Ah, homework!  To give it or not to give it?  If you give it then how much?  And once you’ve given it, then what?!

Now, because I work at a distributed learning school (online school or distance learning) really there is no homework.  Or maybe everything the students do could be considered homework?!  Anyways, a recent post by Kate Nowak started me thinking about homework again.  If you haven’t read Kate’s blog and you teach math, you should definitely give it a read.  In her post she describes a new system for dealing with; assigning homework, getting rid of homework checks, and doing homework quizzes.  In her post she referred to this post by Sameer Shah on his binder system.  Sameer describes a system designed to keep his students organized and motivated to do and correct their homework.  His system is also a more efficient use of his time.  Anyway, both posts got me thinking about the system that I used in my Biology 11 classes back when I was in a bricks-and-mortar school.

First off, I did not plan homework for any of the science classes I taught (gr 8 – 10 Science, and Biology 11 and 12).  I tried to give enough time in class to complete assignments.  If students didn’t complete the assignments in class, well then they had to finish them for homework.  They did, of course, have to use time at home to study for quizzes and tests also.

Before implementing my system (which I’ll describe soon) I was frustrated with the following scenario; students do an assignment, hand it in, there is a delay for me to mark it and get it back, they get it back (by which time they can’t even remember doing the work), they look at the grade but they do not read all the wonderful feedback I’ve given them and life moves on.  I found this particularly frustrating when it involved lab reports; so often students have difficultyunderstanding why it was they did the lab and interpreting their data.

My system:

  • Students are given time to complete an assignment.  If not completed in class then it is for homework.
  • Next day–students take out their completed assignments and start working on the  ‘opener’ questions that have been posted on the screen or if it is a simple assignment–not a lab–the answer key is posted and they are to start their corrections.
  • I walk around and check the assignment briefly–making suggestions to students as necessary (full sentence answers please, remember to do your drawings in pencil, oops–forgot the conclusion to your lab, that sort of thing.)
  • Each student gets a happy face stamp on their work; right side up if the assignment is complete, upside down if it is only half done etc.  This way I don’t have to keep a record–you’ll see how the stamps help in a bit.
  • We go over the assignment.  We do this briskly.  Students are expected to mark their own work and make corrections in a different coloured pen.  Theoretically all of the students should have a completely corrected assignment.
  • At the halfway and end points in the course (I taught semestered courses) the students were required to hand in a portfolio of their work.
  • The day before the portfolio was due they would get the list of assignments required for the portfolio.  There were usually 10 items.  For some of the items the students had a choice (eg hand in lab 2a or lab 3b, choose your best opener questions etc) and for others they did not.  The list would include the date that the assignment was assigned, the full name of the assignment, and if the assignment was a series of questions from the textbook I’d include the page numbers.  I encouraged students throughout the course to properly date and label their assignments as this would make organizing their portfolios easier.  They were expected to write out a table of contents and to number the pages of the items in their portfolios.  One of the items was to write a page long reflection of their learning (most interesting thing they learned, what they thought was the best example of their work and why, their strengths and/or where they need to improve.
  • The only thing the students could prepare ahead of time was the title page and their reflection paper (I offered to comment on their draft versions).
  • They were given time in class to assemble their portfolios.
  • They had to include the original work — not write out good copies.
  • When they handed in their work I would mark it according to a rubric that the students were given ahead of time.
  • My stamp system (see above) allowed me to tell how complete the original assignment was.
  • Corrections needed to be evident.   If a student made a good first attempt, but got a number of parts wrong, that was ok if  they did good corrections.

With the first couple of assignments, the students did hand them in so that I could get a good look at their work and provide a lot of written feedback.  I wouldn’t necessarily grade their work–just provide a lot of suggestions and get an idea on what I needed to clarify with the class.

The benefits of this system were:

  • I got to go over the work with the students right away.
  • if students were away the day that we went over the assignment, they were motivated to find out from their peers what their corrections should be.
  • my informal homework checks allowed me to talk to students and make suggestions on how to improve their work so that they were handing in their best in their portfolios.
  • students were motivated to keep their work organized.
  • students had to reflect on what represented their best work.
  • students were more likely to pay attention to the feedback they’d been given.
  • less grading and more on-going feedback.

The drawbacks of this system:

  • once the portfolios were handed in, it took a fair amount of time to mark them all .  On the up side though, the students didn’t need them back right away as we had already gone over the individual assignments.
  • I had to constantly remind students that they needed to keep all of their work as it may be needed in their portfolios.  For some kids it is just force of habit to throw out an assignment once they think the teacher is done with it.

