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Assessment within an Emergent Curriculum

August 19, 2011

This year, as has been the case other times, I won’t know exactly everything about how students are going to be assessed in one of my courses. There are multiple reasons for this:

(1) On the first day of class, students will help decide how their notebooks will be assessed based on on activity where we examine several scientists notebooks and try to reach some consensus about what the purpose of notebooks are and what should be included in one. From this, I will draft a rubric for which students will have to self-assess by pointing me to various points of their notebook that show evidence for standards and criteria that are set. While I have ideas that will contribute that will almost certainly make it the rubric, there are certain criteria that are bound to emerge to be particular to this class. Students will assess their notebooks three times during the semester. I’ll use these rubrics, in addition to examining their notebooks for completeness, in order to provide “grades” for this part of the course.

(2) Students are also accountable to the people and knowledge that is developed and made public within our class–including investigations carried out by other student research groups, various models of physical phenomena as they develop–including the ones that are proposed and later discarded, evidence we collect, arguments we construct, and foothold ideas we establish along the way. Of course, a lot of this will be very closely aligned with canonical scientific understandings; but they will also be embedded in our specific classroom discourse, the particular investigations we carryout, and the arguments we construct. I know that we will make contact with ideas such as “light travels in straight lines”, “light goes out in all directions”, and rules about how light interacts at various surfaces, but I’m not just assessing them on whether or not just “know” and “understand” these rules. I am assessing them on their ability to make claims, to explain and construct arguments, and to do so in ways that are accountable not only to this knowledge, but to the ways in which our class has come to know and understand them and to talk about them. While there are specific criteria explained to the students for what it means to be accountable to knowledge and the communities that generate them, the conceptual substance of the knowledge for which they will be held emerges within the curriculum rather being imposed at the start.

(3) Participation is a part of the grade for this course, but not in an attendance sort of way. They are assessed on their participation in the community–as a participant who contributes to the development of knowledge and the activities which serve to generate it. In the class, students work both as part of a “research group” and “writing group” to which they are accountable for making contributions both as developers and critics. Students also play a role in sharing work from their research groups to the whole class. As with the notebooks, students have to self-assess and submit to me evidence of their contributions to the knowledge community. Of course, students are not expected to participate the very same way. The self-assessment rubric allows students to participate differently, but it still must be significant and substantive. One of the biggest part of the self-assessment is them telling where they could improve their participation. Once again, there are specific criteria I share with students and ask them to provide evidence, but what exactly it looks like to be a contributing member within a community varies from person to person and from class to class, just as it does from community to community within science.

It sounds like there is a lot of ambiguity. I think there is and there isn’t. So I have decided this. The goal I have for myself, during and after this semester, is to work on better articulating each part of the course such that I might be able to create more specific learning standards. The nature of the course makes some of this difficult, but I think it will still worth it in the long run.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist permalink
    August 20, 2011 12:12 am

    Brian, what course is this for and what is the audience? It sounds right up the ally of my colleagues (and I) who teach non-science-majors courses (yes, we actually have a course called “Physics for Poets” in our bulletin – blah). I’m really impressed with all 3 of your points. In the past what sort of buy-in have you gotten from (1)? What do your (new) colleagues think of this approach?

    • August 20, 2011 2:05 am

      It’s the second required physical science course that both K-4 and 4-8 teachers need to take. The first course is mile-wide-inch-deep, is lecture based, and is for general education. I am teaching the second course, which is integrated lab-lecture for future teachers only. It also seems, in the past, to have covered lots of content and the same content at that. I have been given the green light from my chair to do what I think makes sense, so I am running with it. I have been dropping hints here and there, saying things like, “Oh yeah, we’ll spend 4-5 weeks on light, and then another 4-5 weeks on color,” but I haven’t gotten to say much about it beyond that. We’ll see.

