Navigating the Neural Superhighway

I recently had a guest post published on Edutopia’s Brain-Based Learning blog, inspired by some reflection on practices that were impacting my own learning at the time of writing. A short excerpt:

As students learn something new, electric or chemical signals move from neuron to neuron, traversing a route between locations in the brain. Like a tourist turning on unfamiliar city streets, these signals cross synapses to form a path that eventually connects the source to its destination. While identifying a route is slow going at first, students’ brains eventually make these connections, and learning begins.

Even after establishing a route, a student’s development of an optimal pathway takes time. Aside from leading them along the same path over and over again, how can we speed up our students’ navigation of neural pathways? What follows is a proposal for three actions that I believe can have a huge effect on accelerating student learning.

What I learned most from researching while writing: what the brain is actually does while we’re sleeping. It’s fascinating.

What’s funny is, the opposite is true.

My story: I tend to write late at night, often during bouts of sleeplessness. I found that when I had something particular I was trying to understand, I would read / write / draw / think about it deeply (usually at some ungodly hour). Once things started to get ‘jumbled,’ I would go to sleep, setting an alarm to awaken me within 30-90 minutes. I noticed that when I awoke, everything was clear. Everything made sense. So I would write. And write. And write. Until I got stuck again. Once arriving to that “stuck” place, I would take another nap. And the cycle continued, until either I was finished writing or the sun came up, whichever came first. After doing a little research, I now understand is that while sleeping, my brain was clearing out / breaking down the less-used pathways, while the stronger network connecting my most recent thoughts remained strong.

This and so much more, all from trying to learn about my own learning. Hope you enjoy the rest of the post!

To Auf, or Not to Auf: A Lesson in Communication

Watching the latest episode of Project Runway (hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it) made me think about project-based learning and the importance of communication of grading practices.

For those who don’t know, Project Runway is Heidi Klum’s challenge-based reality show where one day you’re “in”, and the next day you’re “out” (or “Auf’d!” as we say based on the German-born host’s good-bye catchphrase). Pitting upstart fashion designers against each other, the 18-week run showcases one elimination per week, creating a sewing fight to the finish where only 1 designer can end up on top.

Projrunwaypbl

Normally, I end up watching the show through the lens of project-based learning and performance assessment. It’s not really much of a stretch:

  • Given parameters for a task, designers make a plan (for an outfit), gather resources to execute that plan, and develop the final product of a runway-ready outfit – usually within two days or so from soup to nuts.
  • The final product gets assessed by a panel of fashion professionals, who judge the outfit accoding to some specified criteria along with their own professional opinion.
  • These panelists provide each “Top 3” and “Bottom 3” designer with both commendations and critical feedback. Through deliberation, they then choose one designer as the winner, and one to be Auf’d.
  • Every designer who has participated – whether they continue on or not – has ideally learned more about the skills and understanding it takes to make it in this business.

This panelist interaction highlights for me the distinctions between tests and assessments, between feedback and grades. These terms get thrown around and conflated in education all the time – I thought maybe that applying them to this show would be a helpful way to distinguish them. Here’s how the analogy works for me:

  • Test = The task given to the designers
  • Assessment = Observation of the products that resulted from this task, and judgement of the relative quality of that product
  • Feedback = The process of sharing these observations and judgements, while potentially suggesting some changes for future endeavors
  • Grade = In this case, a norm-referenced rating: Winner of the challenge, Top 3, “Safe” in the middle, Bottom 3, “Auf’d”.

Fast-forward to this past week. (SPOILER ALERT, for those who care about that kind of thing.) In episode 7, the task was to make a design that fit into an existing collection developed by Lord & Taylor, a reputable fashion company. After completing the challenge, the runway walk revealed the 9 designers’ dresses – all of which were pretty good. I didn’t think there was a “bad” one in the bunch.

