Performance Assessment: While planning for the performance assessment, we felt that having the students become the “experts” of a single topic would be an effective way to teach the unit’s material. According to Norman E. Gronlund and C. Keith Waugh in Assessment of Student Achievement, while “paper-and-pencil tests can be used to determine if students know what to do, direct observation of the students’ performance is necessary for determining how well a student can perform” (Gronlund and Waugh, 39). That is, performance assessments are a good way to check for student comprehension that goes beyond writing down facts and information. By presenting the material to their classmates, students are demonstrating their understanding of the material on a much deeper level; a performance assessment requires students to be able to explain the whole picture rather than focus on the minute details, as well as be able to answer any unexpected questions from their classmates or from the teacher. A performance assessment also prompts students to learn (and perform) important skills such as public speaking.
Furthermore, by framing each topic as a “big question”, students were able to investigate and explore the material. As Bob Bain argues in his article They Thought the World Was Flat?, students might “find history engaging, relevant, and meaningful if they understood the fundamental puzzles involved” (Bain, 181). Thus, by organizing each topic around a big question, students did more than learn facts and dates; they investigated historical events and truly engaged with the material. In his article Using Central Questions, Edward Caron furthers this idea of using thematic questions. Caron argues that central questions need to be debatable; that is, an effective question should be one where there is no correct answer and where students can pull together different information and opinions to create their own answers. For example, in one group, students responded to the question “How did oil in the Arab World impact the economy in that region as well as in the rest of the world?” As there is not one definitive answer to this question, students needed to decide what information was important and what information was less significant while researching the topic. By investigating the materials, the students were able to create their response. Ultimately, by framing each topic as a big question, we prompted students to engage in the material and learn important analytical reading skills.
After each of the groups presented, Mr. Hudock had the students give us feedback on the project. This was extremely useful because their responses helped us recognize their thought-processes and reactions to the assignment. Even though we had worked directly with the students through this performance assessment, this feedback allowed us to see inside the students’ minds during the process.
For the most part, students seemed to really enjoy this performance assessment, especially with regards to the performance options we allowed each group to choose from. As one bright seventh grader stated, these options gave students the “illusion of freedom”, something that many of them had rarely experienced in the classroom. After thinking about this student’s comment, I began analyzing the benefits of having freedom—or, more realistically, the illusion of freedom—in the classroom; it was clear from the class’s feedback that the freedom was appreciated and valued. Several students said that the options allowed them to feel ownership of their project, and as a result, they put more effort into it; other students said that they learned more from the different kinds of performances because they weren’t bored from all of the presentations. In my future classroom, I feel that integrating small moments of freedom would be beneficial and would help the students develop both academically and socially. This could be done by having students choose between different essay questions, or as Mr. Franchi does at Novi High School, allow students to answer only 47 of the 50 questions on a test.
However, despite the strengths of the performance assessment, students still faced many challenges. While giving feedback, several students mentioned that the theatrics of the groups’ performances took away from the actual learning of the material; that is, because groups were able to choose how they would present the material (such as in the form of a news cast or a rap), many students were distracted and were unable to focus on the actual content. For example, during one presentation, a seventh-grade girl performed a rap that outlined the similarities and differences between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. From a teacher’s perspective, I felt the rap was a clever and effective way to present the material; however, during the performance, I noticed that many of the students were laughing at the rap’s rhymes and the student’s singing rather than listening for the information. So, while the students were undoubtedly engaged in the presentations, they weren’t necessarily learning the information they needed to learn.
I believe that such challenges will always exist during performance assessments regardless of how the material is presented. During class presentations, many students will simply not pay attention or will be too focused on preparing for their own presentations that they will be distracted. One way to counter this problem is by having students take notes during the presentations; by requiring students to jot down the main ideas of each presentation, more students will be engaged and actively listening. Similarly, having students fill out feedback sheets for each group would prompt them to think critically about the presentation. In our Education Psychology class, for example, we give feedback to each student presenter, answering questions like “what did you learn from the presentation?”, “what information needed further explanation?”, and “what were the strengths and weaknesses of the presentation?”. While this type of feedback would be most successful with older students, it is a good way to prompt students to think critically about the material, the presentation, and their own learning.
