Math RPG – revised and starting tomorrow

I’m going to start the Math RPG with my Grade 9 class tomorrow. It’s a way to help track and encourage homework completion, performance on evaluations, and “academic behaviour” (like getting extra help).

Here’s the sheet each student will use:

Math RPG Character Sheet and Rules.png

The character tracking sheet.

Here’s a PDF: Math RPG Character Sheet and Rules

I have two units left in the course to play with it (Measurement and Geometry), so that’s why the Levelling Up part is so short on the student version.

I’m wondering who is going to ask for a +1 Magic Sword… :)

See my previous post for longer-form rules and examples: Math RPG?

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Math RPG?

I started working on a Math RPG based heavily on the Bullet Journal RPG (BuJoRPG) at Emerald Specter. I’ve been trying out a modified BuJoRPG for myself, and I wondered if something similar might motivate some students. At the least, I’m hoping it’ll make academic behaviour tracking easier and more visible.

Here’s my first draft. Students will track their own progress (I’ll check their homework completion, probably). Let me know what you think, and if you have suggestions!

Math RPG v0.1a

Improving the evaluation of learning in a project-based class

I’ve been struggling for a few years with providing rich, authentic tasks for my computer science students and then having to evaluate their work.

My students learn a lot of skills quickly when solving problems they’re interested in solving. That’s wonderful.

I can’t conceive of a problem they will all be interested in solving. That’s frustrating.

In the past, I have assigned a specific task to my entire CS class. I tried to design a problem that I felt would be compelling, and that my students would readily engage with and overcome. The point has always been to develop broadly-applicable skills, good code hygiene, and deep conceptual understanding of software design. The point is not to write the next great 2D platformer nor the most complete scatterplot-generating utility.

Unfortunately, I could never quite get it right. It’s not because my tasks were inherently weak; rather it’s that my students were inherently different from one another. They don’t all like the same things.

I believe that students sometimes need to do things that are good for them but that they don’t like to do. They sometimes need the Brussels sprouts of learning until they acquire the taste for it. But if they can get the same value from the kohlrabi of learning and enjoy it, why wouldn’t we allow for that instead?

So I’ve tried giving a pretty broad guideline and asking students to decide what they want to write. They choose and they complete a lot of great learning along the way. Their code for some methods is surprisingly intricate, which is wonderful to see. They encounter problems while pursuing a goal that captures them, and they overcome those problems by learning.

Sounds good, eh?

Of course, they don’t perform independently: they learn from each other, from experts on the Internet, and from me. They get all kinds of help to accomplish their goals, as you would expect of anyone learning a new skill. And then I evaluate their learning on a 101-point scale based on a product that is an amalgam of resources, support, and learning.

Seems a bit unfair and inaccurate.

I asked for suggestions from some other teachers about how to make this work better:

  • ask students to help design the evaluation protocols
  • use learning goals and success criteria to develop levels instead of percentage grades
  • determine the goals for the task and then have students explain how they have demonstrated each expectation
  • determine the goals for the task and then have students design the task based on the expectations
  • find out each student’s personal goals for learning and then determine the criteria for the task individually based on each student’s goals

I’m not sure what to do moving forward, and I’d like some more feedback from the community.

Thanks, everyone!

Too honest for EQAO

I administered the Grade 9 EQAO Assessment of Mathematics this semester. It’s a provincial, standardized test that students write for two hours across two days, an hour per day. Part of the test is multiple choice, and part is open response (longer, written solutions).

In the weeks before the test I practised with my kids, gave advice, and tried to make them comfortable while encouraging them to do their best. I told them to try every question, saying things like “You can’t get marks for work you don’t show!”, “You never know what you might get marks for!”, and “If you don’t know a multiple choice answer you should guess.”

One of my students left three multiple choice questions blank. 

The EQAO Administration Guide expressly forbids drawing a student’s attention to an unanswered question. So I collected her work. 

Afterward I asked her about it. “Why didn’t you answer those questions? You could have guessed; you might have gotten some right.”

She looked steadily at me. “I didn’t know the answers.”

I felt (and feel) terrible about it. 

Not that I didn’t prepare her well for the assessment. I feel terrible because I realized that I asked my students to lie

I asked them to guess “if necessary”, to hide their lack of knowledge, to pretend that they knew things they did not. Because I want them to get good marks, and I want our school to do well. 

That is a terrible thing to ask, and for a meaningless reason. 

My student didn’t just guess. She didn’t play this ridiculous game. She showed integrity. 

And I’m really proud of her for that. 

Learn-practise-perform cycle limits learning in CS

Like many courses, the beginning of my current computer science e-Learning class looked like this:

  • Teach small skill
  • Teach small skill
  • Give feedback on practice work
  • Teach small skill
  • Teach small skill
  • Give feedback on practice work
  • Evaluate performance task

This separation of learning from graded performance is intended to give students time to practise before we assign a numerical grade. This sounds like a good move on the surface. It’s certainly well-intentioned.

But this process is broken. It limits learning significantly.

If the performance task is complex enough to be meaningful, it requires a synthesis of skills and understandings that the students haven’t had time to practise. In this case I’m evaluating each student’s ability to accomplish something truly useful when they’ve only had the opportunity to practise small skills.