Now I need to ask myself what’s stopping me from using a system like this for my distributed learning students?

What is your system for making assessment authentic?  What would you change about my system?  As always, I welcome your feedback.

Are You A Control Freak Too? Or Why It Can Be Hard Shifting To Being The Guide On The Side

Today I learned a few new things, some interesting, and one disturbing.

New Thing Number One

Mosses reproduce by fragmentation (I know, some of you are gasping “you must be joking” and others are saying “well, duh!”, while still others are saying “that’s interesting… why?”)

New Thing Number Two

Some mosses have found ways to survive in the desert. (Ditto parentheses above).


Photo by ecstaticist Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

So What?

I have been teaching grade 11 students about mosses for about 10 years now and I didn’t know about this fragmentation stuff. I mean I knew about fragmentation, but not that mosses did it. I found out today because one of my students highlighted fragmentation as a key way that mosses reproduce. He was also the one who mentioned that mosses can live in the desert.

So here’s the disturbing thing: these revelations about mosses lead me to realize that for too many years I have mercilessly controlled the information that my students receive. My students would only learn about a narrowly defined (by me) version of mosses, or arthropods, or the excretory system etc. The official curriculum document says the students have to learn X,Y, and Z so I made sure I served X, Y, and Z up in easy to digest morsels. I injected humour and stories, I used a variety of instructional strategies and provided activities that uncovered prior knowledge, but for the most part I controlled the information.

Despite my strangle hold on the information, the assignments that I’ve always enjoyed assessing the most are the ones where students have to research a topic. That’s where I get to be the learner and they get to truly explore. (One very useful piece of information that I learned from a student research project is that we get the urge to urinate when our bladder is only a third full. I find that comforting when I am on a long car trip or hiking in the woods–it’s only a third full, it’s only a third full…)

For the past few years though, I have been teaching at a distributed learning school where, so far, I don’t own the courses. By that I mean that the courses students take are not designed by me. I am their guide, tutor, cheerleader, and assessor, but I am not their course designer (not yet anyway). Often times there is a poor fit with the text and the course a student is taking, so the student has to look to other sources to answer their questions. That’s how my student found out about fragmentation and about desert mosses. It was not from his textbook, it did not come from me. He found it ‘out there’. And I’m so glad he did. It reminded me that it was never my job to own the information. And now, more than ever before, it is not necessary for me to own the information.

I know, bit of a slow learner 😉

Some Questions

Do you ever feel that you have to own the information? For me I think this came about because I needed to be sure that they learned what they were supposed to. And, how else would we make it through the curriculum? If you have relinquished control over the information, or perhaps never felt like you needed to have control in the first place, how would you counter these concerns?

As always, thanks for taking the time to read this!

On Teaching Science At A DL School

Yesterday was a good day.

I teach at a distributed learning (DL) school and though this is home learning, we do encourage most of our high school students to show up for a face-to-face class for 2 hours on Thursday mornings. It can be challenging wrangling 20 plus kids from grades 8 – 11 who are all at different places in their (different) courses. My colleague and I have used the time to check up on where kids are at, prod them to get work done, provide tutoring and do mini-lessons to the whole group (on studying for example). My colleague has also pulled out grade groups to go over grammar and to discuss their reading journals. We’ve found that our students are far more successful when we have this regular face to face contact with them.

How Can You Do Science Without Labs?

Today was the first time I was able to pull out a group to work on a science lab. In a DL program labs often get short shrift. It can be time consuming for the student to complete the labs, they often feel at sea–not sure if they are getting the expected results, or unsure of what they should be observing. While this also happens in a traditional classroom, at least the teacher and peers can support the student.

Seeing the Lightbulbs Go On

Lightbulb head

Photo by Cayusa Attribution-NonCommercial License

I had 4 grade nines work on an electricity lab; comparing series and parallel circuits. I really baby stepped them through the lab. We went over the proper lab format and I dictated or wrote what they needed to include at each step. I guided them through setting up the circuits and drawing the schematics. One of the students was really adept at setting up the combined series / parallel circuit and he explained to the others how to do it. He used what he had learned earlier in the lab to confirm that he had it set up correctly. We discussed their observations and what they meant. When we got to the final section of the lab write-up, the conclusion, I explained how it should be set up and said “Here’s where you explain what you learned from the lab, so what have you learned?” The response was great; “A lot!” And then they went on to tell me the things they learned in a very animated way. I just don’t think that these kids would have gotten a lot out of this lab had they been doing it by themselves at home.

“What did you learn”–“a lot!” I’m still smiling 🙂