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Sharing assessment & grading strategies that help students learn

When our school first starting investigating Assessment FOR Learning 4 years ago, the first teacher we had address our faculty with an AFL classroom example was Bert Weschke, our Welding teacher.  Recently, as I have engaged in some conversations about applying AFL practices to the classroom - or more specifically, NOT applying those strategies - I have come back in my mind to Bert's example.  There's a lot to learn about AFL from the way Bert Weschke teaches students to "lay a bead".

A weld bead is a deposit of metal that results from a passing of the welding torch over metal.  Bert shared that when teaching students to lay a bead, he has them practice numerous times on a piece of metal.  As they are practicing, he is moving around the room providing them with feedback.  He has already taught/lectured on how to lay a bead.  Now, as he moves about the room, his students get plenty of practice and receive plenty of feedback.  

Eventually, the student will have to submit a bead that receives a summative grade.  Until that point, though, each student will repeat the process over and over with the goal of mastery in mind.  The feedback the student receives might come in the form of a grade - such as "If this was the final product you'd get a C." - but it isn't going to impact the grade.  

This seems to me to be the common sense way to teach Welding.  Imagine a Welding teacher lecturing and demonstrating how to make a bead, telling the students to study his notes on bead laying that night, and then taking his students into the shop the next day for a hands-on test before moving on to the next topic.  It just wouldn't make sense - unless, of course, mastery of the skill was not the goal.

So why does it make sense to teach this way in a Science class or a History class or any other classroom? It doesn't.

If students are going to master content THEY MUST BE GIVEN OPPORTUNITIES TO PRACTICE THE CONTENT AND THEY MUST RECEIVE FEEDBACK FROM THE TEACHER.  Grading the student really should be secondary.  The feedback could look like a grade - "If the final test were today you'd have a C." - but it really shouldn't be what determines the grade.  

It's true that some students can listen to a lecture or read notes and then do well on a test, but:

1. Not all can,

2. This doesn't ensure long-term learning, and

3. This makes the teacher irrelevant.

No matter the level of the student or the level of the course, teachers MUST provide opportunities for practice and they must give regular feedback along the way.  That feedback could be entered into a grade book; it could be a score on a unique feedback scale (such as a check or check+); it could be descriptive and in paragraph format, or it could be a simple statement such as "Keep working on _____."  

How much feedback is too much?  If you're following kids home in the afternoon to give them feedback instead of being with your family, then you probably need to stop.  Until then, keep giving feedback.

As I think about Bert's example of teaching Welding, I'm reminding of several History professors I had in college.  By lecturing and giving notes without any feedback or assessment prior to the quiz, large test, or exam, essentially these professors ended up assessing whether or not:

1. I had strong listening skills,

2. I could memorize notes, and/or

3. I could teach myself.

What they weren't assessing was how well THEY TAUGHT me the content.

Let's not be like those professors.  Instead, let's be like a good Welding instructor.  Let's make sure that students have many opportunities to practice and receive FEEDBACK.  Let's make sure TEACHERS lead students to mastery.

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