No tests, no problem?

This semester I decided to do away with tests in my HSB4U – Challenge and Change course. My initial thought was that this would be well received by my grade 12 students – and why wouldn’t it be, no one likes tests, right?

Wrong. Much to my surprise there was push back from a number of my students when I confirmed that there would be no tests. By my estimation it was roughly one third of the class who wanted traditional pen and paper tests. Why? Because they are “good” at tests. And when you are good at tests you get good grades. The problems is, as explained by one of my students, “you can’t get 100% on assignments”.

In my grade 9 Geography course I still have tests, they may not take the form of what some may call a traditional test but they are tests nonetheless. What I have changed is the types of questions that I ask. No longer is the focus on memorizing facts and terminology the student could otherwise “search up” on Google, but rather the student is presented with questions and problems requiring them to apply their knowledge and think critically. Often the students get the questions the day before, so they must like these new tests and do well, right?

Wrong again. Most of my grade 9 students have been struggling with these tests and don’t like them. Why? Because they have never been asked to do this before. They have been conditioned to memorize facts and terminology, regurgitate it the next morning onto a test paper, and then forget everything to make room for more facts. When asked to think about what they have learned and apply it to a new context they are often at a loss. The skill set isn’t there or it is poorly developed.

So, what is the answer then? Tests or not? By the time students get to grade 12 they have figured out school. They figured out marks, they figured out what they need to do to get good marks, they are now good at school. The end goal for them is a good grade and unfortunately, for many students, it can be as simple as having a good memory. We need to either change how we do tests, or do away with them entirely – students need to become good at thinking, processing, and problem solving and not good at school.

What’s my photocopier code again?

We are officially at the half way point of the first semester of the 2015/16 school year and I have not made a single photocopy for my classes nor our department. Nothing revolutionary, I know, but I set out this year to go paperless thinking that it would be a difficult task – and it hasn’t been.

It has been easy because of the shift that has occurred in many of the classrooms in the Social Sciences department here at my school. Many of us have moved away from the “sit and get” model and have made our students become more responsible for their learning. A more inquiry based (or even problem/project based) approach to learning doesn’t need a lot of paper, rather it requires a lot of thinking, discussion, and reflecting. Having fewer (or no) traditional tests has helped reduce runs to the photocopier and in the process helped us move forward with our assessment practices.

Of course, technology has certainly played a large role in this process. Using Google Classroom to provide students with readings, assignment instructions, rubrics, and other resources reduces my photocopying and helps the students go paperless as well. Socrative helps us with digital assessment and using Sesame for “returning” rubrics, feedback, and other assessment tools has not only helped some of us go paperless, but it has improved the quality and timeliness of the feedback we provide to students.

I set out to reduce photocopying across our entire department two years ago with the intention of saving money (and we have… photocopying has dropped more than 50%). The extra money in the budget has been nice, we have invested that money in technology for our classrooms. But the extra money didn’t end up being the most important outcome. Reducing paper forced some teachers to get away from the “tried and tested” approaches to teaching and learning. It has, in effect, forced teachers to be innovative in their classrooms. And you can’t put a price on that.