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Laying an AFL Bead in Welding

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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Assessment in on-line classes presents significant challenges for both students and teachers, especially for teachers like me who give a lot of importance to evidence gathered throughout the course by performance tasks.

The purpose of framing assessment around performance tasks is to clearly distinguish between those who really understand from those who only seem to because through performance understanding becomes "visible". This is the reason that assessments are frequently designed as projects, which are essentially complex, “messy,” and multi-staged problems to be solved. These critical-thinking elements help teachers see levels of comprehension displayed by students. Tasks with these characteristics also go beyond furnishing a snapshot of student understanding to providing "scrapbook" of understanding - in other words a collection of evidence gathered over time, instead of through a single event. This is crucial because "understanding develops as a result of ongoing inquiry and rethinking". (Wiggins pg. 152)

However, this way of framing assessment still goes against many assumptions our students have about learning and thus about grading as they are often considered equivalent. I have spoken with my students at length about this to understand their perspectives, and they offer a variety of interesting ideas that can be summed up in the following two phrases. Whatever is given a grade by the teacher is important, and anything else can be skipped. Further, grades are derived from quizzes and tests.

Several problems arise from these opposing perspectives to learning that need to be looked at carefully. Among them is how forums are approached. Forums provide opportunities for students to put concepts found in the readings in their own terms and bounce ideas off their fellow students. Groups collaboratively plan a product or performance by facing contextualized issues. These exercises give students feedback and practice at doing the task, both valuable for the summative assessment that will come later in the course.

Fellow teacher and blogger Lisa Lane is particularly concerned about the second point because like me, she wants students to extend their understanding of the topic at hand through discussion in forums.

"In terms of course design, I don’t consider the discussion 20% of the course, just 20% of the grade. It’s more like half the class, because it’s the processing and sharing of the knowledge learned via presentation and reading. It’s the heart, not a side activity. It’s lower stakes (not 50% of the grade) because I want the students to feel free to explore." (Lane, 2009)

This seems simple enough, but my experience corroborates Lisa's - the students just don't get it. The message that students receive is that discussions held in forums are 20% of the class and deserve that much of their energy devoted to the course.

I have found a way to begin to resolve this problem. From the beginning of my courses I make it clear that grades will be based on summative assessment only which will take place at or near the end of the course. All other activities are formative and for that reason are not graded. To avoid misunderstandings regarding the importance of non-graded formative activities, I give a mark to each activity, a number according to its relative value. I keep these on a Google spreadsheet permanently linked to the course so it is always up to date and visible to students. The Google spreadsheet is a link so I never have to upload new versions or save them under new names or send the document out to students because they can see updates made to the document in real time or any time they check into the course.

This has effected a change in student's attitude towards formative activities because students can’t stand to receive a low number, even if it doesn’t count towards the grade. I have told them that because activities are formative, they can be improved by going over my qualitative feedback and the rubrics. This of course means being flexible with due dates and very patient with problems students and groups have in submitting assignments on time. It has motivated them to interact more with me, with classmates and with the rubrics and it has focused their attention, even if it is inadvertently, on the learning process - writing, editing, consulting, re-writing, re-editing, consulting again - and less on the grade itself.

Also, if a discussion is designed to last two weeks and it is worth six points (marks), I assign three to the first week and three to the second week. This gets students to participate more constantly and not just at the end of the designated period for that discussion.

Students can compare the number of marks they have to the total possible number at any given moment which serves as an alert for students who fall behind. At the end of the course, they are awarded a Professional Development score, which is simply the sum total of their marks. This indicates effort given towards the activities in the course and their level of mastery of the key course concepts. In nearly every case high marks coincide with high grades and low marks with low grades. Although this score is not part of the grade, students take it as seriously as the grades.

Although it may be counterintuitive to use numbers (marks) to encourage students to practice essential skills, it seems to be a language symbol that communicates a message far clearer than many of my attempts to explain and motivate.

---- References ----

Lane, Lisa. Ramblings on Assessments that work and assumptions that don't. Blog post, 2009. ?p=392

Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005. pg. 152.

Article originally published in Online Classroom, August 2010.

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