If instead the performance task has many small components which aren’t interdependent, students never develop the deeper understanding or the relationships between concepts. In this case I’m evaluating each student’s small skills without evaluating their ability to accomplish something truly useful, which isn’t acceptable either.

And there isn’t time to do both. I can’t offer them the time to complete a large, meaningful practise task and then evaluate another large, meaningful performance task.

The barrier here is the evaluation of performance. It requires a high level of independence on the part of the student so that I can accurately assign a numerical grade.

So I’m trying something different.

Instead of these tiny, “real-world” examples (that I make up) to develop tiny, discrete skills, I started teaching through large, student-driven projects. I got rid of the little lessons building up to the performance task, and I stopped worrying about whether they had practised everything in advance.

The process looks more like this:

  • Develop project ideas with students and provide focus
  • Support students as they design
  • Provide feedback through periodic check-ins
  • Teach mini-lessons as needed for incidental learning (design, skills, etc.)
  • Summarize learning with students to consolidate

I couldn’t design a sequence of learning tasks that would be as effective as my students’ current projects are. They’re working hard to accomplish goals they chose, and they’re solving hundreds of small and large problems along the way.

They couldn’t appreciate the small, discrete lessons I was teaching with the small, artificial stories. They didn’t have the context to fit the ideas into. It was only when the project was large and meaningful that my students truly began to grasp the big concepts which the small skills support.

And now I don’t have a practise/perform cycle. It’s all practice, and it’s all performance. It’s more like real life, less like school, and it’s dramatically more effective. It’s much richer, much faster learning than the old “complete activity 2.4” approach.

Evaluation is very difficult, though.

Inconsistency in Evaluation Practices

I’ve been having some great conversations with teachers in my school about final evaluations in high school courses (i.e. exams and final culminating tasks). I see a desperate need for the discussion, so I’m hoping this might be a place for some of it. To that end, I’m sharing some of the points people having been making. 

First, some context

When two or more teachers in a school have sections of the same course, they’re encouraged to collaborate throughout the courses and are required to have consistency in the way their final 30% is evaluated. For example, if one teacher has a large culminating task for the entire 30%, another teacher of the same course shouldn’t have a 30% formal “test” exam.

This is true in lots of schools all over Ontario. It’s not a provincial policy, but it’s a very common board/school/departmental policy.

Thoughts I’ve had and heard

These are some of the points I’ve heard about this approach in no particular order. I’ll use the term “exam” to refer to any tool that is used for the final 30% component of a student’s grade, whether it’s a test, assignment, presentation, research paper, performance, etc.

  • If you have a formal exam and I have a task, students won’t get consistent marks, which matters for post-secondary entrance/scholarships.
  • How is it different from one teacher being a “hard marker” and the other teacher being an “easy marker”? Isn’t that a bigger problem?
  • If two siblings are evaluated differently, parents and siblings will all be upset that it’s not equal.
  • Two teachers in different schools/boards don’t have to align their exams; why is it required within a school?
  • You’re more likely to have a consistent mark distribution if you use the same exams.
  • Teachers should have autonomy and be permitted professional judgement as long as they’re following curriculum, Growing Success, and other policies.
  • Students need to write formal exams to prepare for university, so there shouldn’t be other forms of exams in grade 12, especially for U courses.
  • The exam is only worth 30%. The 70% term work is more valuable, but the policy doesn’t apply to it.
  • If you say my exam is easier than another teacher’s exam, you’re implying that one of us is inaccurately evaluating student understanding and performance.
  • There is no standard for the “amount of work” a student has to do for an exam.
  • We should have provincially standardized exams for senior courses for consistency and equity.
  • An open-book exam is easier than a closed-book exam.
  • An open-book exam is harder than a closed-book exam.
  • Some students need accommodations because of learning disabilities. Is it okay to give a different form of the exam for those students? Can’t other students access the same accommodations, since they aren’t modifications?
  • If school administration would approve of both exams on their own, then two teachers should be able to have different exams at the same time.
  • Not all forms of evidence of student learning are equally valid or accurate.
  • If I come to a school for semester 2, why am I restricted by what a semester 1 teacher chose to do in their class?

What do you think?

Post some comments. Let’s work on this together.

We have to stop pretending… #MakeSchoolDifferent

I’m responding to Sue Dunlop’s challenge (which is the result of a series of challenges stretching back to Scott McLeod). I’ve only read a few of the other posts that this challenge has generated, so I apologize to anyone who already expressed these same thoughts.

  1. We have to stop pretending that it’s okay to complain about someone else instead of offering them support.
  2. We have to stop pretending that telling people to learn how to cope is an effective strategy for dealing with mental health challenges.
  3. We have to stop pretending that evaluation can be both objective and accurate when implemented by a single human.
  4. We have to stop pretending it’s acceptable and reasonable for reporting periods to dictate the pace of learning in our classrooms.
  5. We have to stop pretending that there is a single, correct solution to any one of these complex problems.
  6. We have to stop pretending that we can do this on our own.

Oops, that’s 6. Ah well.

The tagged? David Jaremy, Peter Anello, Tim Robinson, Eva Thompson, and Doug Peterson. Additional apologies if you’ve already been tagged.