Sunday, August 16, 2015

Ditch the Worksheets and Notes and Make Learning More Meaningful to Your Students

For the first few years I taught I KILLED myself grading. My students would complete at least one worksheet during class and they would usually have at least one other assignment and a test or quiz. It was a LOT of work! It was not only a lot of work to grade all of it, but I usually created the assignments myself. (Other than the first year I taught I never used the materials that came with the textbook.) My classes followed a pattern that way too many classes still follow today: introduce a unit, take notes & answer questions out of the book, review the highlights, take a test (usually multiple choice and true/false so I could use the Scantron to grade them) and repeat for the next unit.

During the summer of 2008 I was part of a group of teachers that was responsible for designing online classes for a virtual academy. One of the classes I created was a World History class and the other one was a US History class. The curriculum specialist that worked with us for the first few days introduced us to the work of Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. She walked us through the framework known as Understanding by Design (UbD) and it completely changed how I looked at teaching, learning, and assessment. UbD is often called Backward Design because traditionally we start with content and then design our assessments which are usually multiple choice tests, at the conclusion of the unit of study. The Backward Design begins with the assessment. I love UbD because it is very simple and straightforward. There are only THREE steps!

Step 1
Determine what students should know, understand, and be able to do.

Step 2
Determine how you will know what students know, understand, and can do.

Step 3
Plan lessons and learning experiences.

This is an incredibly simplified explanation but for the purpose of this post it is enough. There are additional resources regarding UbD at the end of this post, but I want to share how I used this process in my classroom.

During that summer while I was designing courses using the Backward Design model something clicked. I began using this method with the classes I taught face-to-face and things just began to make so much more sense to me. I realized that my old routine of reading/notes, answering questions, then testing was not allowing my students to demonstrate their learning. It was during the 2008-2009 school year that I completely stopped using multiple choice tests and exclusively began using performance-based assessment. The days of trying to keep all students on the same page were over and it was so liberating for both myself and my students!

A common frustration I still have when reading blogs is that teachers share great ideas, but they rarely share the steps in the process. This post might end up being very long, but in the end you might walk away with some ideas that will transform your classroom routine.

The classes I taught were 9 weeks long and I taught 4 different classes each year. It didn't matter if I was teaching geography, history, or government, the planning process was still the same. I always started with a calendar and the state standards. One of the first classes I taught face-to-face using Backward Design was a course I developed called Learning Geography Through the National Parks.

I began by examining the Nebraska geography standards:

  • 12.3.1 Students will analyze where and why people, places, and environments are organized on the Earth's surface. 
  • 12.3.2 Students will examine how regions form and change over time. 
  • 12.3.3 Students will interpret how natural processes interact to create the natural environment. 
  • 12.3.4 Students will analyze and interpret patterns of culture around the world. 
  • 12.3.5 Students will evaluate interrelationships between people and the environment. 
  • 12.3.6 Students will analyze issues and events using the geographic knowledge and skills to make informed decisions. 
Since we only had 9 weeks (approximately 18 90-minute classes and a no homework policy) I had to determine which standards were most important. I eliminated standards 12.3.4  and 12.3.6 right away because they did not fit well into what I wanted my students to focus on for that quarter. Using the remaining four standards I came up with a list of what I wanted my students to know, understand, and be able to do. This list included things such as: 
  • Describe how your park was formed. (Each student selected a national park that they focused on for the quarter.) 
  • Describe how climate impacts the flora and fauna in your park.
  • Explain how erosion, humans, and natural forces such as earthquakes, tornadoes, etc. impact your park. 
Each student set up a Google Site to act as their workspace for the quarter. I created a template for them to use that included a page for each of the standards. Each of those pages included a list of performance indicators such as the ones listed above. (There were a few more, but I only included three for demonstration purposes.) Students had the option of which section they wanted to work on. During class I circulated around the room and made sure they were not stuck and that they were actually making progress. Students would let me know when they completed a section and were ready for me to grade it. In addition to giving them a rubric for each component,  I provided them with constant feedback so they knew exactly how they were doing on each step. I would also let them know if they needed to spend a little extra time outside of class or if they were right where they needed to be. Since everything was done inside of Google it was easy to provide private, written feedback as well as verbal feedback during class. 

Students used resources on the web to find the information they need to answer the questions. They were required to evaluate each site using a form much like this one. Their websites looked very much like an Wikipedia page because they contained facts, images, and references. Once they completed all of the pages they used Google Earth to create a narrated virtual tour of their park that included at least a dozen points of interest. During the last couple days of class the students presented their websites and tours to the class. 

There was no final exam or other tests. The websites and tours were the assessment! Through synthesizing and creating my students demonstrated their knowledge, understanding, and skills. Moving to this type of learning not only was much easier for me, it was much more engaging for my students. They were provided with the opportunity to make choices along the way and I was able to provide support for students when they needed it. 

I was in the classroom five more years after I learned about UbD. As I became more comfortable with technology I allowed my students to make even more choices, especially when it came to how they would demonstrate their learning. Instead of being stressed out about my students being all over the place I embraced it. I was also more confident that the letter grades students were more accurate because they reflected what the students were capable of doing. Students were not held to due dates because they were working on different things. You might be thinking that if there were no due dates then students would just mess around during class. There were a few students who never did much, but that would be the case no matter what. The overwhelming majority enjoyed the challenge of finding information on their own.

The focus was on learning, not grades. They were actively engaged in their learning and they were not the least bit concerned about tinkering with their cell phones. I cannot tell you how satisfying it was when students were upset when class ended each day because they wanted to keep working! No matter what subject you teach I highly recommend redesigning your classes using Backward Design. It will take a little bit of getting used to, but it will be worth it! The links below have more information as well as some very useful templates to help you get started. 

Additional Resources

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