Can My Students Learn More and Study Less?

The more I think about how to better teach my students, the more I seem to come back to mastery learning. Why? Because it seems a sensible response to each of my personal teaching goals in my US History courses this year. Here’s what I mean: I want my students to really learn more (and forget less); I want them to be more curious about history and more in charge of their learning; and I want them to be resilient, intrinsically motivated learners. For each of these goals, focusing learning on mastery–rather than plowing through a syllabus–just makes sense.

But without a fairly fundamental transformation in my teaching and my school’s culture of learning, a sudden switch to measuring year-long mastery outcomes seems unlikely. I also know it is really tough for ex-Fulbrighters to return from Finland and try to “change everything.” I have heard this from other grantees. So … here are the adjustments I am trying to implement as I return from Jyväskylä.

What my students learn. This I have been more happy with over the years. My colleague, Peter Shulman, and I have tweaked and changed the US History survey annually, and this year is no different. We continue to think about how much information we subject our students to, asking ourselves how much we should ask them to take in–and how much they will actually be able to assimilate given their busy school schedules and over-scheduled lives.

John Smith, Virginia, 1612 (1624). I asked students to closely examine this map, two to a screen. I was surprised by how much they learned from asking questions about it. I think this image did the most to impress upon them the fragility of the early colony.

The civics aspect of our course remains intact, but this year we are trimming where we can to increase the amount of attention we will pay to Native American history and immigration history. Anyone who has ever taught a survey course knows omitting key topics is a constant source of frustration. So we continue to tweak the course content, subtracting as we add, with an eye on current topics of debate in American society.

How they learn. For me, this year, this has involved rearranging the desks in my classrooms from a seminar-style “U” to four groups of four students, each group sitting in a “pod” around two tables. These pods remain set for the duration of a unit, usually a handful of weeks. Each day they have a pair of Google Docs waiting for them on our Google Classroom page, a warm-up/reflection that takes about 5 minutes and, second, a document with the group’s task for the day.

A typical 5-minute warm-up

The warm-up gives me a little data about how the reading is going and I hope to use the responses from students to help them set some goals around study habits as the year progresses. The tasks on the main document for the day involve interpreting the reading assigned as homework; other days I have had them work on maps, graphics, and challenged them to present a complex, detail-filled reading in an easier-to-understand form.

I am seeing the usual benefits of group work: everyone is participating every day. Quieter students appear more confident, especially because they are repeatedly working with the same three people. I move about the room while they work, trying not to interrupt the flow of the work while trying to talk to every student every day.

The topics aren’t chosen by the students (something I’d like to try, even in the US History survey). But I am still seeing more student ownership of the material, as they work to master the readings and assignments with their friends in their pod. I like to think of it as four kids figuring it out instead of one blurting it out. It’s collaborative work, not group work in which each student completes part of the whole.

With student-to-student conversation at the center of the course, the “floor” is higher. Everyone is writing into the document I’ve shared with them, which asks questions to spur discussion. Everyone is speaking up–usually many, many times–during every meeting of the class. And it much harder for anyone to leave the class feeling left behind or confused about the essential questions of the day and the unit of study.

I suspect that if one of the stronger students from a previous year returned, they might find the current set-up a bit less pleasing in terms of content. There is less of it, because I am not holding conversations with the quickest, most confident and most verbal students in the guise of a “class discussion.” Instead, stronger students are helping their peers–picking up other skills along the way as they solidify their understanding of the core concepts of the course.

This question has been on my mind: how much of what we sometimes take for “teaching” is actually merely lecturing–offering data which may or may not be received and remembered? I hope I begin to discover an answer.

How they are assessed. 

This is where I have not made much progress but where I also feel the most progress might be made. First, I should note that I am trying to improve the knowledge my students possess about US History one, five, or ten years after they take my course. This is difficult to measure! The reason I want to increase what they actually know is because I think what I am teaching has all sorts of practical application and I don’t want to reward only those who can cram information into their heads the night before a high-stakes exam. Much of that learning is quickly lost and therefore useless. Those types of tests also cause a lot of students unhelpful anxiety.

So, I am trying to figure out better ways of assessing what I want them to learn. The collaborative work is part of this of course, but so is assessment. Different ways of testing students are actually different methods of teaching in disguise–so what works best for what I am trying to do?

Most of the major assessments in my courses are not tests but papers and projects. These I feel less conflicted about but they also tell me less about how much a student knows–they reflect work and focus and understanding but are less direct indicators of what a student had mastered. So for the moment, I am going to focus on in-class writing assignments. I still use a lot of reading quizzes, though even these present some issues I am struggling with.

