Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Cutting down feedback cycles

I want to build independence in my students.  I want students to be self-directed, self-motivated learners.  I want to give students freedom.  I took most of this away from my Geometry students in the past two units to see what would happen if I micromanaged their progress and refused to let them move on until I personally verified their homework as completed correctly.  The idea was to shorten the feedback cycle for students doing practice problems as much as possible.

Background: as a department, we historically gave our students a complete solution key to the homework problems so they could check their work as they went.  We took time to talk through strategies on how to effectively use the keys as checks, not crutches, and why copying the key was a waste of time for their final grades.  In the past year, we all started cutting back to only the odd solutions because students were becoming too dependent on the keys.  This quarter, I went even further and pulled the solutions, leaving only the odd answers (not full solutions) so students could simply check themselves as right or wrong and seek help for wrong answers in class.  The problem was that many never bothered to check answers -- who could blame them when we grade on completion?  So my next step was to start checking random problems from each assignment for accuracy.  My student assistant took on the brunt of the work and skimmed through PDFs for a couple of answers per assignment.  The results were pretty sad -- many students got odd answers wrong along with evens.  In fact, the homework scores were pretty good predictors of quiz and test results, so we were finding the kids who would struggle based on their homework quality.  The problem was that by the time we knew this, it was too late to do much for that student.  On the test we took before I moved to the new system, 48% of my 1st block students were proficient (above 80% on the test) and only 18% of my 4th block students were proficient.  This is not far from some historical proficiencies, but my one class is still the worst ever recorded in the department.  Extra conveniently we took this test just in time for me to get it in the gradebook for parent conferences.  The point is that I desperately had to do something different because the wheels were falling off.

2013-14 Proficiencies on Algebra Expressions test (traditional flipped)
(first 3 are each different teachers, and my classes are in red):
46%  22% 22% 48% 18%

To change things up, I created worksheets with 6-8 problems each.  A page was a single type of problem.  I made videos that explained how to do 2 of the problems per page, but the videos were optional -- if students knew how to solve it on their own, they didn't have to watch it.  After completing a page of problems, I came over to their desks and checked them off in my gradebook.  You didn't get to move more than a page ahead without getting checked off, and if you did it wrong, you had to redo the work (if a student was repeatedly failing, I would take extra time to walk them through).  Before each quiz, students took a practice quiz of similar style and length to the actual quiz.  This allowed students to do a final check and still get group and teacher help (the primary benefit of a group quiz) before jumping into the first graded assessment on the material (an individual quiz).  After the quiz, they repeated this cycle through four major sections of four worksheets each before the unit test.  All students tested on the same day.

The logistics were chaos, I was running around class with my head cut off to get to everyone, and I don't think I would have survived one of my two classes if I didn't reassign the student assist who used to grade homework to be an in-class checker and tutor.  But all I cared about were results -- if the craziness made kids learn, I didn't really care about much else.  The good news: I hit 78% with my stronger class, and more surprisingly, I made it to 69% with my struggling class.

2013-14 Proficiencies on Algebra Equations test (checked problems, quiz when ready)
(first 3 are each different teachers, and my classes are in red):
83% 44% 28% 78% 76%

Before seeing the test data, I knew some things were going right based on the change in the conversations I overheard from students.  Students would ask very specific questions about how to do parts of the problem instead of the time-tested "I don't get it".  They would yell at each other for doing problems wrong and actively point out errors in each other's logic.  They would get mad at me for trying to run away from them and not stay long enough to help (and still do).  The class was still crazy and energetic, but there was a sense of purpose in the air.

Going forward, I knew I had to adjust the logistics to keep things a little bit more sane.  Initially, there were papers everywhere.  Halfway through the first new unit, I started making stapled packets for each of the parts that kids could write on and keep.  Now, I adjusted the system to use a stamp.  Every correctly completed page of student work gets a "Mr. Pethan approved" stamp which I find incredibly efficient and students find amusing (I just have to make sure I don't leave it around or I find people stamped with "my" approval).  Students also find the "click" sound of the stamp to be a good feeling after solving a triangle the wrong way for 20 minutes and finally getting it right.  When students are ready to quiz, I take their stamped packet and give them a quiz to take on the side of the room.  I can record and grade everything pretty quickly.

A few additional things to note: I would not completely call this approach flipped mastery, since I do not allow retakes on any assessments.  I just don't let students take assessments until they demonstrate understanding on their practice problems, so I no longer see many failures.  In fact, only one student in either class failed this test, mainly because he didn't finish some of the final sections before the test and I didn't realize how far off he was before throwing him into it.  To help students stay on track, I allow them to come in at lunch or before / after school.  Lunch is by far the most popular option.  When students get more than a day behind, they get to send an email to me and their parents to let everyone know where they are at and their plan to get caught up.  This helps as a prevention from falling behind and accountability if the student is behind.  When needed, I can also require that students come to my room at lunch for longer-term catch-up and help.

With only one unit done and tested, a lot of this is still up in the air.  That said, I have some early quantitative and qualitative validation that things are working and I've smoothed out some of the kinks in the logistics.  I will keep posting on how things progress through the rest of May and what I plan to do with this heading into next year.

1 comment:

  1. I observed some of the "chicken run". It looked like it worked well. You appeared a little frantic, but mostly happily energized. I think a little more constraint on the desk rearranging would make it easier to move around.

    I was thinking a "flight attendant call" app, might work better than students raising hands. They could continue to work, while waiting for you.

    This could be modeled by students putting their names on the white board. If the social dynamics of the classroom would work out, this could be split into checking and asking for help (where peer-instruction could be leveraged)