Monday, October 21, 2013

Giving Students the Freedom to Fly

Last week I took a leap of faith. If I give students freedom they will rise to the occasion. 

 At the conclusion of a unit on flight forces in my second year applied physics course, I had to give an assessment to meet grade requirements. So I did. Up until now, major grades have been based on projects, but I needed an additional major grade. Multiple choice tests were thrown out last year as they do not apply to the course any longer. I have heard of other teachers giving alternative assessments and had the opportunity to talk with them, but never have given one that was entirely up to the student to create. Students have the choice of how they will examine and analyze topics and how they will meet challenges. It makes sense to give them choice in how they show what they have learned. 

At the start of the unit students were given the rubric for the assessment in hopes that they would think about it as they went through the lessons and activities. The assessment was basically “prove to me you learned something about flight and forces” with 35% air resistance, 35% flight forces and 30% student choice. To get full credit for an objective students had to show understanding of the topic, apply it to the class activities and extend it to an additional example of air resistance or flight. The student choice portion was the most difficult for me to explain. They wanted more than “prove to me you learned something about flight and forces” in a way that showcases your skills and understanding. I did not want to give them too many rules as I wanted to see what they could do given the opportunity. 

After the final activity in the unit, students were given 2 class periods to create, write, talk, or otherwise show what they learned in their terms with their skills and interests. Some chose the interview route and the conversations were very telling. It was easy to tell what the student had just read from a web site and what they really understood. Some needed to go step by step and be told how many points they had earned so far, surprisingly none of them was content until they had earned all of the possible points. Others extended the labs and did more experimenting, built biplanes out of straws, calculated drag for different sized parachutes. Some tied air resistance to motion in water and others talked about the lack of air resistance in space.  Some analyzed the different parts of an airplane to see how each changed the flight of the plane. A few made connections between flight and car racing. One student animated a flying flour sack based on the behavior of the parachutes and paper helicopters he built and observed. So many ways to prove they learned. And prove it they did.

Projects are still coming in, but this may have been one of the best assessments of learning I have given to students. Students were enthusiastically showing me what they learned in their words with their experience and in the context of what was meaningful to them.  Next time my rubric will provide more guidance and clearer expectations without adding boundaries. I expect even better results when I try this again.