So I began searching through folders (both on thumb drives and in cabinets) of teaching techniques and best practices I had collected over the years for ways to get students to take responsibility for their own learning. I came across an article I had photocopied from NCTM’s Empowering Students by Promoting Active Learning in Mathematics, published way back in 1994, written by Marcia Standera. In the article, Ms. Standera states that she doesn’t allow students to simply leave homework assignments unfinished because they couldn’t do certain problems. In Ms. Standera’s class, to complete an assignment, students:
must do every problem or write one sentence or more of explanation for each place where they “got stuck.” [Because, m]any times, describing what they don’t understand helps them think about the process of solving the problem, and they “unstick” themselves. Writing about where they “got stuck” also makes them more accountable for assignments. No longer can students hand in blank sheets of paper and say, “I don’t understand.” They have to think about what they don’t understand and express it in written form.” (25)
As I begin my classes this semester, each time I give a homework assignment that counts for a grade, I am going to use this stipulation. Since I use the online software for homework, students will know whether they incorrectly worked a problem or not after they have finished it. So, I will require for each homework problem that a student works incorrectly or cannot finish an accompanying sentence or two of explanation. We’ll see how it goes. Results tba!!
Thinking about Ms. Standera’s assignment brought to mind another assignment I used in those halcyon days of yore that I think I will revive as well in an attempt to promote self-assessment and active learning. This is an assignment that, in a way, turns a summative assessment into a formative one. Once upon a time, I would ask students, after each major unit test to complete a test review. I required that students first go through their test carefully and redo every problem that they got wrong (or only received partial credit for). Then, for each problem they corrected, I would ask them to write an explanation of why they thought they got the problem wrong on the first attempt. I urged students to be honest with themselves and me. If the reason for getting it wrong was because they had no earthly idea how to answer or work out the solution, say so. I reminded them that their teacher could only provide help or get them additional help if he knew where their weaknesses were. I modeled a few possible responses, such as “I got question 2 wrong because I got mixed up about which side of the less than/greater than symbol was supposed to be aimed at the larger number. I guess I didn’t study that and commit it to memory as well as I should have.” I remember this assignment adding a great deal to my teaching, and the only reason I stopped using it – I am confessing now – is because I got lazy. To finish the assignment, I asked students to write a paragraph or so outlining a course of action for preparing for the next exam. I used (and am reviving) this assignment because I want students to see that a successful student embraces his or her summative assessments as just another way to learn, rather than fearing the possibility of failure. Rather than getting frustrated and angry because they didn’t make the grade hoped for, they should do a self-assessment of their skills and habits, and then make a plan for how they will change in the future. Hopefully using these two assignments will help my students take more responsibility for their own learning.
Standera, Marcia. “Listening to Students through Writing.” Empowering Students by Promoting Active Learning in Mathematics. Reston: NCTM, 1994.