Apparently, the judges felt the same way: they decided that everyone “met par” on the challenge, and no one was Auf’d. The decision made perfect sense to me, but I’m a standards-based addict. The response from Christopher (a contestant on the show):

Projrunwayermahgerd

Because these contestants are used to a certain norm-referenced grading scale – Winner, Top 3, “Safe”, Bottom 3, “Auf’d” – they will react negatively if the scale gets changed on them somehow. They will consider any decision based on that change to be “unfair”, even if it is the fairer thing to do.

Something to keep in mind for all of you starting up the school year with new ways of assessing and grading (standards-based or otherwise): make sure you’ve communicated the change and its rationale before acting on the change. Otherwise, your kids will likely respond just like Christopher did.

Is It Testable? How Would You Test It?

“If the sun were the size of a grapefruit, how big would the planets in our solar system be? And how far away would they be from the sun?”

This question stared me in the face, boldly sketched with Crayola marker on a sheet of tri-folded cardboard. Juxtaposed around this question, a collection of photos, drawings and descriptions served as artifacts of one student’s exploration of the topic.

It’s science fair season in our schools, and earlier this week I found myself with the opportunity to visit one of our elementary school’s displays of the products of their students’ learning.

Question_creative_commons_flicker

What struck me most were the questions themselves. The questions that kids (particularly elementary-aged kids) have about their world never cease to amaze me! Some examples:

  • Do worms speed up the process of composition?
  • Is a dog’s mouth or a person’s mouth cleaner?
  • What is the best way to purify water?
  • What materials glow in a black light, and why?
  • Can a toilet paper roll hold your weight?
  • Do dogs have a “paw preference”? If so, are more dogs “right-pawed” or “left-pawed”?
  • What brand of soap expands the most when you put it in the microwave? And why?

(Note: I couldn’t help but giggle at the “soap expanding in the microwave” one – it’s so awesomely ‘on the nose’ – and I noticed that I wondered more deeply about each of the questions that added, “And why?”)

As tends to be the case, these questions led me to more questions. While I wandered the hallways, appreciating the thought behind each student’s approach to learning about their world, I wondered three things:

  • To what extent is each of these questions testable?
  • If I were curious enough to seek an answer to one of these questions, how would I test it?
  • Once I landed on an answer to this question, what would be my next one?

Thankfully, if I ever sought answers to any of these questions, I had some great starting points (and likely collaborators) in the explorations of these students. I hope that their personal journey of exploration led to an opportunity for them to ask a next question. Without fostering this continued inquiry about our universe, we’ll be stuck with only knowing that which we know now.

As more schools display these kinds of products, I plan to periodically tweet some of these questions using the hashtag #howwouldyoutestit. If you run across similar questions that strike you as particularly interesting, consider sharing them with the world under that hashtag. Also, if you find yourself considering how you might test one of the questions given the opportunity, feel free to share that, too! 

Here’s to hoping that each of us has the opportunity to become reacquainted with the childhood curiosity that still lives somewhere inside us. Leave it to 10-year olds to keep you wondering! 

Flip On the Tube! 5 Made-for-TV Video Sites for Science Instruction

This is the third in a series of blog posts, collecting links to websites that contain some interesting videos for teachers looking to “flip their classroom” without starting from scratch.  (For more on what it means to flip a classroom, see Monday’s introductory post.)  For each site below, I have tried to summarize by including information about

  • content areas collected on the site,
  • the intended grade level/age of viewers, and
  • the type/style of video (e.g. lecture with written notes, music video, made-for-TV)

There should also be an example video posted along each title.  Between the description, the links, and sample video, you should end up with a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into.  (Note: after being organized into categories, these sites are listed alphabetically by title, not based on any evaluation of relative quality.) 

