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I’ve had three chances now to assess my students’ eportfolios for letter grades, and I love ‘em. Portfolios and students, that is, not grades. Yes, my school still requires letter grades each quarter, but I hope that someday these sorts of learning portfolios that we are building can be shared without having to be cheapened by labeling them with a simple letter rating. A good portfolio can stand on its own and doesn’t need somebody like me to point out whether it is awesome or not. In fact, in my perfect future world each kid who applies for college or a job fills in their application (most are online by now) and pastes in a link to their portfolio. Colleges and employers can click to see what sort of person they are getting, complete with writing samples, content-area knowledge, evidence of skills gained and so on. No more silly essay questions and no more inflated resumés full of made up extracurricular activities, just a real record of what the student actually accomplished in school. Yes, I know they will take time to read, believe me, but you are about to create your future student body or workforce. Don’t you want to know what they’re capable of?

Vision of a grade-less future aside, here are some reasons why I’ll keep using online portfolios at least into next year:

1. The portfolio fills the gap in evidence for Standard 8: Self-reflection

Ever since I started using standards-based assessment, I’ve used 9 major standards as the backbone of all my classes. One of the nine (insert Lord of the Rings reference here) is content-specific knowledge, four are science process skills, two are communication/tech/21stC skills, and two are the touchy-feely standards of self-reflection and contribution to the learning community.

Before the portfolios were implemented, students managed to produce a wide variety of evidence for the community standard (successful group projects, blog comments from within and beyond the school, stats on page views for certain blog posts) but had a rough time performing self-reflection. Sure, a few people got it and wrote long, involved blog posts about what they did best and what they would change about their work habits, but most students were flummoxed by the idea of writing what seemed to them a fake-sounding, possibly brown-nosing post full of what the teacher wanted in a “reflection.”

With the eportfolio, though, self-reflection and analysis of one’s work are built into the system. Students are given a blank Google Sites template for the portfolio at the beginning of the year and are asked to select the evidence of learning that goes on each page. They not only have to include links to relevant blogposts or other artifacts that they have created, but they also need to justify to the portfolio reviewers why they feel that a particular artifact meets the goal of that particular section of the portfolio. So on each portfolio page, if done well, there exist links to student products and the students’ rationale for why they believe that those artifacts demonstrate that they have mastered a particular standard. Win! There’s even an entire page of the portfolio devoted to the self-reflection standard so that students can’t miss the fact that it’s a major skill that I want them to practice. That page gets used differently from student to student, but some of the most impressive ones I’ve seen have a running dialog with themselves from quarter to quarter about how the portfolio is shaping up.
For example:

sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

another sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

2. The portfolio streamlines the demonstration of evidence of learning in a standards-based course

Instead of poking through blog posts on a student blog, which are organized by whenever the student decided to sit down and create them, the portfolio allows the reviewer(s) to see at a glance which major topic and skill standards have been addressed by each student. Don’t misunderstand me, the blogs are a vital piece of communication between the student and I as they are learning, but when the quarter or semester grade rolls around and I need to switch to judge mode, it’s a lot easier for me to do SBG with the portfolio than it was with a student blog by itself.

3. The portfolio can be an amazing record of progress towards specific goals.

As mentioned above, I use only 9 major standards for the whole year for each class. You can bet we have repeat attempts to demonstrate each one, that’s kinda the point of choosing only the 9 really important things that I want kids to be able to do. In the example Standard 8 pages above, you can see that this plays out in the portfolio on individual portfolio pages where students have retained their discussion of that standard from previous quarters and so can refer back to what they previously said or thought.

So, yes, I will keep using the portfolios. They aren’t all perfect and there are, of course, varying levels of student commitment to the idea. But, for not a lot of extra work, students leave each of my courses with a record of what they really did to earn that lovely letter on their transcript. I can only hope that someday someone important in their life will find their portfolio more useful than that lovely letter.

