Monthly Archives: December 2012

Content Mastery and Problem Solving Skills

I recently had the honor to help host a district showcase on the uses of the Canvas LMS.  It was set up like “speed dating” where I sat in one place, with my laptop connected to a large monitor, and interested parties moved from table to table, and asked me questions, or watched a demo of how I use the LMS.  It was cool.  And I got asked many great questions.

Most of the specific questions were on quizzes.   This is because in my AP and gen. physics classes I give all quizzes on Canvas.  I have quiz banks set up, from which Canvas pulls random problems, and the students do their best to answer them.  Most of these questions came after I said that I gave the students multiple attempts on the quizzes (up to 5, at their own pace in AP, and as many as needed by conference in gen. physics).

One question went something like this, “Well, how do they take the quizzes? In class or at home?”  I could tell right away that the concept of multiple attempts was throwing the teacher.  I said that both venues are used, though generally in-class for he gen. physics kids.  I later got the concerned statement, “Well if you have a bunch of kids sitting near each other they’ll cheat.  They can all work on one quiz, then shift to the other kid’s quiz, and so on… and they’ll all get 100s.”  I tried to alleviate this concern by saying that there are time limits, etc., and I am observing, so its hard for them to “cheat.”  But then I realized that what was really being voiced was a difference in opinion on what quizzes are for.

It would seem the other teacher viewed quizzes as mini exams.  They are a way to see just how much a student can recall, or solve, in a set amount of time.  The results of the quiz should be used to inform the student what they need to study up on (because they will have to do it all over again, on a much larger exam in the near future).  Therefore, students must be isolated, just them and their brain, and pour forth their knowledge.  So, having two or three students with laptops taking quizzes in class could lead to them ::gasp:: working on problems together– I mean, cheating!  And thus defeat the purpose of the quiz: to see what Student A remembers.  (And yes, I understand that a real concern is that one student does all 3 quizzes.  THAT would be real cheating)

But I don’t use quizzes that way.  I don’t think I have since, maybe, my second or third year as a teacher.  Well, they were like mini exams, but not just to gauge student understanding, but to give them credit for what they knew.  I would always try to give partial credit on problems, ask students to tell me what they meant, to give them the benefit of the doubt, etc.  Now with Canvas (and previously with Moodle to a lesser extent) I use quizzes as a mastery tool.  Students work on a quiz.  Canvas scores it.  If they get below a 75% their score gets marked as zero until they conference with me about each question they got wrong.  Then, after I feel they understand their mistakes, I give them another attempt, on another 5 randomly chosen problems.  Often this results in a student going from a 3/5 to a 5/5.  Now, as I walk around my room I will see students “looking in” on someone else’s quiz, maybe even discussing a problem with the quiz taker.  But I generally don’t get upset about this.  I see it as a form of group problem solving.

Sure some students may be “cheating” a little, asking someone nearby what the answer is when I’m not looking, but generally this is not the case.  And I wouldn’t want to clamp down on quiz taking by, say, isolating students to a corner of the room, because I like the idea of them working together.  There is something about the name “quiz” that makes students take the work seriously.  I used to give group quizzes in the past, and I would see a level of  diligent work and group communication not present during regular assignments.  So, when I see, or hear, students talking about a quiz question I allow it.  I’d rather have students working together to solve a problem, even if they’re being covert to an extent, than suffer alone.

Ultimately I want my students to master the content of the physics standards, but I don’t want that to happen at the expense of problem solving skills.  The way I see it, I can have both.  By requiring students to discuss, one-on-one, what it is they didn’t understand, I am helping to move them towards mastery.  And when students work some problems out together in the “quiz” environment, they are struggling to solve a problem under pressure.  And I think that is a good thing.  Aside from being a good skill to have, it makes the classroom a more welcoming place to be.

So what should I tell a teacher who raises a concern like the one above?  There are really only two options. 1) Set up computers in the back of your room, with the monitors facing you, and make sure they are far enough apart so students can’t help each other.  Or, 2) change your attitude about quizzes.