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Our first day of class is September 3rd, so it’s beginning to get “real.”

I did my first phase of class planning in last July (see HERE ARE DETAILED – & TENTATIVE – DISTANCE LEARNING PLANS FOR ALL MY FALL CLASSES), and just finished “phase two” for all my classes. The tentative plans were more broad strokes and “phase two” were getting into specifics for the first couple of weeks.

To be more accurate, though, since our district and union have not yet agreed to a class schedule, my “specifics” are still very tentative (I’ll be writing up my more specific plans in a week or so though, of course, who knows what percentage will actually survive the first few weeks?).

Now, it’s time to start thinking through some remaining “sticky” issues, and one of them is assessment.

Even though it had been in the back of my mind, it was brought to the front by seeing a new study on homework.

The study (which was on college students, but it seems pretty safe to say that it’s also applicable to at least high school students), Fewer students are benefiting from doing their homework: an eleven-year study, (it’s behind a paywall, but is easy to access using other means – see The Best Tools For Academic Research) basically found that with the increasing availability of tech, the majority of students surveyed just used those easy methods to complete homework (specifically online homework) and didn’t use retrieval practice (The Best Resources For Learning About Retrieval Practice) or other strategies to come up with answers on their own.  The minority of students who said they did more than just copy answers did better on exams for the course than the others:

A distinctive pattern of performance was found for some students in which superior performance on online homework questions resulted in poorer exam performance. When assessed over an eleven-year period, for 2433 students in 12 different college lecture courses, the percent of students who did not benefit from correctly answering homework questions increased from 14% in 2008 to 55% in 2017. During the most recent two years of the study, when students were asked how they did their homework, students who benefitted from homework reported generating their own answers and students who reported copying the answers from another source did not benefit from homework.


Though these conclusions are probably not a big surprise to most teachers, they certainly clarify some of the assessment challenges we face this year.

Before I continue, I do want to make one thing very clear – I’m not concerned about grades.  Grading has never been an issue for me in the physical classroom and I hope they are not a problem in the virtual one, either (the greater challenges  of building solid relationships could get in the way of this).   I’ll explain why, and I think that speaks to how to handle the broader assessment issue, too.

Even though I suspect I have a reputation as an “easy grader,” I believe I have very high student expectations.  I regularly reinforce those expectations in class discussions and in individual conversations with students and their families.

I expect that they will be present for class and, if they are not, will have a good reason for not being there; that they will complete all the work and do their best; be respectful and supportive to their classmates and to me; be open about what they understand and what they do not; provide honest feedback about my teaching and how they are feeling about the class (see Best Posts On Students Evaluating Classes (And Teachers)) and apply regular candid self-assessment to themselves (see Best Resources On Student Self-Assessment).

In return, I say, and demonstrate, that I will be in class everyday (of course, “everyday” will likely be different this year); that we will learn a curriculum that is, as much as possible, tailored to their interests and make them think; that the methodology will be very interactive; and that I will actively care for, and support them, in other ways.  And I invite students to challenge me if I do not follow my end of this “bargain.”

I regularly tell students that if they follow through on my expectations, they will get a high grade.  And, because of that, I hope they focus on learning for the sake of learning, and not for the sake of getting all the answers correct or getting the points they need for a high grade.

Does this framework eliminate a focus on grades for all students?  Of course not.  Does it generally reduce the focus on grades for a fair number of students?  I think so.  Does it contribute towards creating a greater sense that we’re a “community of learners” and not a “classroom of students”?  Definitely.

But grades are very different from assessment.

And grades are particularly different from the most important form of assessment – formative assessment (see The Best Resources For Learning About Formative Assessment).

Formative assessment informs me about who is understanding what, and who is not understanding what.

And knowing that information is critical to good teaching.

My “go-to” tool in the physical classroom for formative assessment is often having students use mini-whiteboards to respond to questions – either ones I say verbally or questions that are on paper in front of them.

In online classes, I think I’ll be able replicate that experience using either whiteboard.fi (and stop sharing the screen when students are writing down their responses), Padlet (and switch the controls to comments don’t appear until approved by me); Nearpod (several of their activities, including “draw it” can work for this purpose); or have students just direct their chat to me instead of “everyone” in Zoom (thanks for a bunch of people who offered these ideas when I asked on Facebook and on Twitter).

But, since I’ll have less “live” time with students than in “normal” times, I have to be much more strategic about what and when I assess in class.

So, “homework” could carry more importance as an assessment tool – if students use it as a learning opportunity and not solely as a way to get all the answers correct all the time.

In other words, it can be an assessment tool if my classes go counter to the culture the new study found among students.

This will be less of an issue in my Theory of Knowledge classes, since the homework there will be collaborative work that is less amenable to copying, even if they wanted to go that route.

My English Language Learner classes, on the other hand, will have important reinforcing language “homework” – as well as other collaborative projects.

For my Beginners English class, in addition to Brainpop ELL videos, I plan on having them use Live Worksheets (by using the interactive workbooks and not the worksheets since users can see their results prior to teacher submission in the workbooks – that will make sense if you play around at the site).

The workbook homework will only be useful if students try to answer the questions on their own and not use tech to find the answers.

I’m hopeful this can happen if I  tell students that are accountable for trying their best to complete the worksheets, but that how many they have correct will not have any impact on their grade.

And I hope that telling them about this new study’s results, and the concept of retrieval practice, will reinforce their trying to do the homework on their own.

Similarly, my ELL History classes will have a lot of collaborative homework and some that could easily be answered through tech means. I’m hopeful that communicating about the study and retrieval practice will work there, too.  I’ve had some success doing something similar in previous ELL History classes (see Here’s How I’m Trying To Incorporate More Retrieval Practice In Class – Let Me Know How I Can Improve).

What are you thoughts on this post and assessment this year in general?

I’m adding this post to:


The Best Resources For Learning About Retrieval Practice

The Best Resources For Learning About Homework Issues

The Best Resources For Learning About Formative Assessment