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kazoo testing

What do you do with a physics class full of bright, independent, high school kids? Well of course you march through the physics textbook so they can learn how to plug and chug all the right equations turn the class over to them so they can do the experiments that they want to do. At least that’s the way I thought we’d try it this year in my admittedly experimental foray into teaching a full-year physics course again. We had an awesome first semester, with lots of small student groups that self-organized around a number of major projects such as the trebuchet, hovercraft, hot air balloon, potato “accelerator,” wind tunnel, Road Runner/Coyote video analysis, and multi-stage rocket (and Barbie launcher) design. We capped off the semester with a traveling physics hover-tree built by the students that was decorated with mementos of all their projects for the year so far and lit with whatever light bulbs we could find, including a car head light.

hover-tree
The tree was quite the conversation piece once we parked it in our school’s common area/cafeteria, but more importantly it let the whole school community get a glimpse of what the students had been up to in our physics “workshop.”

On the first day back from Christmas break, with the hover-tree mysteriously removed back to our workshop, I challenged the physics kids to make a switch for the new semester. I explained, and they agreed, that the first semester had been “about us.” We had done all the fun, dangerous, and occasionally goofy projects that were at the top of our to-do lists, or in some cases our as-seen-on-You-Tube lists. It was time now, I said, to change the focus to become “about them” (insert image of me pointing outside the classroom) meaning that we should take on projects that would be either educational for younger students or benefit the entire community in some way.

And so Physics Day was born. Physics Day will be happening on March 31st from 10:00 to noon in our gym and the nearby parking lot. We’re going to demonstrate the trebuchet, rockets, potato accelerator, and the hovercraft. Inside the gym we’ll have several stations with hands-on experiments such as wind tunnel testing of objects, slime creation, electromagnet building, an alternative energy showcase, and maybe our Rube Goldberg machine if we get it done in time. We plan to distribute promotional fliers around town, especially to students at our Intermediate and Jr/Sr High schools. We’ll publicize it in our local paper, too, as the day gets closer so that all the great folks at the local hardware stores can come see what all their lumber and pipe get used for.

Student designed, planned, and performed. Completely. I can’t wait to see what sort of turnout we get. I can’t wait to see how the trebuchet team manages to move the trebuchet halfway across the school grounds. I can’t wait to see if we can inspire students to enjoy science again.

P.S. —The student brains behind the trebuchet are at work on a plan to provide free Internet access to students at home throughout town by bouncing the school’s WiFi signal off of some strategically placed reflectors. This may be the “about them” message taken to the extreme, but if we pull it off, it’s going to be a big deal for the whole town. I’ll share more on that as it progresses past the ugliness of setting up the backend RADIUS server.

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One of the major changes that I made this year was to switch to using individual student blogs as the centerpiece of student assessment (the other major change was to implement standards-based grading). I started using student blogs for a number of reasons including:

  1. I was tired of grading worksheets with the same copied answers on them.
  2. I realized that these worksheets weren’t always helpful in learning content, and in fact, much of the time they got in the way of learning.
  3. Student in my classes have access to a MacBook cart whenever they are in my classroom and we have fantastically dependable wireless internet connectivity for these laptops (yay tech support!).
  4. Blogging platforms like Blogger and WordPress are free.
  5. I’m increasingly wary of multiple choice anything as real assessment and wanted students to write more.
  6. I wanted students to have a permanent, online record of their achievement throughout the year, not some pile of papers shoved in a binder (or trash can).
  7. I wanted students to have an audience for their work that would include each other, their families, the community, and the world.

With all these highfalutin ideals in mind, we launched our blogs at the beginning of this school year, with some fear and trembling.  Very few students had done any blogging before, although a couple had existing blogs from their English classes. The first challenge was to get everyone signed on to one of the blogging services. Most students chose Blogger, probably because we thought that that would be easier initially since we all had Google accounts. The only problem was that, at that time, at least, Google Apps accounts like my students had did not work with Blogger very well. Students ended up having to create their own Google accounts just so they could use Blogger. This wasn’t a big deal, just not as smooth as if Blogger were integrated into Google Apps.

