Exams are coming up in just a little over a week.  Before the break, I gave a quiz in CS I over what we’d covered so far, and the range of grades was what you might expect.  A few failed, a few did super well, and a lot were in the middle.  Many of my students are super worried about the exam, based on how they did on the quiz.  What they may or may not know is that whatever they missed on the quiz, they probably understand now.  I went over the quiz in detail, round robin style, having each student  try to answer the question.  We also talked about strategies for eliminating questions and I gave them hints like loops usually reset variables, so if you see a loop without that, it’s probably wrong.

On the one hand, I’m not a fan of tests.  On the other, it is a good way to solidify your recall of certain concepts.  I’m not going to lie.  My test is hard.  It’s on par with the AP Test just in a different language.  I’d say I cover 1/2 to 2/3 of the concepts covered on the AP test and my questions are quite similar.  So a little worry is in order.  However, the bulk of my students’ grades come from the work they do in class: labs and projects.  What I find is that students who are doing well on those, which is most of them, aren’t affected by the exam, even if they do poorly.  Students who struggle on those tend to struggle on the exam and therefore do poorly on the exam.  Which makes sense.  You have to understand the concepts to complete the projects.

I do, however, want to change some of my assessment strategies.  I’ve been reading Specifications Grading, and while it’s geared toward Higher Education, there are some ideas in there that are worth considering and modifying.  My department works on a project-based level, but we do want to make sure we can clearly articulate the skills our students are acquiring, some of which are soft skills like figuring out problems independently and coming up with creative ideas.

I’m going to try a version of this in my Mobile Computing class that starts in a few weeks.  I’ll report here on the process and progress.  I’d love to hear other ideas for assessing longer-term projects and skill mastery.

How to Assess “Computational Thinking”?

Assessment is one of the hardest things teachers do.  Yes, sometimes we can grade tests and there are right and wrong answers, but often, we’re trying to assess and provide feedback on how a student thinks.  Or we’re assessing the process of how they got from point A to point B.  I like how Dawn address this issue in this post, using a pre-assessment as a starting point.

Standards-based grading helps here a lot, giving some good language for the students to understand where they are: you don’t know this at all, you’re learning, you’ve almost mastered it, you’re a ninja (to simplify).   After going through her papers and assessing them, she came up with a list of things the students need to understand.  She looked at their misconceptions closely and determined what exactly they were.  Such a great idea!  Here are here conclusions:

Some common misconceptions I ran into that I’ll need to watch as we go through the unit:

– Not understanding that one block = one instruction
– Not knowing what variables represent or keeping track of more than one variable
– Changing variables, assigning variables, substituting values in place of variables
– Not understanding what a Repeat block does
– Not understanding “if” and especially nested “if” statements
– Not seeing that instructions are run one at a time, starting at the beginning and following an order of execution
– Not understanding that the instructions inside a Repeat loop can do something different each time depending on values of variables and conditional statements
– Thinking of the narrative of a game instead of rules that are followed

All of the above things are things most of us teaching CS see quite often, but it’s nice to see it in a list like this.  When I go over quizzes and tests, I sometimes make lists like this, of things that hung people up.

More importantly, Dawn addresses the thinking and learning strategies that have gone awry:

– Not actually reading the prompt on an assessment
– Not answering all parts of a question
– Being sad about not understanding a pre-assessment
– Not writing in complete thoughts, let alone complete sentences
– Getting lost and giving up and lacking strategies to understand the text

The one about being sad and the one about getting lost really get to me.   Those are the things that sometimes stop kids in their tracks and keep them from learning the material even when they are capable of doing so.  In Computer Science (and in other STEM fields), that feeling of being lost or sad (after a test or other assessment) often drives people away, especially women, who are more likely to blame themselves rather than appreciate that there’s a learning curve and that they’re at the beginning.

I’m looking forward to seeing more from Dawn on her assessment strategies.   It’s something I think about and work on all the time, especially those thinking pieces.


Assessment, Group Work and other vexing issues

Last week, Gas Station without Pumps had a post about the problems with group work.  I just did a group project in my CS class which I didn’t think went quite the way I wanted it to.  It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either. In part, it’s my fault for not setting better parameters for how the group project should go, but I think it’s also just really hard for students to do group work in a real sense.  They’re too worried about how they’re going to be assessed to contribute in an authentic way.  Stronger students often take over or the work gets divided up in ways that aren’t really useful; it’s just convenient for the students, especially for the assessment piece.  I plan to do some further research about how to make this work better.  I believe in group work.  I think I just need to include the right kinds of assessment tools to recreate the authentic experience one would get in a work situation.

I’m constantly struggling with assessment.  I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, and it’s this issue that I always get hung up on.  I like project-based learning, and for the most part, it works for me, but then I also want to include ways of testing for concept understanding.  What’s happening to me a little bit is that students rely on me and the textbook or other materials to complete their projects.  They’re copying a lot of code and altering it.  That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but then I’m never sure if they really understand what they’re doing.  So I have started having tests to make sure they really get a concept.  But I’m not sure that works that well either.

Last year, I mentioned that I was primarily focusing on the creativity in the projects.  The more explicit I was about that, the better the projects were, and the less “code copying” the students did.  So, often, my issue with assessment is really an issue of me not laying out the guidelines.  Of course, creativity is a subjective thing, and I hate turning something like that into a rubric (though I do for middle school).  Basically, I want them to create projects that make me say, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.”  But I can’t put that on the assignment sheet.  Sigh. I’d love to hear from others about assessing projects or even assessing inquiry-based learning, which is something I want to do next year.