I’ve been thinking a lot lately about skills-based learning and what learning looks like in a classroom that is not oriented around content. The UNIV112 essay exam is an excellent example: the exam is always centered around that semester’s reading (for us, The Circle). In theory, I’m testing my students on the novel.
The thing is: I don’t really care how well they know the novel.
What I care about is skill development that becomes invisible if we focus too closely on the text. I care that students learn basic preparation for timed writing. I care that they learn coping skills for test anxiety. I care that they learn organizational skills, and in my current class (where most students haven’t taken 111, or haven’t taken it together) I care that they learn some basic collaboration techniques.
In some cases, especially with a high density AP and IRB students, I could receive a good essay that was produced with only a few of the skills above. In fact, considering the rote essay organizational techniques taught for AP and SOL exams, I could probably receive a solid essay from a student who has none of the above skills.
In a learning environment where many of us were taught to perform well in an instant, but not over a life, how do we evaluate if any learning has occurred?
Spoiler alert: I have no immediate answer to this question. I am, however, experimenting with better ways of observing my students in action, of catching collaboration while it happens, of seeing process as a way of rethinking product. Here’s what I came up with this week:
This is a quick edit of my students working on their study guide for the essay exam. It’s only a tiny bit part of the process that set up the text they took yesterday, but it’s an essential one. Documenting this helps me, and my students, remember where to focus.
Looking back over my home blog, I realized I’ve been thinking about process for a while. Today, I’m returning to Andrea Donnelly’s work as a new way of thinking about teaching. Donnelly, VCU textiles grad and local rock-star weaver, creates work that is entirely focused on a process that happens behind the scenes. Her works are hand woven, hand dyed, unwoven, and rewoven again with the warp and the weft serving as the foundation for two separate pieces. It is unbelievably labor intensive. It’s incredibly beautiful.
It would take a trained eye in the gallery to see what actually happened and to understand what Donnelly’s work really means. I want my students to have the same sort of diligent fearlessness that allows one to unweave 45 square feet of beautiful work and start again. I want my students to be undaunted by failures. I don’t want them to have the sense that any of this ever ends, even after an exam.
I’m not accomplishing all of this in one writing exercise, but that’s sort of the point isn’t it?