knowledge and skills have fluctuated.

Early in my career, I know I focused a lot on "just the facts." Students in my math classes learned algorithms for solving particular kinds of problems. Students in my science classes memorized a lot of definitions for vocabulary. The idea for me: they have to know the facts! And...perhaps's easier to assess their factual knowledge than the deeper understanding that I hope they will also develop.

Looking back, I now realize that about five years in to my teaching career, a shift began to happen. As I matured as a teacher, I began to de-emphasize basic factual knowledge and instead began to focus more attention on ensuring that students could actually do something with that knowledge. Eventually this meant I embraced standards-based assessment practices for my science classroom, focusing on giving students multiple opportunities to both learn concepts as well as demonstrate their understanding of the concepts. I remember having a (somewhat heated) conversation with a colleague during this time in which I said something like, "If they can find the answer on Wikipedia in under 30 seconds, they don't need to memorize it!"

But sometime after that, I began to swing back towards the center of this range. I realized that I still did want my students to have knowledge of basic facts, because this knowledge is often important and helpful for understanding. For instance, I still had students memorize about 30 of the names and symbols for different elements on the periodic table, because it made it much easier for them to work with the symbolic nature of the chemistry we were learning. It's inconvenient to have to look it up. ("What does N stand for again?") In this case, memorization was helpful, because it was in the service of understanding.

I'm at a similar place in my world regional geography course right now. I want my students to have basic knowledge of the map, to know where different countries, major cities, and geographic features are located. I want them to memorize these things, because knowing it off the top of their head is more convenient for them than having to look it up all the time. But the point isn't the memorization of the basic facts--its that I want them to be able to use this knowledge as we are working to understand the different regions we are exploring. Knowing the difference between Brussels and Bulgaria is helpful when you're discussing the European Union, and the history of Western and Eastern Europe!

As a result, I decided that I would have map quizzes as a part of this course. That is probably not surprising to you if you've ever taken a geography course--it's a pretty common expectation to know the places on the map! But I confess, the thought of grading a map quiz every week sounds pretty awful to me, and perhaps pretty awful for my students to take them too! So how would I quiz them on this basic knowledge?

Here's what I decided to do:

    • I grouped several regions together for each map quiz, so we could have fewer quizzes over the course of the semester.
    • I give students a list of places (countries, cities, rivers, seas, mountain ranges, etc.) that they should be able to identify on the map. They have a week or so to review these (or perhaps learn them for the first time!) before the quiz. 
    • When quiz time comes, I have a set of maps for those regions ready for their use with the different places labeled with letters and numbers. For example, today my students had the opportunity to show what they know about the maps of Europe and Russia. I had given them a list of European countries; European cities, rivers, seas, etc.; and Russian cities and geographic features. For the quiz, they had to be prepared to identify different locations indicated on the maps. But...
    • Rather than asking them to identify every single place on the map, I figure a random sample is probably enough! I have little slips of paper with each of the locations noted on them, and I dump them into a tub, and randomly pull out slips one by one. 
    • I have an answer sheet with 25 blanks prepared for them. As I pull the slips from the tub, I say "Number 1...Italy." And they find Italy on their map, and write the number or letter for Italy on the first answer space. 
    • This process makes scoring them quick and painless (rather than trying to sort out their chicken-scratch on a map) because I can just scan down their answer sheets quickly.
    • Also, because I actually want students to learn these places on the map, I have set a "floor" that they all have to meet: everyone must get at least 80% on these quizzes. If they don't get 80% of them right, they must retake. And, honestly, this strategy for quizzing them makes the retakes a snap--we just schedule a time for them to come, and I pull another 25 slips. Basically, I can create a different quiz every time, and it's quick and easy to do so.
    This whole approach has been applauded by my students so far. After class today, one student stopped by to say, "I know I didn't do well on this one, because I didn't study enough. I'm planning to review them...when I can I schedule a retake to show that I've learned them?" How great is that? Vested interest in actually learning, and demonstrating learning?

    It might not be an approach that works for every teacher, or for every content area, or for every course. But I wonder what would happen if this sort of assessment for mastery of basic knowledge became the norm. Would students slack off, because they know they can get a re-do? Or would they actually work to learn it on the front end, but if they fall short, know that they will have more opportunities to learn and demonstrate their learning?

    My fellow educators, what do you think? Could you see yourself using this kind of quizzing? Why or why not?


    1. I've had the same pendulum swing myself: I like the definition of servicable knowledge. I like the style of that quiz. The randomness can encourage the hope of some "lucky" pulls as well. Any time you are transparent with the students (80% floor) helps students understand expectations and why they are important.

      have you tried lizardpoint.

    2. I too have ridden the same pendulum! I am finding myself more and more in the mastery camp. I've grown comfortable with having students redo tasks until they get them right, far more than allowing someone with a D grade slide by, when they didn't really understand the material.

      1. Thanks for taking time to comment, Alex. Agreed--I'm just not comfortable with *allowing* students to just get by. Trying to be self-consistent in my philosophy of education here: if I say it's important that students learn it...they have to learn it! And if it isn't actually that important...then maybe I shouldn't pretend that it is...? Challenging, isn't it?

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