Another challenge of the performance assessment was with group participation. We had created groups that were equal both academically and socially. For example, there are several seventh grade girls in Mr. Hudock’s class who often take the lead during group work and who remain much more focused on their assignments; by spreading out the older girls throughout the groups, we hoped that each could be a leader within their group to help keep them on task. However, in competition with such strong personalities leading the groups, many other group members refused to participate. In one group, a student even put his head down, unwilling to share his ideas or contribute to the group; this, in turn, caused several of the other group members to grow frustrated.
To ensure equal participation during group work, it would be beneficial to assign roles to each student. Drawing from Bain’s idea of having roles during reading—such as the sourcerer, the contextualizer, and the corroborator—assigning different roles during group activities would allow each student to have a designated part during the project. This would prevent students with outspoken personalities from dominating the group and prevent students with shy, reserved personalities to feel uncomfortable sharing their ideas.
Overall, the students did extremely well on the performance assessment. Several groups received full credit for their presentation while the other groups also received high scores (28 or 29 points out of 30). For the most part, the groups’ performances were very well-prepared and well-executed; the students appeared comfortable and confident presented to their classmates, and were able to answer any of Mr. Hudock’s questions.
Going beyond each group’s individual presentation, it was clear that the performance assessment as a whole was an effective way to teach the material. After each group presented, Mr. Hudock had the rest of the class explain the key points of the performance; this allowed Mr. Hudock (and us) to determine how well the group presented the material and how well the rest of the class understood the material. For the most part, the class was very engaged and was able to draw on the important details of each presentation; even for the material that had not yet been covered in class, students were able to properly summarize the presentation and pull out key ideas (the question is if the students were able to remember the information, as seen during the achievement assessment). But ultimately, this tells us that the performances were effective and successful.
Students were successful in part because they were given the opportunity to work directly with the person who would be grading them. While working with my group, for example, I was able to give suggestions and reminders that helped the students receive a good score; several times, I pulled out the rubric, reminding my group of a certain requirement that may be lacking or even missing. This helped the students remain on task and remain clear on the expectations of the assignment.
In a normal classroom, however, such direct interaction between the students and the grader is impossible. While a teacher can explain to the whole class her expectations and can go around to different groups and give suggestions, it is unrealistic to believe that a single person can have the same effect. In Dr. Shreiner’s classroom, she helps resolve this problem by having group coordinators during projects; these coordinators act as a spokesperson for the group, allowing Dr. Shreiner to only talk to a couple of students about her expectations and requirements for the project.
Achievement Assessment: While the performance assessment was a long process, the achievement assessment was a quick and effective tool to check student understanding. For this assessment, we drew from Bloom’s Taxonomy by incorporating different levels of thinking; for example, while some questions were simply fact-based (such as “What is the term for the belief in a single god?”), others required a deeper understanding of the content (such as “Why do geographers refer to Mesopotamia as the ‘fertile crescent’?”). According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, this second question is an application question, as it prompts students to apply what they know about the geographical features of Mesopotamia to figure out the meaning of a new term. By incorporating questions with different levels of skill and difficulty, we are giving students “experience in responding to questions that require students to analyze information, identify problems, develop original solutions, and formulate opinions” (Pearson, 268). And according to the Education 402 Pearson text, these kinds of skills are “critical for adult success” (Pearson, 268).
Another strength of the achievement assessment is that it incorporates a variety of different types of questions, including multiple choice, true-false, matching, short answer, and essay questions. In my experiences as a student, many teachers gave tests that were solely multiple choice, something that I wasn’t very good at as a student. By incorporating a variety of different types of questions, the achievement assessment is more conducive to students’ different test-taking skills. Furthermore, as Gronlund and Waugh point out, it is important to “[u]se the item types that provide the most direct measures of student performance specified by the intended learning outcome” (Gronlund and Waugh, 76). Thus, by including different types of questions, we are enabling them to more effectively coincide with the question’s purpose and rationale. For example, when we ask students to define the term “irrigation”, we use a selection-type item (in this case, multiple choice) because we simply want the students to recall the definition; on the other hand, when we have the students “discuss what the Gulf War was fought over”, we use a supply-type item (short answer) because we want students to create and supply their own answers.
