The Greatest Struggle

I went to Kentucky this weekend to visit my parents. It was a great weekend and I'm glad I was able to spend some time away from thinking about teaching or grading. We all need refreshers...make sure you take them periodically.

When I returned home Sunday afternoon, I had a stack of exams waiting to be graded. We have just finished a chapter on biomolecules (proteins, carbs, lipids, etc) and I gave a test to check their understanding. Typically, I give a few multiple choice as a quick check over some basic content, but the rest of the test is written, applied knowledge that asks for reasoning and defense. The questions are open-ended and allow for varied responses based on their interests and personal growth.

These tests had more blanks in responses that I have ever seen. Needless to say, I was pretty frustrated with the results. I finished the grading, threw the number at the top of the page, and put them away. Where had I gone wrong? They got it in class when we played games or discussed...why the disconnect?


Fast forward to Monday morning. I saw this tweet from Stacy Roshan when I got to school:

[blackbirdpie url="!/buddyxo/status/131003006673108992"]

I love the RSA Animate video of Sir Ken Robinson's talk. I watched it earlier this year, but I went back and watched it again. My problem is that I'm continuing to teach and assess in linear fashions. I have missed the inherent genetics of learning.

Learning is not linear. Learning is not prescribed. Learning cannot be pigeonholed into separate chunks of discrete knowledge that are measured by tests alone.

Learning is dirty. Learning is exciting. Learning should be personalized, varied, and integrated.

The greatest struggle I have is changing my own teaching paradigm, not getting kids to write on a test. I try to challenge myself to think outside of my box of training, but I still struggle to actually work outside the box. We are doing a disservice to learners by continuing to test and use those scores as gauges of their learning. My kids didn't fill out my test because it was didn't ask for relevance and it certainly didn't give any chance for creativity.

Do they get a free pass on this one? No. I need to correct my mistakes, but learners also need to recognize the fact that leaving a blank does not help the situation. We'll spend some time remediating and then move forward.

So, how do we reconcile the dichotomy? I have no idea. I am still responsible for preparing them for the state exam in May...but, I am not going to worry so much about the single exams. It is a struggle and it is the reality of education today. But if we give up and give in, then we're not helping anybody in the long run.

3 thoughts on “The Greatest Struggle

  1. I always appreciate your candor and reflections. Earlier in the year you had the perfect advice for me as I wrestled with the implementation of ePortfolios which are now going very well.

    Just last week I learned to make a Prezi–it’s free for students and teachers. It’s a lot of fun. You could tell students that you were surprised at how many didn’t complete the questions since you saw evidence of knowledge prior to the test. Then you could perhaps have them work in teams to make prezis, then present the prezis to the class. Just a thought. Best of luck as you move through this school challenge (we all face them regularly).

  2. Lauren says:

    Great thoughts here Brian – thanks for sharing. I especially love your point about working outside the box vs. thinking outside the box … that got me thinking for sure.

  3. Hi Brian,

    It looks like you’ve already figured this out, but I wanted to give you one more person telling you to hang in there. It isn’t easy having high expectations for students, particularly when you are asking them to do more than regurgitate information on a test and really think. That’s what good questions are all about.

    The only suggestion I have for why this may have happened is not that they weren’t willing to think. Good thinking, and more specifically, sharing the results of good thinking, is something that needs to be modeled. It isn’t an easy skill for most adults, let alone students that may not have had someone pushing them in the ways that you undoubtedly are. For some students, the first time they struggle alone is on a test, and that clearly is far too late to have them figure out for themselves that they need help. This has also been my battle lately – finding the balance between the amazing learning opportunities that happen when students are working together and making sure that, individually, students are developing the skills I want them to develop. This doesn’t speak to the weaknesses of the tests we give, but rather to the importance of assessing individual learning in many ways.

    I encourage you to share the work of the learners that did answer the questions with the class, anonymously if that makes it easier. I did this once after being disappointed about the results of a body systems quiz and was really impressed with the discussions that came afterward – see this link: . Some students that didn’t give great responses saw what their peers had done, showed that they could distinguish one answer from a better one, and had a better idea of what a good open ended question answer looks like. As much as we don’t like grading because it pigeonholes students, letting them do it themselves can be a good experience for them to be able to talk about why one answer explains more clearly than another.

    This is an opportunity to work with your class and show what happens when things don’t go the way you want. Those students that decided not to answer had reasons – this is a chance to get them to talk to you about it.

    Good luck!


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