So how did we use the blogs? They became the go-to location to post assignments for me to read and grade. For a week or two, though, I operated a lot like I did last year, posting assignments on Edmodo and using its great assignment features to have students turn things in online, as well as posting them to their blogs. I realized that this was a duplication of effort and soon instead of sending out “assignments” in Edmodo, I just sent files and links as “notes.” This meant that these resources no longer came with a due date and that I was not using Edmodo to see who turned in which assignments.

Instead, I figured out how to work Google Reader to monitor my students’ blogs. After subscribing to each students RSS or Atom feed, I organized all of their feeds into folders in Google Reader:

Reader allowed me to keep track of when students published new posts and to quickly find a particular student’s blog if we wanted to discuss something that they had posted. We still used Edmodo extensively for communication, just not for assessment. For example, if students made changes to their blogs, the changes would not always be highlighted in Reader so I asked students to message me on Edmodo if they made changes to a blog post that I had commented on already.

Speaking of comments, I did not personally comment directly on each student blog post. I figured that other readers of their blogs could do that. Instead, I gave feedback about each post as part of the student’s gradesheet entry. Some comments were pretty general (nice job! or something similarly lame) but I got better (I think) at commenting and left specific advice for ways to change the posts to better meet the standards.

One criticism that I’ve heard about my grading system is that it doesn’t spell out for students exactly what they need to do to meet a standard. I think that would be a concern, except for the fact that I tried to provide constructive comments on most everything students did and I let them respond to the comments by fixing their posts for a higher grade. Students did have to make the first effort at a blog post to try to show what they have learned about a particular topic or skill. I worked with them from there to improve their understanding by providing comments and discussing their posts with them. I had a number of students say that this was their favorite part of my class this year: the fact that they could try out a post, get some feedback, and go back and fix it as needed.

What did students blog about? Everything, really. Most of it was even related to the class ; )   As students and I discussed topics or performed labs in class, those topics and labs found their way in some form into students’ blogs. Some posts were simple text-based blog posts but at other times, students used a variety of web2.0 tools to put “learning artifacts” on their blogs. These learning artifacts included the use of Prezi, Glogster, Quizlet, Google Docs, Photobucket, DomoNation, Xtranormal, bubbl.us, and other tools.

If you’ve viewed the example posts linked above, you may have noticed that different students used different tools to discuss the same topic. That’s because I did not require that a particular tool be used with each assignment. Students were free to use the tool that they thought would work best for that particular post. If you are interested in exploring the wide range of content and quality that was produced this year, here are the links to all the student blogs.

Here are some of the awesome things about student blogging, in my experience:

Variety

Since students used many different tools to create artifacts for their blogs, I was never bored grading their posts, and in fact, was usually incredibly entertained and impressed by what students can create given the freedom to do so.

Portfolios of learning

The blogs became a record of student achievement that we can look back on for proof of learning. Along with their color-coded gradesheet, a student’s blog is a powerful indicator of the level of understanding for any given topic or skill that we learned throughout the year.

Wide audience of readers

Many people ended up looking at the students’ blogs, not just me. For example, parent conferences will never be the same again, since it was so easy to pull up a student’s blog in order to view and discuss the student’s level of performance. Parents have access to the entire list of student blogs, too, so it was easy at conferences to point parents there if they wanted to compare how their student was doing to how others were. The kid who has three blog posts starts squirming in conferences when their parents see other students blogs that have 10 or more posts.

Student blogs were also publicized via Twitter or my blog, which led some traffic their way. At least one student and future teacher made lots of connections with the edublogging community this year.

Resources for each other

Not all students learn at the same rate or in the same way. This is one of those things about teaching that is easy to say, but hard to do something about. However, the blogs let kids work at their own speed and with tools of their own choosing.  Inevitably, some student posts were finished before others and became learning tools for those students who were behind the rest of the class. Towards the end of the year, when they were a bit more mature in the whole process, some students even started giving credit for their peers’ work that helped them write their own posts. It was very cool to see them learning from each other via the blogs.

