Thursday, July 10, 2014

Teaching and Learning: In Praise of Projects

Teaching Middle School after years of teaching older students has been an epiphany for me.  While it is new and the comparisons are fresh in my mind, I’m making note of some of the biggest distinctions between middle schoolers and older high schoolers.  These thoughts of mine are sometimes open-ended; I don’t have any big answers.  But I do have plenty to mentally chew upon and I intend to do so.  Today’s topic is class projects in lieu of final exams.

Learning has many moving pieces and assessment is a big part of the process.  The idea behind a midterm or final exam is to measure student knowledge over the course of a semester (or year).  In theory, a major exam is an important part of that process and it is one that is proceeded by review so that the students can identify the material they should master in preparation for the exam.  I’ve given plenty of exams in this style.  Some students do very well; some don’t.  But it’s fair to say that no one really enjoys taking such exams.  And as much as we like to tell ourselves otherwise, enjoyment is essential to successful long-term learning.

In my experience, most prep school teachers are fans of midterm and final exams.  Convinced that the world of college will require big exams, teachers rely on their own versions of midterm and final exams to fulfill the preparatory part of their mission.  Our teaching goal in a college prep environment should be to provide students with the skills to prepare for the large final exam-style standardized tests that will sometimes occur in college.    This is not the same as taking sample examples of such exams.  Here is where I take a non-traditional stand:  preparing students for college need not require endless rounds of midterm and final exams.  To fulfill the goal of successful preparation for college, we must consider the fact that giving major exams ourselves is neither creative nor particularly useful as the major assessment in a course.  

Big exams are understandable preference, but I feel that it is short-sighted.  I can say this because I used to be a fan of midterm and final exams.  I’ve since seen the light when it comes to projects as a replacement for major exams.  My epiphany wasn’t immediate.  But over the course of the last two years I’ve come to see that midterm and final exams don’t really facilitate creative, long-term learning.

Tune in tomorrow, when I will have a post about the value of projects as final course assessments.

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