Made-for-TV Videos

Mythbusters http://dsc.discovery.com/videos/mythbusters/

Content Areas: Scientific process skills and engineering around a variety of topics

Intended Age Group: Most clips would be all right for ages 8+, though be sure to screen topics accordingly

Style of videos: Problem-focused vignette as two (or more) people try to design a solution

Sample video: Dimpled Car MiniMyth

 

Description: Mythbusters Jamie & Adam are at it again!  As most know, these two (and their newly-formed team) challenge widely-held beliefs of all shapes and sizes, using science to debunk myth.  Discovery.com has collected over 1,000 clips from the show on their website.  The clips- ranging from 60 seconds to 5 minutes- could serve a great purpose as a focusing tool, or as a model for engineering, problem-solving, or investigation.  The downside: the clips on this site are not really organized in any way.  To find something of value to you in your classroom, be ready to do some searching and some bookmarking.

NBC Learn http://www.nbclearn.com/

Content Areas: Physics (Science of NFL Football, Science of the WInter Olmpics), Chemistry (Chemistry Now!), and Earth Science (The Changing Planet)

Intended Age Group: I’ve used these resources with students as young as 3rd grade, as old as 12th.  

Style of videos: What you might expect in a feature story on the news- interviews, stock footage, telestrated explanations over video.

Sample video: The Chemistry of Chocolate

Description: The team at NBC News got collected, produced, and archived these resources for the K-12 classroom.  The subject matter of each collection puts the content into a context that matters to kids.  (My pesonal favorite: Science of the Winter Olympics!)  A select few videos (about 100 altogether) are free for use in classrooms, while the rest of the collection require a subscription.

One interesting tidbit: NBC Learn uses a media player called a Cue Card™ that supports various media besides video.  It is also “flippable”:  like a flash card, the media player provides bibliographic information, clickable keywords and a citation generator on the back, and a full transcript along the side.

SportScience http://search.espn.go.com/sports-science/videos/6

Content Areas: Mostly physics, though several touch on biology- or chemistry-related topics

Intended Age Group: Like NBC Learn, I have used these with all ages of student.

Style of videos: TV scientists pose a question, and measure data from athletes’ performance in order to answer the question

Sample video: Jayron Hosley – Reaction Time and Speed

Description: John Brenkus and the SportScience team mix Mythbusters with SportsCenter to bring SportScience, a show that digs into the science behind the world of sports.  In most situations, the clips consist of Brenkus posing a question about an athlete: “How does Rory McElroy drive the ball so far off the tee?”  “How fast is Jayron Hosley?”  “Can Chicago Bear Devin Heser outrun a real bear?”  The team then goes into data collection mode, strapping high-tech probes and tracking equipment to the athlete in order to study his/her movements.  The data is then analyzed in order to try and answer the initial question.

ESPN has collected about 100 3 to 5 minute clips on their website.  Unfortunately, like the Mythbusters site, the organizational structure of this site leaves a bit to be desired- teachers will need to be ready to spend a little time digging here to find just the content they need.  (Be sure to bookmark it in some way once you find it!)

Time Warphttp://dsc.discovery.com/tv/time-warp/time-warp.html

Content Areas: Bit of a mixed bag, though there is a lot of physics.

Intended Age Group: Generally for older viewers, though I think everyone could be easily awed by the super high-speed camera.  Given that explosions and fire are often a topic of conversation, be wary of the clip in its totality before assigning it.

Style of videos: Hosts Jeff Lieberman and Matt Kearney pose questions, and then film subjects with a super high-speed camera in order to see events in super slow motion (which hopefully helps to answer the question at hand).

Sample video:  Nucleation in a Soda Geyser

Description: Like SportScience, Time Warp digs into the science behind that which happens too quickly for our eyes to see.  Through the use of a high-speed camera, the hosts are able to capture many more frames per second than your average video camera, allowing us to receive much more information about what really happens in the blink of an eye!  The site has two different video sets.  One set of 20 videos from HowStuffWorks.com goes into more of an explanation for phenomena like bubbles, rockets, and fire walking.  The other is a collection of interactive videos where the user controls the speed and direction of the playback- perhaps to answer a question of his or her own!  While these vids may not be of enough substance to fly as flipped videos on their own, the interactive videos might cool enough of a resource to be used in the classroom during application time.

