Wednesday, 11 January 2012

"Student demonstrates effective use of sparkles"

Boston Public Garden "Ducks in A Row"
Flickr Creative Commons License
When I was in school, I would have washed the teacher's car and painted the classroom red if I thought that these activities would result in "bonus marks."  Seriously.  I was the kid at the back of the room who didn't say a word in class but would create a life-sized replica of the Titanic if a teacher told me that it was "for marks."  I never questioned the validity of an assignment.  As a result, I loved receiving long lists of assignment criteria and opportunities to earn "bonus marks" when I turned a poster board into a work of art.

(Sidenote: I'm not that kid anymore.  I use milk a day after its expiry date.  I later and rinse my shampoo, but I don't repeat the procedure.  Also, I have been known to return library books past the due date if I haven't finished reading.  I'm a rebel disguised as a Reitmans-chic high school teacher.)

When I began teaching, I would establish very specific criteria regarding "presentation" as well as content.  I would have described my strict expectations as "clear criteria" but I now believe that I was assessing my students' willingness and ability to follow directions rather than their understanding of course concepts.  It is embarrassing to think that, if a student questioned why he was instructed to use pencil crayons ONLY to create the required images on his poster, my response was probably, "Because it will look nice when I hang them up together."

My thoughts about assessment have changed over the years and, when I begin to envision an assignment, I now ask myself, "Am I assessing learning outcomes or compliance?"

Now that I focus assessment strategies on learning outcomes, not "points" and compliance, I find that my students are a bit suspicious at the beginning of the school year.  In each class, as we discuss their first projects, I repeatedly assure my students that they can present their learning in any format as long as the information presented meets the criteria we have discussed.  We review the objectives of the assignment in detail and students have a clear understanding of my expectations regarding content.  Yet, after giving many examples of ways that students can present their learning, I inevitably hear:

"If I do a Powerpoint, how many slides does it need to have?"
"If I make a poster, how big should the paper be?"
"How many pictures does it need to have?"
"What should my title be?"
"Should I put my name on the front or the back?"
"Is it ok if I don't draw anything?  I can't draw!"
"Will I get extra marks if I put sparkles on it?"

While I answer each question and assure students that their ideas are great, I often feel frustrated by these questions.  For a while, I couldn't understand why my students were so obsessed with inventing criteria for "presentation" when I had clearly explained the assignment outcomes and given them the freedom present their learning in any format.  I began to realize that many students react with suspicion because they are accustomed to receiving specific directions about presentation and receiving marks associated with the presentation goals.  They want to be told how to "please" me and are under the impression that they must have a list of presentation criteria to do so.  As much as I love sparkles (and I really do) I have yet to see "Student demonstrates effective use of sparkles" on a list of learning outcomes for any course I have taught.

During a moment of frustration in September, I began to imagine myself in grade ten hearing, "Present this any way you choose."  I would have hated the teacher who uttered those words (passionately and silently, of course) then panicked and obsessed about how to "please" him or her.  I wouldn't have felt at ease until assured by the teacher that, yes, I could use my incredible HTML skills to build a Geocities website on which I could share my project.  (Yup.  I was that kid, too.)

For some students, "Present this information any way you like" is a much scarier statement than, "If you don't underline your title, create a 6.875mm border around each image, paste three feathers on top using white glue, buy a hot pink poster board the size of a hockey rink, and put your name on the bottom right corner, you will FAIL."  My students do become accustomed to my less structured expectations regarding "presentation," but it is a difficult adjustment for some.  A few students are usually worried that I am not sharing a list of expectations but will suddenly impose strict criteria when I assess their work.  Others are convinced that if their assignment "looks nice" they will receive a better mark than they feel they deserve.  It takes time for students to trust me and understand how and why I assess them the way I do.  As the year progresses, I hope that my students begin to realize that I am on their side, I am not going to "trick" them, and that the way they present their learning is truly their choice.

I've blogged a bit more about my changing assessment practices here and would love to hear from you!  Do you assess "presentation" on assignments?  Are there times when students' assignments should be completed in a similar fashion?  Fine arts courses, for example, likely have presentation-related expectations, but does this mean that all assignments must be similar?  I have to admit that I like the look of aesthetically pleasing displays and rows of similar assignments on bulletin boards; it has been difficult for me to become more flexible, but I find that my students are more engaged and creative when they can present information in ways which appeal to them.  What are your thoughts?


  1. Oooh! I love this topic!!! I have been thinking about this a lot, as I change my assessment practices. I was always (and probably still am) a pleaser - tell me what to do and I will do it well. "Do it the way I want to? Hmm, well, I never thought of that." Scary, indeed. I don't have clear answers in my head, but I highly value giving students a choice in how to present the material - I want them to develop the skills to articulate meaning, not just follow directions. It's even an issue I think about at home! As I parent, I'm trying to balance encouraging my son as he develops with over-praising and thus creating (another) pleaser.

  2. I'll admit, I'm one of those teachers who tries to keep things open for students, but have always secretly worried that the less structure I gave them, the more stressful the assignment became. I do assess presentation, but not in terms of "prettiness", as girls tend to be favoured over boys, but more in terms of organisation (i.e. is the presentation organised in a manner that the listener, watcher, whomever can make sense of it? Whether or not this is helping or hindering students remains to be seen.....