One of my favorite student teaching/learning activities occurred each Fall in a Capstone class for future middle school teachers. It was usually fun for all, and always enlightening for my soon-to-be teachers – and often for me!
Early in the semester, I’d divide the class into three to five small groups. I’d usually provide 3 varied topics, from which they were to pick one to construct an assignment for a hypothetical class they would teach. They were to work in a group, create one assignment as if they were passing it out in a class, and have this ready by the next class period.
I might note that it was fun to wander around the room and listen to some of the conversations as they began to work on these. It was a good exercise in viewing what they (and others in their group) thought the assignment should include and look like. There were some interesting dynamics there, as they experienced each other’s ideas.
Usually, one of the 3 topic choices was ‘non-mathy’, asking students to pick a favorite mathematician, learn generally about them, and then share in a short paper. This was often the one the future teachers would pick. For this reason, as well as to make the thoughts more generally applicable, I’ll focus on that one.
For each assignment, I would later prepare two ‘middle school’ student responses. In each case, the response of “Sally Square” would be as clearly excellent in content as I could make it, but there would be minor instructions not followed. If the requirement was to double space, Sally might forget and single space. If a 3-page paper was assigned, Sally might not stop until the 4th page, rather than cut material. You get the idea.
The other response was from “Tommy Triangle”. Tommy always followed the letter of the law perfectly, but his was clearly a typical-squeak-by submission. It was often sloppily written, perhaps had grammar mistakes, and had obviously been ‘thrown together’ at the last minute.
In the following class, the students were asked to re-group and give each paper a grade or score. All groups always agreed that Sally’s assignment was ‘better’ and she had learned more, but they were often in a quandary about how to score the separate papers. All of them were naturally disappointed in Sally for ‘not following instructions’ – who can blame them? – and they were often astonished to find themselves giving the papers similar grades.
When this happened, their first instinct was to fix the original assignment by establishing more parameters. Usually they quickly realized that could only make the possible predicaments even worse. I used to gently mention to them that in these cases, sometimes less is more, especially when the goal assessing learning. I told them of a special middle school teacher I knew who used to add “turn in something your parents would be proud of”. This often succeeded better than any rubric!
There was no need to grade this final score-the-papers activity – there were no right answers, after all – but it almost always engendered some great discussions, insights, and reflection.
Primarily, it allowed the students to experience for themselves some truths about assessment that they might not have really accepted from a ‘stuffy college prof’. 1) Assessing authentic learning is rarely easy, even in a math class. 2) Good assessment must first involve knowing what you want them to know. 3) It’s easy to fall into the trap of assessing (or over-assessing) something else, if you’re not careful.