Twig Science http://twig-it.com/

Content Areas: Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, and Physics

Intended Age Group: These have different videos for all ages of students.

Style of videos: Most I have seen are documentary-style, with a single speaker scripted over archived footage from the BBC, NASA, etc.

Sample video: How Hot is the Earth’s Core?

Description: Twig Science is a company based out of the UK advertised as providing “outstanding short films on science…made with teachers, for teachers.”  They are not lying.  The videos I have seen are short (usually no more than 3 minutes or so), and outstanding in quality and clarity.  As described about BrainPop in yesterday’s post, Twig Science also offers several supplementary resources that could be used in conjunction with these videos, including sample lesson plans, checks for understandings, The organizational mindmap is an impressive feature, as well.  Also like BrainPop, Twig Science is a paid site.  The free videos give a taste of what’s inside (including a nice categorization between “Core Concept” videos and “Extension” videos), but to get full access, there’s a fee involved.

 

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If you know of any other resources that fit this description, please share them in the comments boxes.  Happy flipping!

Still Ready to Flip? 4 Lecture-Style Video Sites for Science Instruction

This is the next in a series of blog posts, collecting links to websites that contain some interesting videos for teachers looking to “flip their classroom” without starting from scratch.  (For more on what it means to flip a classroom, see Monday’s introductory post.)  For each site below, I have tried to summarize by including information about

  • content areas collected on the site,
  • the intended grade level/age of viewers, and
  • the type/style of video (e.g. lecture with written notes, music video, made-for-TV)

There should also be an example video posted along each title.  Between the description, the links, and sample video, you should end up with a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into.  (Note: after being organized into categories, these sites are listed alphabetically by title, not based on any evaluation of relative quality.)

Lecture-Style Videos

Hippocampus http://www.hippocampus.org/

Content Areas: Biology, Environmental Science, and Physics, as well as several other disciplines

Intended Age Group: These videos seem to align to high school textbooks, though most students of any age could probably follow along.

Style of videos: Predominantly one speaker over animated slides of information

Sample video: NOAA: Plate Tectonics

Description: As described in the last post, Hippocampus is a project dedicated to providing multimedia content on general education without charge.  I included it both here and in the Animated Video Explanation sections, since most of its videos are still lecture-based.  All in all, still a pretty solid ‘first stop’ on the road to finding the right content for a flipped classroom concept.  Don’t forget about the ‘new look’ webiste, still in beta version as of August 30, 2011.

Khan Academy http://www.khanacademy.org/

Content Areas: Earth, Life & Physical are all represented, as well as anything else they can find a speaker to talk about.

Intended Age Group: While focused on high school and college content, the language is such that most anyone interested could understand, regardless of age.

Style of videos: Lecture-style over an individual drawing in real time.

Sample video: Photosynthesis- The Calvin Cycle


Description: Like it or hate it, Khan Academy is a force when it comes to flipped classroom resources.  Sal Khan has collected seemingly thousands of lecture-style videos on his website, and made them free for the masses.  Most are anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes in length, using relatively straightforward explanations for interested parties to “sit and get” the requisite content.  In many ways, this resource is an audio textbook with a written video complement.  While it’s personally not my style, I wouldn’t hate on anyone using it.  After all, what is it that Ben Franklin once said…?

MIT OpenCourseWare http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

Content Areas: Much of MIT’s undergrad course materials is available here on the web, though not all courses have audio/video available.

Intended Age Group: These were generated for the use of college students, though I am sure they would be applicable to certain high school science courses.

Style of videos: Most I have seen are lecture-style videos of a professor engaging in demonstrations, explanations and derivations in front of a group of students.