      I haven’t never done (1) exactly, with the notebooks, but I have gotten deep engagement from students with looking over scientist’s notebooks and discussing them. What I have done in the past– I have had students involved in explicitly negotiating the boundaries of what we had learned as a class and what I could hold each of us accountable for knowing and understanding. I have gotten big buy-in with this, but it comes with lots of trust in me. I have to not only know the physics best, but I have to know best the “history” and the “physics” or our knowledge community in ways that allow me to judge the degree to which students are holding themselves accountable to it. I fee like I have to constantly prove my worthiness as judge by remembering every contribution in detail and being on top of my game at understanding the ideas people are trying to express.

  2. August 20, 2011 6:06 pm

    I really like the idea of involving students in the process of developing rubrics that they will be assessed on. Do you give them the notebooks and turn them loose in a pure inquiry, or do you give them any sort of guidance – specific things to look for, topics, categories, etc.? Also, Do you find that your own ideas about what should be assessed filter what you accept from student responses?

    I see (2) and (3) as great examples of what I want to do more of in my own class, and should also be emphasized more in all levels of science classes (especially K-12). I am really impressed by your emphasis of community building within your own class, and I look forward to hearing more about how you work to accomplish these goals.

    • August 22, 2011 1:15 pm

      Hey Jason, Mylene has a link to the the lesson I will be closely following. It includes the notebooks and a run down of how the lesson is structured. The basic lesson has three parts: “What do you notice?”, “What is the purpose of lab notebooks?”, “What should be in our lab notebooks?”

  3. August 22, 2011 12:30 am

    Hi Brian, I’m considering doing something similar to #1 with design logs (similar enough to science notebooks that I suspect the criteria are comparable). Where do you get your example notebooks, and would you be willing to share? In case you haven’t seen these, here are some I’ve used or am planning to use: Leslie Atkins has published a great resource with her lesson as well as example notebooks, and this TED talk is of George Dyson narrating the history of the computer.

    This last is a great resource because he gives a guided tour through the design and troubleshooting logs of the computer that was used by the Manhattan Project (intro at 4:00, original documents from 8:00 to 12:00 or so). My students appreciate the frustration, humour, and “thinking out loud” that shows up in the logs. I suspect that one of the things that holds back their lab notebooks is the assumption that they require a stilted, over-corrected, pretentious style (maybe because they’re confusing the notebook with the lab report; maybe because they know the difference but are trying to reduce their workload by writing the report in a single draft in their lab notebook; maybe because the expectation that tradespeople should write up cookbook labs as if they will be published in academic journals is so insulting that it actually kills brain cells), and that “everyday” language is not good enough for the hallowed halls of the notebook because these are scientific facts and if you get them wrong you will be struck by lightening. Argh.

    “I am assessing them on their ability to make claims, to explain and construct arguments, and to do so in ways that are accountable not only to this knowledge, but to the ways in which our class has come to know and understand them and to talk about them. ” Wow. I’d love to do more of this — it sounds like you’re evaluating logic and epistemology. What criteria will you use? Have you set up a rubric yet? Hope you’ll keep sharing.

    • August 22, 2011 1:12 pm

      Hey Mylene, I am actually using the basic format of Leslie’s notebook lesson. I have also in the past collected copies of scientists notebooks from the local university. This time, I’ll do a combo of both. It makes it have a personal feel when some of the notebooks are from scientists who are just down the hall or across the quad.

      I watched the TED talk– it’s great. Lots of great examples to debunk the myth of de-personalized log/lab book.

      In the class, students have to write a lot. So for assessment, the BIG focus in the beginning is on “clarity” in writing–can I understand what the ideas you are trying to express? This of course, includes punctuation, grammar, use of paragraphs, and transition sentences. From there, we move to “consistency”–given I can understand most of the ideas presented, do the ideas seem to fit together? Still later on, we move toward making sure that our explanations are “seamless”, meaning that the story has no gaps, and “coherent”, which is where I hold them accountable to established results and ideas from class. It’s a gradual process of getting them feedback. It’s really all about consistency–consistency with your own thoughts, consistency among your own thoughts, and finally consistency with established thoughts of community. I give lots of written feedback; gradewise, every assignment is “rejected outright”, “accepted with revisions”, or “accepted in full”.


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