That Itchy Feeling, or, Asynchronous Quizzing

Never am I more passionate about giving students choices and helping them to find their own learning groove than when I find myself sitting in a PD session.  There I am, waiting to find out what the presenter has in store, suddenly thrust back into student-mode.  From deep inside, up arises this wily and irreverent and pushy punk who is so used to being in charge of his own learning and time.

I’ve been to plenty of great PD and am so thankful for the amazing learning opportunities that my colleagues-from-afar often put together for me to experience.  But boy am I uber-ready to be a critic when walking into a PD session.  I mean, they had months to plan this one lesson and they’re seriously going to show me a video I could have seen on my couch in my pj’s?  Or read me a Powerpoint that I could have skimmed or dug into at my leisure?

These kinds of experiences have sowed in me the conviction that the time and effort spent to bring people together to learn—be it hundreds of miles or just a subway ride—makes that gathering at least a little sacred.  It should be social and interactive, and it had damn sure be aiming to meet the needs of the individuals who have hauled themselves there.

That’s the introductory bluster.  Maybe I’ve got your dander up a little.  What I want to analyze in this post is a thought related to this emotion, and it has to do with trying to avoid misusing my students’ time.

Thesis: Students taking solo-and-silent assessments is a poor use of classtime.

Looking at that statement now, it strikes me as more radical than it seemed in my head.  It runs contrary to a lot of classroom practice, including my own.  Still, I think I have convincing arguments to support it.  What it would imply on a practical level is encouraging students to quiz outside of class, as they often do for requizzes.

Before I start, I should say that this thesis is contingent on a couple conditions being present in a school.  All are present in my own case.  First, there have to be at least some open periods in students’ schedules for them to quiz during non-class time.  At my school, middle school students have study halls and high schoolers usually have free periods in their weekly schedules; both often have discretionary time during lunch.  Second, I’m taking for granted an SBG-like assessment system that admits of modularity—where there are several versions of quizzes for a given standard.  I can certainly see serious obstacles to allowing student to asynchronously take a unique quiz.

What is required for a student to take a quiz?  The student, the quiz, and probably some amount of monitoring to keep things on the up-and-up.  Possibly access to a teacher to ask clarifying questions, but one could argue that—especially SBG-style—quiz questions should be clear, low-stakes, and non-surprises anyway.

For a student to take a quiz, the following are not needed—interaction with peers; a teacher giving instruction or even much attention; nuanced human intervention to change the course of proceedings.  A student certainly has no need of having other students around them who are also taking quizzes.

Most of the time I aim to have an interactive, social, and personal classroom that is an occasion for sharing, collaboration, and spontaneity.  Somehow, though, I drop these values completely every time I give a solo-and-silent assessment in class.

Why do I do it, then?  I’m really curious to hear your own reflections on the question; here is what I’ve come up with:

  • Classtime is the time that my students have for my class; to ask them for some of their “outside of class” time break a tacit agreement.  (This concern somehow completely evaporates when it comes to assigning homework.)
  • Duh, class is when things happen?  (i.e. inertia)
  • I don’t know.

Not particularly compelling.  So I’m going to try to this out.  I’ll work out a master schedule with my students for when and where they can take quizzes outside of class.  We’ll see what they do with it.

In the past, I’ve had a day in class each week where quizzes were taken for the first part of the period and free-choice time happened for the second part.  What I’m planning on doing this year is making that whole day free-choice.  If some students choose to use that time for taking solo-and-silent assessments, that’s fine by me—I’ll have the quizzes ready and on offer.  If they calculate that quizzing is a good use their in-class time on a particular day, then it’s the right move for them.  Super.  But I have to imagine that many students will find it more choice-worthy to use classtime in other ways to further their learning and cultivate their experiences—and to find time outside of class to quiz, at least on occasion.

These thoughts have arisen for me as I’ve slipped deeper and deeper into a combination of the SBG Borg and SteveMiranda/PaulSalomon-esque personalization.  There may be other influences, and I don’t claim that these ideas are original.  They were perhaps first instigated in my head last year when I had seventh graders showing up in my room for the last fifteen minutes of lunch on Fridays.  They wanted to start working on their quizzes early so that they could have more free-choice time with their friends.  They were giving up the freedom of recess in exchange for more free-choice time in class.  I think that’s a huge testimony to how much value and fun can be created by the combination of choice and a rich classroom environment.