However, the students faced many challenges when taking this achievement assessment. First and foremost, students were unprepared for the test. When preparing for the performance assessment, each student researched only one of the unit’s topics, receiving the rest of the information through their classmates’ presentations. So while the students had become “experts” of their own topic, they were not as familiar with the rest of the information; this caused many students to do quite poorly on the majority of the achievement assessment. To counter this challenge, it may be beneficial to have students fill out a worksheet or a graphic organizer during their classmates’ presentations. This would prompt the students to pull out each presentation’s main ideas and would help students remember the information more effectively. Also, by writing down the main ideas, students will have a copy of the information they need to remember for the test.
Furthermore, as Daniel Willingham states in Why Don’t Students Like School, “background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills” (Willingham, 28). While preparing for the performance assessments, the class had only covered the material of two of the topics (major religions and geographical features), while the remaining topics would be covered after the performance assessment. Because the students were entering the achievement assessment with little or no background information on the rest of these topics (except for what they had learned during the presentations), they were unable to successfully complete some of the assessment’s questions that required cognitive skills, such as analysis and summarization. Following Willingham’s advice, it is clear that the students would have been more successful on the achievement assessment if they had the necessary background information.
Another challenge students faced during the achievement assessment was with the questions themselves. As pre-student teachers (with very little experience writing test questions), many of our questions were unclear or confusing. For example, the fill-in-the-blank question “The United States relies on the __importation___ of oil from the Arab World” was very confusing to students, and the majority of students got this wrong by answering “exportation”. Looking back, I recognize that the wording of the question did not clearly set up the distinction between the two answers, causing students to be confused. With time and experience, I feel that we will be able to write more straightforward, effective test questions. However, writing good test questions will always be a challenge; thus, having a colleague read through your tests beforehand might allow you to avoid making such mistakes when writing a test.
With these challenges, it was no surprise that the students did relatively poorly on this achievement assessment. The majority of students received B’s on the assessment, with only a few A’s (for the gifted and talented program, these scores are quite low). These scores tell me that the challenges students faced while taking the assessment were significant and require adaptation. If I do similar performance and achievement assessments when I become a teacher, I will be sure to give the students the tools they need to be successful on both assessments; this would include having the students take notes during the presentations, review the material after each group has presented, and supply students with supplemental information that the presentations may have left out or not explained clearly. Hopefully with these tools, my students will be able to succeed on the achievement test.
Memo to My Future Self: Overall, my experiences in Mr. Hudock’s class were so rewarding. This was the first semester that I was given the opportunity to work directly with a group of students (more specifically, middle school students), and through this, I learned so much about teaching and my role as a teacher.
Regarding the teaching of social studies and history, I learned so much about the importance of having high expectations in the classroom. Going into a middle school classroom (essentially for the first time since I attended middle school), I was unsure about the content the students would be learning. From my days in middle school, I remember social studies being about learning how to read a map and how to memorize a long list of terms. Even though these students are part of the gifted and talented program, I was shocked at the level at which the students were engaging in social studies and history: they were thinking critically about the causes of revolution and the implications of different cultural systems; they were reading documents that required them to summarize and pull out the main ideas; they were writing essays that had an argument. Quite simply, they were learning skills important to the discipline of history. And while they were doing this in a very straightforward, simplistic manner, they were learning the foundation of what it means to learn history.
This taught me that the same teaching methods and techniques that we talk about in class can be utilized in any social studies classroom, regardless of age or ability. While I need to be age-appropriate with my expectations, I can still frame my lessons around central questions (as Bain and Caron suggest), and can still have my students think it terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy (perhaps simply lowering the level of ability to where they should be at), and I can still teach my students how to form opinions and to think critically.
Quite frankly, I learned that middle school social studies does not need to be about memorizing dates and facts. I learned that middle school teachers can provide the foundation of historical skills and knowledge that will be important in high school. And even though I don’t want to teach middle school social studies in the future, the lessons I learned in Mr. Hudock’s class will help me as a teacher respond to the needs and abilities of all different kinds of students.