Sam had a big smile on his face as he turned in his math test. Sam is in my Intermediate Algebra course, which is a developmental, prerequisite course for College Algebra. Students enroll in this course due to low SAT scores. Based on the big grin, I was optimistic about Sam's test.
"How'd you do?" I asked enthusiastically. "Well," he sighed, "I totally bombed it. But I feel really good about what I learned! Don't take it personally; this is the most I've ever understood in math."
After I graded it, I was devastated to see that he had scored a 30%. I thought about how I was going to have to give this test back to him. I thought about how I would try to soften the blow by telling him I was proud of his hard work, progress, and growth. I thought about the personalized feedback I would give him to help him learn from his mistakes. But mostly, I thought about how I felt like a hypocrite.
How could I develop and maintain Sam's growth mindset while simultaneously informing him that he is still failing in math?
That was when I realized that my assessment practices were out of sync with my instructional practices. Even though I work hard to instill a growth mindset in my students, I still assess their mastery with traditional summative tests. After all, I reasoned, this is college, and they need to learn to be responsible. They need to be ready for their next professor, who will also give traditional summative tests. But the disconnect stemmed from the idea that they must know everything about a topic at one particular moment in time, and then at the end of class, the window of opportunity to show mastery on that topic would be closed forever. Where does that leave room for motivation to improve and learn from mistakes? How will they ever want to learn more when I've just slammed the unforgiving window of time on their fingers? And how will students who are far behind catch up?
This is my first time in the classroom since learning about the growth mindset and malleable intelligence. I have worked hard to change my teaching practices so that I have a growth minded class, and it has made a remarkable difference. I see so much development and progress in these kids, who have struggled with math their whole lives. I encourage them to take risks, and I celebrate their "beautiful mistakes" as learning opportunities. I praise their hard work and effort rather than correct answers. I explain that the work will be challenging because I have high expectations, but that I also have confidence in their abilities as learners. I encourage them to use new strategies if the old ones haven't been working. But I still had this big hurdle to jump in my instructional practice: assessment.
I can well and truly convince my students that their brain will grow with effort and learning from mistakes, yet I contradict myself when I give them tests from which they don't learn a thing. When a test is used for a summative purpose, with no follow-up, the students squirrel away that paper, mistakes and all, somewhere in that black hole of a dorm room. When we experience failure, our brains are in a state in which neural connections can be rewired, but only if we attend to our errors. That's why taking a test and then never seeing it again is such a horrible missed opportunity. Allowing students to attend to their mistakes will actually rewire the neural connections. The way I was responding to student error on tests was just wrong.
So I had to examine my own motivation and reflect on my purposes for using this method of assessment. I asked myself, "Why don't I allow my students to correct their mistakes for credit, or re-take tests to demonstrate mastery of topics?" A few reasons sprung to mind:
- Logistics: How do I get students to re-take the tests without eating into class time or office hours?
- Judgment from others: How will I look to other professors if I don't hold my students accountable for being prepared for a test on the day it's scheduled?
- Fitting in: I am new! I don't want to be the wacky, standards-based, growth mindset professor. Will the students take me seriously? Will the other professors take me seriously? Will they ask me back to teach more classes?
In reflecting over these reasons for giving only traditional summative assessments, I realized something is missing there. Do you see what I've missed? My reasons did not take into account student learning. As Carol Tomlinson says, "To assess or to learn? That is the question." In all my concern with students being able to learn, grow, and show what they know, I had forgotten that just as people learn math in different rates and methods, they demonstrate understanding with different speeds and means.
So realizing something had to change, I set out to assess with a growth mindset. My learning goals hadn't changed. I still had to teach and assess the same content, and prepare my students for College Algebra.
Here are some things I tried:
- Test corrections with mistakes explained: I explained to students that as a result of the growth mindset, I had re-examined my belief system around assessment. I showed them a model of how I am a learner too, and that what I was doing wasn't working. I explained that in order for students to truly learn and move forward, they would need to put in a lot of extra work and correct previous misconceptions before moving on to new material, in the same way that you couldn't jump to the top of a ladder if some steps were missing along the way. Most importantly, I explained that by correcting their errors and examining what they did wrong, they would learn from their mistakes and rewire their neural connections. I implemented a new policy that they could correct mistakes on tests and write reflections about what they learned from their mistakes. Instead of me giving grades, they earned mastery. Scoring a 30% means you mastered 30% of the material, leaving 70% left to learn.
- Jigsaw groupings combined with a flipped class: One night, I assigned my students three videos to watch for homework instead of traditional practice problems. When they came to class the next day, with a fuzzy understanding of the ideas, they were grouped to work together on one of the concepts. After 10 minutes of talking and working together on a task, they were rotated into new groups, which contained an expert from each previous group. The experts had the responsibility of teaching the others the new concept, and assessing their understanding through questioning. The students were engaged by the responsibility of teaching others and by learning from peers; furthermore, deeper learning was generated when the students taught others. As I circulated around the room and listened to these math-phobic young adults take ownership of the content, I realized that this was true assessment. More learning occurred in this lesson than in ten of my lectures combined! As an aside, the activity ran 10 minutes over class time, yet no one made a move to leave until it was over. When college kids stay late to do math, willingly, that's a success.
- Publicly recognized measured effort and growth: Katie made a 66 on the first test, which was review, and an 84 on the second, which was challenging and varied material. How did she do it? I pointed out to the class that she had improved by almost 20 points, and asked her what strategies she used. She said "I haven't missed any classes, I went to office hours for extra help, and I worked through all the practice problems. Basically I applied myself. It worked." This social celebration of growth is an authentic reward that helped to build a learning community within my class. Other students realized that it is possible to learn new things, and grow and improve. Students compare their progress to the learning goal, rather than to each other. I'm proud of the students who make A's every time, but I don't publicly acknowledge them. It's the kids who grow by leaps and bounds that need to be publicly rewarded.
So how did Sam fare with these new assessment practices? I'd love to be able to tell you that he made up for 15 years of confusion in one semester, but that is not the case. He turned in those test corrections, which brought his grade on the test from a 30% up to a 48%. Baby steps. He'll have to take the course again, and he's already signed up for my spring section. But Sam keeps coming to class. He doesn't quit. He doesn't let it get him down. And that is the ultimate lesson here. We will come into any new challenge with a varied set of experiences. Some of us will succeed easily, while some of us will have to work harder. Sam understands now that by attending to his errors and rewiring those neural connections, he is capable of learning high level mathematics, and there is no such thing as "good at math" or "bad at math," there is only "keep trying in math." Because of my shift in assessment practices, he knows that he will be able to keep working on something if he doesn't get it the first time, because some people might need a little longer, or are further behind, and that's ok. He's getting there. Just as I am learning how to be a better teacher, Sam is learning how to be a better student. We are all works in progress, after all.
And how about my concerns of not fitting in with my colleagues? Life's too short to worry about that. As long as I strive to do what's best for students, I'll feel good about my work. And others may follow.
About Janna Peskett
Janna Peskett is a life-long learner and teacher with sixteen years of experience in teaching math, developing curriculum, and delivering professional development. She has taught math at the Middle, Secondary, and College levels in both brick and mortar and virtual schools. She is passionate about sharing the message that intelligence is a malleable quality, and believes it is the key to closing the achievement gap and ending the cycle of poverty.
About Mindset Works
Mindset Works was co-founded by one of the world's leading researchers in the field of motivation, Stanford University professor Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. and K-12 mindset expert Lisa S. Blackwell, Ph.D. The company translates psychological research into practical products and services to help students and educators increase their motivation and achievement.
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