The Hidden Message

I had an interesting conversation with our pre-service teacher this morning concerning a make up quiz she had given to her chemistry class. In short, the learner used "ammonia" for her answer to the prompt "NH3." In chemistry, this is perfectly acceptable as "ammonia" is used regularly, even though it is a common term for a substance. It is widely recognized and the learner demonstrated her knowledge.

The teacher was not planning on giving credit for the answer because it "was a lucky guess." I asked this teacher if she gave instructions not to use common names or other synonyms, and she said no. This, of course, led to a discussion about what we're really trying to assess in classes.

Are we asking kids to take in and repeat a specific response? Or are we asking kids to demonstrate their knowledge? If we are pushing for freedom in learning, there should there be freedom in demonstration. Changes in a system cannot be isolated from one another. We cannot expect kids to think freely and creatively when learning the content and then try to stifle the creativity or independent thinking when it comes to assessment.

I don't know if she'll take my advice or even think about what I was trying to get across. Everything we do sends a message to learners, parents, and other teachers. Think about the message you are sending in everything you do and continue to work hard for a better system.

7 thoughts on “The Hidden Message

  1. Chris Keipert says:

    Forgive the simple, silly question, but what was the answer she was looking for? I’ve never heard NH3 referred to as anything other than ammonia.

  2. Kristen Beck says:


    I love this post, I am working on a similar one based on discussions I am having with my math department. I am so frustrated and I am defying my department when my students clearly show advanced understanding even though they did not follow the meaningless algebraic way to solve the problem!!

    Keep up the good modeling for the new teachers and asking the tough questions!

  3. Marc Seigel says:

    I actually just posted a similar experience, but it was I who was making the mistake. Have been studying naming and forming compounds. All along students are completing HW and review sheets with their ion sheets. Then I give them a test where they can’t use the sheets. Even though all along I told them they have to memorize the ions, many didn’t or had trouble doing it. The average test score was in the 60s. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong because I gave them plenty of time to learn and practice the material with my guidance so the test should have been easy. Then I realized the test wasn’t measuring ability to name compounds, it was measuring ability to memorize 53 ions. I gave them an additional assessment using their ions sheet and most of them aced it.

    In the end, I violated my own rule: If you can just Google the answer, it is not a good assessment. This experience is making me rethink my upcoming assignments.

  4. John Sowash says:

    Based on the fact that specific instructions regarding the format of the answer I would agree with what you told the teacher. However, I do believe that generally it is appropriate for teachers to expect a higher level of ademic response from a student on an assessment. For example I would not accept texting language in a short answer question or essay. Ultimately it does come down to the expectations that we communicate to our students. I would advocate that these expectations should be as high as possible.

    • Brian Bennett says:

      I agree as well, especially on the written responses. This teacher does have high expectations for her kids, and I commended her for that, but we need to make sure we are clearly communicating what those are. Implied expectations, whether explicit or not, can lead to confrontation and unexpected results.

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