December 29, 2016

STEM Challenges: To Assess or Not to Assess...

Have you been wondering how, or even if, you should assess STEM Challenges?

The main thing I want to put forward today is that we shouldn't assess for sake of assessing or out of habit. Assessments should always be thoughtful and serve a worthy purpose. So, before making any decisions about assessments, ask yourself why are you doing STEM challenges in your classroom? What do you hope to achieve? What are your goals? 

Watch the video version of this post below. However, if you prefer to read, you'll find the video transcribed at the end of this post.

My Goal List (more or less in order of importance): 

- I want students to develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

- I want to truly challenge students, so they will encounter frustration and potentially failure. Then, I'll facilitate the analysis & fixing of failure points. Ultimately, I'm hoping these experiences lead students to not to fear failure, become more resilient and adopt a growth mindset.

I want to provide opportunities to demonstrate creativity.

- I will facilitate, not lead, so students know I believe in their ability to solve problems without my help, and they will build confidence and self-reliance.

- I want students to practice working collaboratively, making their ideas heard, and being willing to compromise and/or accept when the group wants to move in a different direction. 

- I want students to make connections to how STEM skills are used to solve real-world problems.

- I want to address Next-Gen Science Standards.

Should we Assess?

Once you have your list, you can determine if you want to assess, and if so, how you want to go about it. My goals would be undermined by assessing the design itself after a single iteration, so I simply don't do that. (More on this in a bit.)

Can I just ask, don't we have enough assessments already?! I'm not eager to add new ones. However, I understand that we want to make sure our students are accountable for participating, and in some cases, we need to justify use of class time for something that looks to the lay person like "fun". 

Regarding participation, I've only encountered two issues that led to issues with participation: 1) group size was set too large (my mistake) and there wasn't a way to actively participate for all in the group. 2) Someone shuts down because their idea wasn't chosen. This is an issue I try to work through with the group as I walk around and facilitate the challenge. Neither issue is helped by assessing the design.

What I Do:

- I look to see that students have made an honest attempt to adhere to the Criteria & Constraints List I provide to guide the challenge. 
- I listen to their discussions as I walk around observing their build time. I probe their thinking with my own questions. I take a few notes on this, but mostly so I remember points to bring up in discussion later, or for anecdotal evidence for conferences and report card comments.
- I take note if there are arguments or anyone is having difficulty working with classmates. I try to facilitate a cease-fire during the challenge (I only intervene if needed; they often work it out on their own) and I use class discussion/meetings to continue to further work on these issues.
- I have all students complete their own design analysis handouts, so I can see how each individual reflects on their designs. This is the only grade I record in the grade book, and it's a completion/effort grade.

Why I NEVER Assess a First Iteration Design:

I know how I was as a student. If I knew the design would be graded, I would play it very safe in order to protect my report card. Secondly, the first iteration is timed. If you were ever going to assess a design itself, it isn't fair to do so on the first iteration. As the teacher, I can't say out of one side of my mouth: Be creative, try new things, take risks, don't worry about failure and ten minutes later, give them a grade that says: J/K...not good enough. Your actions are telling. Make sure your actions support what you say you believe.

I wouldn't give students 10 minutes to write a story and then grade that rough draft as though it were a final draft. I also wouldn't teach a brand new concept in math and grade their practice like a final test. I treat first iterations of STEM challenges similarly. 

Frankly, none of my goals are well-supported by grading the actual design. I don't grade designs beyond their attempt to address everything on the Criteria & Constraints List because I believe all my goals are better met by focusing on the analysis of designs rather than the designs themselves. But if you insist on grading the design anyway, you should only consider it on a second or third iteration with lessons/research time in between. 

Final Thoughts:

I have given this a LOT of thought, but you might disagree with my conclusions; I don't mind that! Your goals may differ from mine, or maybe you have an opinion about supporting my goals through assessment that I haven't considered yet. I'm not so much trying to convince you my way is the right way as I am asking everyone to think through their goals and how they may - or may not - be supported through assessment. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter! We always improve through collaboration, so please share what you think about assessing STEM challenges in the comments or contact me via email (icon at top of the post). I'm all ears!

Video Transcription

To assess or not to assess? That is the question. My gut reaction to the question is, "No, don't assess," but it's a little more complicated than that so let's get into it. The main point that I want to get across is that we don't want to assess for the sake of assessment or simply out of habit. We need to really evaluate, what are our goals in conducting STEM challenges and then how or even if assessment helps us evaluate and meet those goals.

The first thing then is to think about what are your goals. Why are you conducting STEM challenges? I'll share my list with you. I conduct STEM challenges because I want to build problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in my students. I want to give them true challenges where I am pretty certain they are going to be met with frustration and potentially even failure. Then, what I want to do is facilitate the analysis of the failure points and fixing of the failure points.

I'm hoping that through doing STEM challenges that they learn not to fear failure and to develop growth mindsets. I want to give them opportunities to develop their creativity and display their creativity. I want to make sure that I'm facilitating, not leading challenges so students know I believe in their ability to solve problems, and then I want them to have the experience of solving the problems on their own, so they can build their confidence and self-reliance.

I want them to learn to work collaboratively with their peers. I want them to be able to voice their own ideas and defend them, and then I also want them to learn to negotiate and work within a group, even if that group chooses to go in a direction that they didn't necessarily want. I want them to make connections with STEM skills in real-world problems and situations, and I want an opportunity to address Next Generation Science Standards.

Once you have your list, you can decide how or even if you want to assess STEM challenges. Based on my goals, STEM challenge assessments should really be sort of informal. I'm looking to see that groups made an honest attempt to meet the criteria and constraints list they were provided to guide them on the challenge. If you've ever done one of my challenges, you know I always have handouts to record and reflect, and I give those to each individual student, even when they're working in groups because I want to see that each student is analyzing and thinking about the challenge.

I want to give them an opportunity to share their ideas in case their group didn't go with one of their ideas. As I'm looking around while students are building, I'm listening their discussions. I'm probing with my own question. That is also something I informally take notes on, but in terms of what grades go in a grade book, for me, it's really just the handouts, the record and reflect handouts. I don't really believe in grading the design itself, but if I were going to do so, I would recommend never, ever do that on the first iteration of a challenge.

I don't feel like it's a fair thing to do because that first iteration is timed and I know how I would be as a student. If I know that I have 15 minutes to build something that is going to be graded, I'm not going to take any risks, and I'm not going to be terribly creative. I'm going to do what I think is most likely to be successful and neglect everything else. I also think it's sort of akin to having students write a rough draft piece of writing but then grading that as if it were a final draft.

I just feel like in general, grading the design itself undermines my stated goals, so I don't do it. For me the most important thing is that the students are making an attempt to build to the criteria and constraints list and then they are thinking about how that went and processing that information and then applying it to the next iteration. If I were ever going to grade a design, I would not do it on the first iteration. I would consider it on the second.

I wrote a blog post to sort of elaborate on my thinking behind assessing STEM challenges, and I will link that in the description below. The main thing I want to get across is just to make sure that if you're going to assess any part of the STEM challenge to just be very thoughtful about which parts and whether or not your assessments support a worthy goal, and just try not to get caught up in the assessment madness that is our modern school system.

If you have thoughts and comments on whether to assess STEM challenges or you want to share how you assess your STEM challenges, please share in the comments or reach out. All of my social media links are in the description below. Thanks so much for all the work you do, and I hope you are enjoying your much-deserved Winter break. Do not forget to like and subscribe. I'll be back next week. I'll see you next time.

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