Sample video: Work, Energy and Universal Gravitation (fast-forward to 45:40 for the start of the famous conservation of energy demo involving a 15-kg wrecking ball, and 48:10 for the actual drop)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Description: MIT has released video lectures and other course content for free via OpenCourseWares.  This means exactly what it sounds like it means: you and your students have access to a plethora of lectures by a variety of renown science professors at one of the most prestigious technical colleges in the whole world.  You can download them from iTunes U, watch them on YouTube, or view them at the website listed above.  The downside: finding the content to which you wish to direct students can be a chore, like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.  Given that most of the lectures are 40+ minutes long (likely longer than you would hope students to watch on their own), you will have to be ready to scan through the vids to find exactly the content you wish for students to see, and then bookmark it in some way for future use.  (Pretty cool having Prof. Lewin in your living room though, right?)

Twig Science http://twig-it.com/

Content Areas: Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, and Physics

Intended Age Group: These have different videos for all age students.

Style of videos: Most I have seen are documentary-style, with a single speaker scripted over archived footage from the BBC, NASA, etc.

Sample video: How Hot is the Earth’s Core?

Description: Twig Science is a company based out of the UK advertised as providing “outstanding short films on science…made with teachers, for teachers.”  They are not lying.  The videos I have seen are short (usually no more than 3 minutes or so), and outstanding in quality and clarity.  As described about BrainPop in yesterday’s post, Twig Science also offers several supplementary resources that could be used in conjunction with these videos, including sample lesson plans, checks for understandings, The organizational mindmap is an impressive feature, as well.  Also like BrainPop, Twig Science is a paid site.  The free videos give a taste of what’s inside (including a nice categorization between “Core Concept” videos and “Extension” videos), but to get full access, there’s a fee involved.

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If you know of other sites that would fit this criteria, please share them in the comments section below.  Happy flipping!

Ready to Flip? 3 Animated Video Sites for Science Instruction

Recent posts, tweets & articles have anointed “reverse instruction” and flipped classrooms as the wave of today’s future.  (See The Flipped Classroom Network for a short video description, and Dan Pink’s article on Karl Fisch‘s reverse instruction techniques for more examples of this type of instruction.  Or just Google ‘flipped classroom’.)  Teachers across the world are turning their instruction upside-down, delivering knowledge-focused content that would normally comprise class time as video homework instead.  Generally (though not always) lecture-driven, these videos open up opportunities to bring the application of content knowledge into the classroom, skills that had previously been saved for “drill & kill” homework.  It’s an interesting concept- one that I expect would appeal to those looking for ways to get more authentic learning opportunities through the classroom door, or others trying to shed the label of “sage on the stage” in favor of becoming the “guide on the side”.

Of course, in order to offer “take-home” exposure to content, one must have access to quality videos about the topics at hand.  As with anything else, you can either make them or find them elsewhere (or some combination of the two).  

Hence this series of blog posts, a collection of links to websites containing some interesting videos of all styles and subjects, any of which could potentially fit a teacher’s “flipping” needs.  Over the next week, I’ll publish posts where I have sorted video sites into one of four categories: Animated Video ExplanationsLecture-Style VideosMade-for-TV Videos, and YouTube DIY-Style Videos. For each site, I have tried to summarize by including information about

  • content areas collected on the site,
  • the intended grade level/age of viewers, and
  • the type/style of video (e.g. lecture with written notes, music video, made-for-TV)

There should also be an example video posted along each title.  Between the description, the links, and sample video, you should end up with a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into.  (Note: after being organized into categories, these sites are listed alphabetically by title, not based on any evaluation of relative quality.)

Animated Video Explanations

Brain Pop http://www.brainpop.com/

Content Areas: Earth, Life & Physical are all represented, as is Engineering (and several other disciplines, too)

Intended Age Group: In the site’s Standards Search, there are related videos and activities PK-12.

Style of videos: Animated cartoon characters responding to e-mail questions

Sample video: http://www.brainpop.com/science/energy/windenergy/ 

Description: These videos are usually between 3-5 minutes in length (something common among most of the more effective sites), making the point clearly and concisely.  Following each video, students have the option of completing an activity, taking a online quiz, or going into the FAQs to learn more.  The stories in the videos themselves bring some context upon which students could build within class time.  There’s also a nice little Educator’s Corner with some resources (including those for the IWB) that might be of interest.  One downside: This is a paid site.  While there are several “freebies” available on the site, those only help you out if they apply to your curriculum.

