Tuesday, August 5, 2008

UbD Chapter 7: Thinking Like An Assessor

In this first chapter of Stage 2 of the UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN process, the authors focus in on the idea of designing assessments before getting into the details of content. Before you can figure out what to teach, you have to figure out how you're going to measure attainment of the goals laid out in Stage 1. The analogy used is one of the justice system: we have to gather sufficient evidence to “convict” the students of having learned the material -- a humorous but perhaps somewhat insulting analogy. :)

This chapter was full of great ideas. I love the concept behind the GRASPS model of assessment (Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Product/Performance/Purpose, Standards/Criteria for Success): posing a problem for the students to solve that mirrors a real-world situation. The big end-of-semester project that I envisioned earlier, in which the students play the role of xenobiologists reporting on an alien world, closely mirrors the GRASPS ideal, even if the sci-fi spin gives it a more whimsical feel than a “real” real-world scenario. This reassures me that my thinking has been on the right track.

I've also come up with an idea for a GRASPS project to close out the ecology unit: Have the students research an exotic species that has been introduced to California, determine whether it has become invasive, and then play the role of researchers recommending to the appropriate government agency what steps (if any) should be taken to control the species – and what will probably happen if the agency doesn't act. I'm hoping to bring in one of my former colleagues from UCSC to talk to the students about her research on invasive species, so the students can get a feel for how this sort of research is done.

I was also heartened to find that this chapter reaffirms the need for a wide variety of assessment methods, including old-fashioned tests and quizzes. I know that there is a lot of resistance to these methods in the progressive education community, but they remain an effective way of testing for knowledge of basic facts and skills.

Another trick that this chapter mentioned that seems very valuable is the “one-minute essay”: at the end of class, have the students write down (1) the big point that they learned in class today, and (2) the main unanswered question that they're leaving class with. This is such a simple, elegant way of checking the students' learning that I couldn't keep from grinning when I read it. I'm going to be sure to implement this system from the very beginning; the ritual of filling out these essay cards at the end of class, then discussing them at the beginning of the next class, should help to introduce some valuable structure and rhythm into the class.

One question that lingers in the back of my mind is whether I should implement these GRASPS projects as solo efforts or group assignments. On the one hand, having each student complete the project for themselves allows me to check each student's understanding individually; on the other hand, students who have difficulty writing in English may not be able to present everything that they understand. Perhaps I could have each student turn in their own project, but allow them to compare notes and collaborate with each other during class to check their comprehension and reasoning? Any advice or suggestions that others might have on how to deal with this problem would be appreciated.

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