There were some challenges along the way, of course, as we tried blogging our way through the year:

Blog writing is time intensive

If you want students to do a good job writing their own blogs, be prepared to give them plenty of class time to write, revise, and experiment with new tools.  Every year it seems I get to discuss less and less content with students, but this year saw a big jump in the time I had to allow students to have workdays on the computer so that they could stay current with their blogs. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it will force me to look very carefully at what I have planned for next year’s classes.

Fair access to blogs

Part of the reason for spending time blogging in class is concern over the issue of fair access to the Internet in order to complete the blogging activities. Many students do not have easy computer access at home, although some do. I wanted to try to rule out any unfair advantage that students might have over others, but was only partly successful.  Of course a kid with his own computer and Internet access is going to have more chances to blog and make amazing products than another kid who has to rely on computer access during the 50 minutes I see them in class. I’m not sure that’s a reason, though, to not blog. Its more of a reason to agitate for more equitable Internet access in my community.

The Mac blogging platform is not as useful

There were some students, fortunately few in number, that for one reason or another, kept forgetting their Blogger account passwords and would get locked out of the system. For these few (maybe 5 students in all my classes) I set them up with blog accounts through our local MacServer. That let them use the same password as they used to log on to their laptop, but the advantages stopped there. We found that with the Mac-hosted blogs, there was no separate publish option, so as soon as a kid saved their blog, finished or not, it posted to my Reader. Also, we never figured out how to allow embedding within the Mac blogs so those students had to post simple hypertext links to the artifacts that they created rather than having them appear right in the blog page.

Plagiarism

There was some plagiarism of blog posts, but it was usually incredibly easy to detect. The most obvious ones occurred when students simply lifted another student’s blog post and pasted it in as their own. I had one student, famous among teachers at our school for this sort of behavior, try this stunt about 5 times in a row trying to meet one particular standard. I simply refused to put any grade in her gradesheet until I was convinced it was her own work. Google searches and Plagium worked great for me in providing evidence that someone had copied material from a source or another student blog. I probably didn’t catch everything, and might jump in with our English teachers and somehow use Turnitin with the blogs to try to avoid problems next year.

Are blogs a rigorous assessment strategy?

One of the concerns that I had during the year was whether or not the new blogging paradigm is rigorous enough compared to the old model of lecture-worksheet-quiz-test-rinse-lather-repeat. This is a concern, of course, since I almost completely abandoned the traditional testing that I used to do (my Moodle site was very lonely this year).  Could I tell whether students were learning? Aren’t they just goofing around with web tools and having fun instead of suffering through the lectures that they need?

It was this article (via @mrsebiology) that convinced me that blogging can be just a rigorous as the tests that I used to give:

Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous,
provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.

Blogging in many ways is an incredibly difficult task for students. Not only do they have to research background information about a topic, they have to synthesize a variety of ideas together in a coherent piece of writing or media. They encounter interesting ideas about the course content and write about how these concepts effect their lives and society in general. In many ways, that’s much more rigorous than any test I could give about stuff that I lectured on.

The worksheet is dead. Long live the blog.

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Ever have one of those moments where something so cool happens that it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Maybe its hearing an awesome piece of music or viewing an amazing piece of art. For me, this happened the other day in class while talking with students. I’m sure some of my fellow teachers have had this happen too, where you really connect with one or more students and you can tell with absolute certainty that they get whatever it is you are trying to teach them.

There I was, talking with biology students about some of the work we’ll be doing over the next couple weeks as we wind down the school year.  I mentioned that I thought it would be fun for some of them to make “advice” videos to students who will take my classes next year, sort of a how-to-survive-Ludwig’s-classes sort of thing. I mentioned that it might be helpful to include their take on standards based grading and the blogging we’ve been doing all year. That’s when the hair-raising moment happened. Students began to testify about how much they like standards-based grading. I wish I’d have had a video camera rolling, we would have been done with our project right then and there. Several spoke to how they liked knowing exactly what they needed to do and know in the class. Some spoke to how they liked the flexibility to do different things to meet the standards, not just the same project as everyone else. I wish I would have written it all down for you (and me). But mostly I remember just standing there in the midst of my students, neck prickling, and all I could say was “Yep. That’s how its supposed to work.” I suppose I was smiling at them too.