CommonCraft http://www.commoncraft.com

Content Areas: Organized into 4 categories: “Green”, “Money”, “Society”, and “Technology”.

Intended Age Group: Generally a site intended for adult learning, though I’ll bet kids grade 3 and up could follow just fine, depending on purpose.

Style of videos: Narration over cut-out images and hand gestures that visually represent the narrative text

Sample video: CFL Light Bulbs in plain English

Description: These videos are intended as “plain English” explanations of normally complicated Web 2.0 buzzwords: RSS, Cloud Computing, Blogs, and Social Media in the Workplace are but a few of the topics addressed by the site.  This is the first place I go when looking for ways to explain technically complex IT topics.  Fear not, those looking for non-tech content: the folks at CommonCraft have also created a couple of explanations around more people-centered topics such as Electing a US President and CFL Light Bulbs.  If nothing else, it’s worth looking at this style of video to give you some ideas of ways to present content to your own students.  And if you’re looking for a little laugh, check out Zombies in plain English.  “Remember, zombies don’t eat candy.  Only brains!”

P.S. Commoncraft also has a YouTube channel.

Hippocampus http://www.hippocampus.org/

Content Areas: Biology, Environmental Science, and Physics, as well as several other disciplines

Intended Age Group: These videos seem to align to high school textbooks, though most students of any age could probably follow along.

Style of videos: Predominantly one speaker over animated slides of information

Sample video: Water & Life: An Overview

Description: HippoCampus is a project of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education (MITE). According to the website, “the goal of HippoCampus is to provide high-quality, multimedia content on general education subjects to high school and college students free of charge.”  All in all, this is a pretty solid ‘first stop’ on the road to finding the right content for a flipped classroom concept.  While other paid websites may house more ‘engaging’ presentations than some of those available here, this site is so dense and full of great info that it would be a shame to pass it by.  Hippocampus is also in development of a new look for their site to serve more as a curator of free online digital content– as it fills out, the site would be another great place to kick-start ideas for your classroom.

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If you know of other sites that would fit this criteria, please share them in the comments section below.  Happy flipping!

Why Average? Alternatives to Averaging Grades

(Part 3 of the “Why Average?” trilogy from the week of Aug 7-14. Here’s Part 1. Here’s Part 2.)

Over the past week, the topic of averaging grades has risen to the forefront of the twitter-verse.  Posts abound around the issues that professional educators have with lumping several disparate values together in the hopes of describing a student’s level of competence or understanding.  (For reminder of these posts, see Why Average?, xkcd’s TornadoGuard, David Wees’ A Problem with Averages, and Frank Noschese’s Grading and xkcd.)

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http://kishmath421.pbworks.com/w/page/7782913/Math-Cartoons

After seeing so many (including myself) highlight the inadequacy of averaged grades, the words of our county’s assistant superintendent come to mind: “If you offer a problem, you’d better be ready to suggest a solution.”  That being said, here are a few alternatives to sole reliance on averaging student data to describe their competence, organized by the issues described in Part 2 of this “Why Average?” trilogy.

Issue 1: Averages of data that do not match intended outcomes do not suddenly describe outcome achievement.

The xkcd comic (along with the correlation to education on Frank’s blog) ties in most closely to this issue.  So often, we as educators assign points (and therefore value) to things that do not necessarily relate to outcome achievement.  Assigning grades for homework completion, timeliness- even extra credit for class supplies- and combining them with outcome achievement data introduces a high level of “grade fog”, where anyone looking at the final grade would have a high degree of difficulty in parsing out the components that led to a student’s grade.