I’ve read about others’ efforts at arranging times outside of class for requizzing, and I appreciate how difficult and time-consuming it can be.  I have no illusions that it will be easy to encourage outside-of-class quizzing and recognize both logistical and hearts-and-minds obstacles.  But I really want to push this in my classes, plant the seed in my students’ heads, and see what happens.  Maybe you’ve tried something similar; if so, I’d love to hear.  I’ll certainly be posting about what comes of my attempts.  Maybe—just maybe—this will help my students to become more wily, irreverent, and pushy, and used to being in charge of their own learning and time.

PS  Speaking of that itchy feeling, classes started today!  Ahhhhhhhhh…


3 responses to “That Itchy Feeling, or, Asynchronous Quizzing

  1. Please definitely follow up on this idea. I am curious about this, because it is a social experiment. And it does what I have a hard time doing: putting uncompromising faith in students (kids) by not underestimating them. The more I think about my own teaching, the more I realize the hardest thing for me to work on is not underestimating them. It’s hard to articulate, because I don’t mean in the intelligence-sense. But whatever it is, it’s clear you have broken through that barrier, and you have NO FEAR and an IRON SKIN and UNCOMPROMISING AND UNFLAGGING FAITH IN KIDS.

  2. I feel ambivalent about this. On the one hand, I do agree that class time should be used for what we can only do when we’re together. That guides a lot of my choices about how to use our time (and a lot of my frustration when students are simply “dismissed” from my class because someone scheduled them to go play sports then… as though their time in my class doesn’t really matter much and should obviously be sacrificed without discussion).

    Doing tests outside of class would also reduce the time limit problems that kids with varying rates of processing have.

    On the other hand, I think formative assessment is important enough to use class time to do it (I also feel this way about course evaluations).

    So… I’m not sure. And I’m not sure that my very scheduled kids would be able to reasonably take only out-of-class tests (even at boarding school!). Also my class is so “radical” already, that I’m not sure if doing this sort of thing would be the last straw for some kids (or some other teachers).

    And on another hand, I have ended up with plenty of kids who do this anyway because they show up to class on test day telling me they aren’t ready, that they didn’t sleep, or that the chose to sleep instead of preparing for the test. And then I just have them use the class time to prepare and they come back during a “free” to take the test.

    But I’d also love to hear about someone trying it and how that goes! Because I do think it is an interesting and worthwhile idea. I’ve definitely thought about it from time to time, but not bitten the bullet and gone for it.

  3. @Sam I, too, find it difficult to put faith in kids and have the ingrained tendency to think that I have to make things happen for them. But in a sense I think I have had a breakthrough as we begin this new year and feel confident that it’s my role to help my students find their own learning groove and that they will be beyond game for taking on that endeavor. Your affirmation of that confidence means a lot. And I’ll be sure to write about how this thing evolves.

    @Kelly Thank you for your thoughtful reflections on this idea! To be clear, I’m not going to be demanding that my students take quizzes outside of class. I’m just going to allow them to use the classtime that they would ordinarily spend quizzing for other course purposes, if they (individually) so choose. If they want or need to take all of their quizzes during class, then that’s fine. But I want them to at least consider whether their time might be better spent working with their peers on problem sets or projects or engaging in conversation with me.

    Am I right in thinking that you’re more ambivalent about what it would be like to implement something like this in your own situation than you are about the idea as such? Or maybe it’s that we’re thinking about formative assessment differently from each other. I don’t often give “a quiz” in class; the kinds of quizzes I’m talking about are ones where students are showing themselves and me that they have a handle on particular skills and concepts. These happen “buffet-style” so that kids are only quizzing on the items they feel ready for. If I want to do a quick quiz with everyone to see where the class stands with the material of the moment so that I know how to organize our classtime together, then that seems like an excellent and totally worthwhile use of time in class.

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