formative vs summative

Teaching and learning are both hard. How do I get students to realize that? I put a lot of effort into making my 151 lecture a “flipped” classroom where students come to class in order to do work on problem sets in groups so they can teach each other. However, a single in class assignment is a formative assessment, a chance for them to realize what they don’t know so they have time to prepare for their exams. Since a single assignment is only worth about 2 points on their final grade, students put very little effort into each assignment. There a major disconnect, especially in the large lecture environment, where students do not make connections between formative and summative assessments, unless of course the questions are verbatim from the formative assessment. How do we make students realize that these formative assessments, with low point values attached to them, are probably the most important? I’ve tried telling them, but that seems ineffective. If an assignment has a low point value, it doesn’t matter how thought provoking the assignment might be, it is immediately labeled as “busy work” or a “throw-away assignment.” I think writing alignments between course questions, is a great way to start, but I fear progress will still be hampered by those who don’t read all the way to the end.

In analyzing my assessments and comparing them to my course goals, I did realize my course is a very negative experience. Even the feedback opportunities are based on “what you didn’t learn” instead of being based on “what did you learn?” Unfortunately, I do think this is the standard approach for assessment, especially in the sciences. I feel like we face a deficit. Students come in expecting to memorize to succeed in a science class. That notion is so ingrained that they don’t believe us when we say memorization alone will not yield the desired results. Part of why this is true is because I change the wording on my exams. The information will never be identical to what was in the section exam when it shows up on the final. I suppose part of the problem is that at best, my course focuses on advanced memorization, but I pitch it as thinking. I do expect them to know the many details of biological stuff, but it is a very precarious line between memorizing useless stuff, and stuff that matters. Knowing all the steps in repairing damaged DNA doesn’t sound like a particularly useful life skill, but being able read a paragraph about when three times of DNA repair enzymes function and deduce when in the cell cycle they would occur seems a little bit more like biological problem solving than just memorization. It’s being able to find the overlap in the things memorized that’s important. Does that have a name?

I definitely chose my assignment types with my own time management in mind. Grading is something that needs to be fast in order for it to be meaningful. If it takes forever for students to get a grade back on an assignment, then there is no way for it to be helpful to them in preparation for the next assignment. I try to write assignments to force students to see the very subtle differences between concepts and biological processes. The downside to doing this is that it makes my assignments very content and memorization driven. This is very frustrating because I don’t want to teach that way, but there has to be development of a functional vocabulary because faculty teaching upper level courses expect it. Indeed, I’ve been told to “weed harder” by some colleagues.

When I’ve done essay assignments in the past to try and combat the memorization rhetoric and get students try and connect ideas, I’ve found the number one reasons do not score well is because they do not answer the question. A close second is that they think they understand vocabulary words, but in reality do not. I really like the blog posting idea because it would force students to engage in conversation, read what other students are writing, and hopefully develop the ability to ascertain when someone has or has not followed the directions. I also like the self evaluation approach because it forces students to turn that critical lens inward and review their own ability to answer questions. I also hope that they would learn to better follow assignment directions through the self-evaluation process. They would hopefully be more likely to see their mistakes in the process of grading themselves, whereas if I take the time to grade an essay, I do not think students ever look at the feedback and therefore do not make improvements.

For my new assignment, I plan to have students find a science news article related to the cell cycle. Cell cycle research has many implications for the treatment of cancer, so this topic should generate a lot of interest among pre-med students enrolled in my Biol-151 course. After they find their news article, students will need to create a blog post about how the article relates to Biol-151, and how either Biol-151 improved their understanding of the article, or how the article improved their understanding of Biol-151. The next step is to decide if the article is written for a wide audience, or if it uses niche vocabulary words making it inaccessible to most people. Then students will need to decide how to change the article to make it more accessible, or what information is missing that someone looking for a more scientific article would expect to find.

Students would then comment on other people’s posts and provide additional feedback concerning other applications the news finding might have, connections to other topics we have covered in lecture, or connections to other news stories or posts they have read.

In order to grade this assignment, I would use a technique one of my colleagues recently introduced to me— I would make it a quiz in blackboard!! Instead of just handing out a rubric and telling students to score themselves, I would make a multiple-answer question for each piece of the rubric. That way students could select how many points they earned for each section of the rubric, and it would be distilled into individual questions that are easy to work through, rather than a large grid that requires a bit more thought to process all at once.

I would also consider breaking my class into groups for this kind of assignment. It would make it substantially easier for myself and the preceptors to moderate student progress and comments if my class was set up in groups of 50 instead of groups of 300. I think it would also be easier for students to look over 50 blog posts, rather than be inundated by 300 blog posts to choose from.

I hope this kind of assignment forces them to see biology outside of the classroom and really think about applications for biology and what they are learning in class in every day life. Most people don’t look at a plant think about the cell cycle happening at the tips of its roots or photosynthesis happening in it’s leaves, or the relevance to global warming, or how huge plants like tobacco plants can be used to synthesize drugs.

Although the self assessment part of this assignment is still in the “what didn’t you learn” category, at least the first two parts of the assignment are geared towards getting students to think about concepts outside the classroom. When I’ve taught smaller classes I’ve had them break into groups of 5 and each person comes to class with a concept map on a particular chapter and they teach each other their assigned chapters. That was a really good approach for getting students to review for an exam. Making a concept map video would be a good way for them to reach a broader audience and act as content creators. That seems like a really good group work assignment and then they could use each others videos as a spring board for further discussion of the subtle nuances of biochemical processes.

These types of assignments would have some inherent challenges for myself and students. A lot of them simply wouldn’t understand the assignment, or would have trouble setting up a blog. It’s also difficult to figure out what constitutes a science article. There’s a huge difference between the science section of The New York Times, and an “ifl-science” post on tumblr. Even just getting students to understand that difference would be amazing.

A good thing about this kind of assignment is that students ultimately get out of it what they put into it. If students put a lot of effort into these kinds of formative assessments then they stand to gain a very reflexive knowledge of the content covered in my course and will do well on “ye olde multiple-choice test.” Learning will end up being a lot like knitting – if you pull on one knowledge thread, it will tug at the fabric as a whole because all the stitches are connected. I really do need to have a blog and a twitter feed about why we do things like this in 151 to make them realize the value of these low-point value assessments throughout the semester.

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