When I tell people that I am a teacher, one of their first questions is “Oh, where do you teach?” They are expecting to hear the name of a local school, something they are familiar with. After nearly two years, I have gotten used to their reactions when I tell them that I teach online. The general look I receive is one of confusion, sometimes mixed with a touch of intrigue and a dash of hesitation. Of course, they want to know how that is even possible? Who are these students? Why are they at home during the day? Can they see you? Can you see them? Wait! How do you make sure they don’t cheat on homework and tests???
Not Just About The “Test”
This was a question I struggled with myself during my first months of teaching online. Recently though, I took a graduate class at McGill titled “Evaluation and Assessment”. This class told me everything that I already knew and needed to hear: worksheets and standardized tests will never tell you how well a student knows a subject. I could get into the scientific details of why that is, and cite many studies, but for the sake of brevity, let’s agree that is true. Example: we have all “crammed” for tests and then forgotten the material days, hours or even minutes later.
So, in a virtual classroom (or any classroom for that matter) how would I know if my students were understanding the material or simply Googling answers? First, I got stuck in my old ways, and would assign worksheets and quizzes. After several weeks I got tired of correcting them. I can only assume if I was tired of correcting them, then my students were tired of completing them. We can all agree that students deserve better.
This is why in my biology class; students are responsible for building and observing an ecosystem over the course of a month. This is why students in my chemistry class are solving crimes. This is why students in my geology class are taking us on virtual field trips. This is why students in my paleontology class will try to convince you that a velociraptor is the perfect pet (they created posters telling us all the facts we need to know about caring for a vertebrate of their choice, including diet, habitat, etc.)
Slowly but surely my classes are moving over to performance-based assessments. These assessments require students to APPLY the skills and knowledge we have been learning about, not regurgitate it. It uses higher order thinking skills and is considered by most to be a more authentic form of assessment. That doesn’t mean that I’m doing away with worksheets and quizzes, it just means that their weight on the final grade is far less than it once was.
“Samantha, how do you evaluate your students online?” my Evaluation and Assessment professor asked me. I hesitantly replied, “with projects, experiments and activities.” I was expecting more confusion and hesitation. I was relieved to hear her reply of “You know, that’s how it should be. For everyone.”