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This week I was invited to write a guest blog for Edutopia on the #edchat discussion of 1:1 laptop programs and their impact on learning.  The Edutopia blog can be found at  http://www.edutopia.org/1-to-1-laptop-programs-edchat-chris-ludwig but it also appears here:

AP Biology students with their MacBooks

I usually join the 5:00MST #edchat on Twitter but this past Tuesday (January 19th) my colleague @boundstaffpress (Justin Miller) mentioned that I should tune in to the early version of #edchat.  The topic, laptops in the classroom, was one that I follow carefully since I run a science classroom with MacBooks for each student. So I multitasked while teaching and joined some of the #edchat discussion of whether 1:1 laptop programs are the future of education and exactly how such programs are changing education.

One of the main questions at the beginning of #edchat was related to which types of hardware do schools choose and whether students get to take it home:

@RonnieGonzalez Does every student need a laptop to take home or just desktop in their class? Instead of labs, every classroom with a thin client

Many hardware choices exist but for my classroom I chose to use MacBooks. These laptops are powerful enough to do most any task that desktops can do but students could use them in my room at their desks without having to travel to a computer lab.    Students use my class set of MacBooks at school but not at home, although I have checked them out for special projects. Each student does have the ability to personalize their laptop experience, however, and they refer to them as “their” laptops.

Another of the major #edchat concerns was about student misuse:

@seanbanville Big danger is students chatting, surfing, gaming, etc instead of studying.

@lhiltbr Classroom management is also a huge piece. Make sure students know expected routines/procedures/uses of the tools.

I had these concerns, too, when I first started envisioning how they would be used in class. Therefore, since the laptops were new to the students this school year, I started each class off in August with a Technology Boot Camp in which we discussed some basics about the laptops themselves but also began a conversation about what kind of class we wanted to have now that everyone had a laptop.

Students do use the computers for a variety of tasks, most of which, but not all, are directly related to classroom learning tasks. I have no problem with students checking their English class Ning or reading articles in Forbes as long as they are on track with my content. I know that they are on these sites because I use Apple’s Remote Desktop to monitor student use of the laptops.  I can lock all screens if uninterrupted discussion is necessary or chat privately with a student who is off–task or needs help with an assignment.

Probably the biggest area of concern on #edchat was how 1:1 laptops in class would change the role of the teacher and whether teachers could handle the change:

@cybraryman Laptops are wonderful but teacher needs to know how to incorporate the tech & when and how to use it first.

@evmaiden Teachers won’t be replaced by technology but teachers who don’t use tech will be replaced by teachers who do

My style of teaching and assessment of students has changed dramatically now that everyone has a laptop in class.  For example, I now use Edmodo to share assignment files and information with students.  This extends my contact time with students who ask questions and turn in assignments anytime or anywhere because my courses are now effectively online.  Assessment of students can be altered, too, since it is possible to deliver flexible student assessments online using my Moodle site. And, most importantly, each student now has the tools to create digital content that shows their level of understanding of a topic.

A class set of laptops has definitely changed how my classes operate. The most exciting change is the spontaneity and interactivity that laptops bring to classroom discussions. I still lecture at times but students now have instant access to information besides what I offer so if a student finds a relevant example from a reading or video then they can share that with the whole class. Not only that, but students that I have taught in past years who never took notes during lectures are now consistently taking notes using their laptops.

In summary, I think that students with laptops in class are more likely to contribute to class discussions and are able to engage course content in more meaningful ways. So even though schools like mine aren’t yet true 1:1, even a class set of laptops can lead to a major shift in the way students learn.

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