18 September 2005

How do they know if they know?

The only class I'm teaching this year is an Advanced Placement (AP) Biology class. It's a challenge for both the students and me. The College Board provides us with a syllabus and it is then up to us to figure out how to manage it.

AP is not standards-based, which makes it a vastly different animal than other courses in our department. I am training some biology thoroughbreds to run a race at the end of the year. It is a race in which they are competing against one another---and well over 100,000 other students. Only the top 20% of them can get the most desirable score of "5." Not everyone can "pass" the test and it is designed to make very specific distinctions in what students know. This is a contrast to the WASL---in which every student can pass (although not all of them do).

I've been working on the first exam of the year for my kids. We've had some really good classes so far, spending time working with the information in different ways: reading, using graphic organizers, building models, creating "foldables," etc. These are bright and highly motivated students. But as we wrap up this unit, I am wondering if they know what they do and don't understand about things. How do I help them reflect on the material and figure out what their level of understanding is? A test is really too late---in fact, tomorrow (the day before the test) is likely too late. More often than not, a test says more to me about what a kid knows. I could change this by developing some questions for them to think about as they look at a graded exam. I assume that they do this, but it's likely that most of them don't---they're just too focused on what the "right" answer was as opposed to why they missed it.

Obviously, this sort of reflection and metacognition needs to be built into the daily routine. But we'll start tomorrow with our review (better late than never). I'm trying to create some sort of generic diagnostic tool for them...something to help them pinpoint what concepts they do and don't have. The next part is then helping them identify ways to "fix up" their weak points.

I'm having a hard time with the "diagnostic." What questions should one ask oneself in order to determine a level of understanding? How do you know if you know something? Anyway, I'm starting with that...reflecting on how I do it...and trying to put it on paper. I hope to be able to process this some with students tomorrow, along with some different resources they can use when they need help.


Anonymous said...

Your question is a good one.

If I want to test what I know about a subject, I try and teach it! If I am not clear and concise with my statements, or find myself compromising precision for overall accuracy (i.e. 'In the 1830s' instead of 'In 1836-1838'), I consider myself not 'up to par.'

Perhaps ask your students to pick a subject at random from the syllabus that they've covered, then quickly write everything down that they know about a subject.

Not really answering a specific question (which they might get lucky or unlucky on), but just a brain dump, where they'll have a no-nonsense, true picture of their knowledge on a subject.

Good luck. And please let us know how this comes out.

Anonymous said...

I have to soak up new technologies all of the time and I've found a couple of things that work for me.

I figure I have a basic understanding of something if I can explain it to someone who is seeing it for the first time and answer simple questions. If I get hung up trying to explain how it works, then I really haven't structured the information in my head (and I used to have a very smart co-worker who claimed he could find bugs in his software by going home and explaining how it worked to his wife - who didn't know a thing about computers).

Secondly, I notice that the first thing that happens when I start to "get" something new is that I start having ideas about it. I'll think, "wow, if I were to combine this capability with that other one, I can solve this problem over here." Those kinds of thoughts don't start happening until your understanding is starting to lock in.

You probably know a lot more about this than I do, but there is clearly a difference in our heads between "knowing" some facts and connecting those facts up to the structure of your thinking. It's when you make those connections that you really have it down.

I can't think of good biology examples of this, probably because I don't know nothin' 'bout no biology, but in physics I might ask a kid who has just learned about Newton's laws something like:

Given what you've just learned about mass, force and acceleration, what would you imagine would be some of the differences between playing ping pong - with its nearly massless ball - and playing tennis - with its comparatively heavy ball?

If they immediately have the idea that it must take a lot more muscle to play tennis than ping pong, I guess they've learned something. It's probably not good practice for a pedagogue, but I love asking kids those fuzzy questions like, "why do you suppose manhole covers are round?" when I want to watch them think.

The Science Goddess said...

These are all good suggestions. I do some "think-pair-share," but I really should do more. I do think that being able to explain a topic to someone else is a good indicator of understanding.

I can also use your ideas to make some "sentence stems" for kids to use in their reflection.

Thanks! Come back and add on if you think of anything else.

Anonymous said...

There are different aspects to this problem in biology.

I've found that the language of biology is the first and most important thing to learn - and many people get stuck there. So having them write and reflect on things gets them "using the words" and that is the first key to understanding.

Students who understand concepts should be able to apply them to a novel situation - the ping pong / tennis example is a good one. Another measure is to talk about the idea in a couple of months and see how many of the students remember anything.

Don’t despair if they don't "get it" all at once. A lot of "good" students are good at studying for tests only. I also divide students into two groups – the light bulbs and the plants. Light bulbs stay dim for a while, struggling to understand for months. Then they suddenly turn on and get it. Plants grow slowly but steadily in their mastery of the subject. (I think these are the intuitives v. the sensors but I’ve never tested to see.)

Sounds to me like you are doing all you can.

The Tablet PC In Education Blog said...

You ask a good question. Terman and Merril asked a similar question when they constructed the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. They summarized their response in two ways.

First, they assume that a person will use standard vocabulary and grammar for a topic. So, they test for vocabulary and grammar of a topic.

Second, they winnowed questions down to five generic stems for multiple choice questions, such as what is the same, what is different, what doesn't belong, and what comes next. Then, they used these stems to create test questions.

Classroom teachers wanting students to demonstrate precision and accuracy (with the teacher setting criteria for success) with academic content use versions of this testing.

Keep up the good work. Bob Heiny