I have been moving away from high-stakes, in-class tests for several years. This doesn’t mean I am giving up measuring what my students are learning. I still don’t like semester or course grades–they don’t tell us much at all–but feedback on recent work can help students understand their own strengths and challenges. Still, they have to be offered the chance to apply those lessons!

So should I test and retest? This week I spoke with Jeff Crosby, who heads the Science Department at Catlin Gabel School and has done a lot of hands-on work in this area. One thing that Jeff said that struck me is that offering feedback and critique is great and shouldn’t stop. It is the act of placing a final, immutable letter grade on an assignment that often brings learning to a halt. It is louder than all the other voices on the assignment, including that which offers feedback.

I wholeheartedly agree with those who argue that formative tests (from which information gained by teachers informs future teaching) are vastly superior to those that are merely summative. But are these the only options? I am swayed by the argument that re-testing students on material from earlier units is a way of helping them better transfer the information into their long-term memories.

As Annie Murphy Paul has argued in Scientific American, “Retrieval practice [another term for repeated assessment] is especially powerful compared with students’ most favored study strategies: highlighting and rereading their notes and textbooks, practices that a recent review found to be among the least effective.”

So I keep returning to the big question from the first half of the unit as we begin to wrap up. In upcoming units I plan to quiz them again on essential questions from earlier in the course.

Minor assignments. A staple of my course is the reading quiz. About one per week. But I fear I am merely testing their working memory and not their understanding of the issues at hand. How can I get around this. One thing Jeff has tried is offering the quiz at the end of the class instead of at the beginning. Any pre-class cramming will likely be mostly lost and what remains will be longer-term memory. Of course this means I wouldn’t quiz ideas we’d covered during that meeting of the class, but it’s worth a try. And hey, why not have a reading quiz on Tuesday for the reading due Monday?

Major assignments. Currently, I am shying away from asking students test questions which call for great amounts of specific recall in favor of those that ask students to show what they know about the topic as a whole. For example, my students are finishing a unit on the development of race-based slavery in colonial Virginia this week. In the past, I have asked questions like this:

How did racism come to be the central feature of colonial Virginian society? In your answer, consider the social structure in the periods both before and after Bacon’s Rebellion.

Looking at this question, I am struck by how much information it calls for. Using Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 as a narrative turning point, students must describe Virginia society in two eras. The question implies that what is important is the relationship between the two social structures and the emerging role of racism in society. This means they have to explain how racism became codified as well as why–the reference to Bacon’s Rebellion is a “hint.” Looking at this afresh, I can foresee what I know to be true. That answers will largely differ by levels of omission of parts of the information called for in this prompt.

I usually tip my hand about the question in the classes leading up to this test. I do think in part because I want to encourage them to study effectively. I think I also do it because I know I am asking for too much recall. I also worry I have created a speed-writing contest.

This year I am trying something else. I have told them the essential questions of the unit repeatedly, essentially why and how did race-based slavery come to dominate colonial Virginia. And this is what I want them to know: how and why the English settled on African slavery.

So I will try, really hard, to ask a question that calls for that which I hope they will know five years from now. This means much less detail and more focus on themes with a few examples broadly drawn. I don’t think this is reductive. The answer is complex and can be rendered in all sorts of subtle ways. But if a student offers a fairly broad outline that nevertheless answers the question I’ve asked, I think that is better than an incomplete answer to a question like that I asked last year.

Eventually, I would like my assessments to be based partially on objective factors, like a student’s rendering of the narrative of the coming of structural racism in North America, and partially on goals the students set with me. (This idea was distilled for me by my colleagues Kathryn McDermott and Dave Whitson.) If a student struggles with organizing evidence but writes great topic sentences, we could identify their challenge as something they will work on on a given assignment. My focus also would be there rather than on dozens of factors.

Finally, grades. (Yuck.) Should the grade for the year be where they are at the end of the year–which is what they have learned–or an accumulation of marks from September to June? Perhaps a mixture of the former, plus credit for participation, etc. There seems little use for a test from September to hold down a grade if they show better competency with THAT TOPIC in June. Again, an argument for testing and retesting–but I fear I will end up with them studying for a terrifying final. So I will have to keep quizzing the early material rather than amassing it into a single assessment. Perhaps I can help shift the goal for some of my students from trying to be perfect all the time towards aspiring to correct mistakes and solidify knowledge and skills by year’s end. We’ll see.




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