In his article, “Zero Alternatives”, Thomas Guskey lays out the six overall purposes that most educators have for assigning grades:

  1. To communicate the achievement status of students to parents and others.
  2. To provide information students can use for self-evaluation.
  3. To select, identify, or group students for specific educational paths or programs.
  4. To provide incentives for students to learn.
  5. To evaluate the effectiveness of instructional programs.
  6. To provide evidence of a student’s lack of effort or inability to accept responsibility for inappropriate behavior.

Frank Noschese’s blog post highlights these cross-purposes: in the image paired with the xkcd comic, the student’s grade of B seems to come from averaging grades that are meant to provide motivation (“I do my homework”, “I participate in class”), responsibility (“I organize my binder”) and information on achievement (“I still don’t know anything”).

The simple answer to this issue would be to stop averaging grades for things like homework completion, class participation, and responsibility together with values for student achievement.  Instead, make grades specifically tied to meeting standards and course objectives.  Of course, if it were that easy, we would all be doing it, right?  I guess the bigger question is, How do we provide the desired motivation and accountability without tying it to a student’s grade?  Guskey’s article suggests several ideas for how one might differentiate these cross-purposes (e.g. a grade of “Incomplete” with explicit requirements for completion, separate reports for behaviors, etc).  Other alternatives from my own practice:

  • Report non-academic factors separate from a student’s grade. Character education is an important part of a student’s profile, though it does not necessarily need to be tied to the student’s academic success.  One way of separating the two would be to report the two separately.  I had a category in my gradebook specifically for these kinds of data, though the category itself had no weight relative to the overall grade.  Providing specific feedback to students (and their parents) on topics of organization and timeliness separate from achievement grades can go a long way toward getting behaviors to change.
  • Set “class goals” for homework and class participation.  Sometimes, there is no better motivator than positive “peer pressure”.  One of my bulletin boards in my classroom had a huge graph set up, labeled, “Homework completion as a function of time”.  Each day, we would take our class’ average homework completion, and put a sticker on the graph that corresponded to that day’s completion rate for the class.  We set the class goal as 85% completion every day, and drew that level as the “standard” to be met.  As a class, if we consistently met that standard over the nine-week term, there was a class reward.  One unintended consequence: each class not only held themselves to the standard, but also “competed” with other class periods for homework supremacy!  (Of course, there was that one class that made it their mission to be the worst at completing homework…goes to show that not every carrot works for every mule.)
  • Make homework completion an ‘entry ticket’ for mastery-style retests. If homework’s general purpose is to promote understanding, one would assume a correlation between homework completion and achievement.  While I ‘checked’ for homework completion on a daily basis and recorded student scores under a “Homework” category, that category had no weight in the student’s overall grade.  Instead, once the summative assessment came up, those students who did not reach the sufficient level of mastery needed to show adequate attempts on their previously assigned work before we could set a plan for their re-assessment.  You may think that students would “blow off” their homework assignments in this situation- and some did, initially.  However, once they engaged in the process, students did what was expected of them.  Over time, there was no issue with students being unmotivated to do their homework as necessary.

Issue 2: Averages of long-term data over time do not suddenly describe current state understanding.

This issue is a little trickier to manage.  On his blog Point of Inflection, Riley Lark summed up his thinking on the subject of how to best describe current state understanding with a combination of long-term data in a post entitled, Letting Go of the Past.  In the post, he compares straight averages to several other alternatives, including using maximums and the “Power Rule” (or decaying average).  I strongly suggest all those interested in this topic read Riley’s post.  Riley has since created ActivGrade, a standards-based gradebook on the web that “[makes] feedback the start of the conversation- instead of the end.”

For some other resources for ideas:

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At the heart of the question “Why Average?” is a push to purpose.  While none of the ideas described in this trilogy of posts are inherently right, at the very least, I hope that it has brought readers some “jumping-off points” on how to ensure that their methods match their intended purpose.  We owe at least that much to our students.  If you have other resources, ideas, or questions that would extend the conversation further, please share them by all means.