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Terrified of Tests?

by Dr. Polly Treviño
Our oldest son started second grade this year.  Recently, I was looking through his second grade science guide, which also contains his weekly science homework.  (The science homework, sadly, was all multiple-choice questions.)  Our son noticed me reviewing the booklet, and he joined me looking over my shoulder.
“Mom,” he said very urgently, “Do you know what is the most terrifying thing?”
Terrifying?  Trying to sound nonplussed, I said, “What is?”
“This!  Let me show you.”  He flipped through the booklet to find page 2 and read the following aloud to me:
These strategies will give the students a structure for reading carefully and thinking critically about each question.  Students are going to use these strategies with warm ups, homework, checkpoint tests, unit tests, benchmark tests, and STAAR.
Pointing to the abbreviation STAAR, he said, “THAT is the most terrifying thing.  I don’t know if we have to take it this year or not, but …” His voice trailed off.  “It’s supposed to be the HARDEST test,” he continued.  (STAAR is our state’s annual high-stakes assessment of student knowledge and skills.)

I sat in stunned silence.  I should not have been stunned, for I am well aware of the effects of high-stakes testing in public education.  But hearing these words come from my second grader was jarring.  He is seven years old, and he fears a test that he will not take for another year and a half.  How is that possible? I did not even know he knew what STAAR was, much less that he feared it.  Given that he could read the instructions for parents on the science guide, he is likely to show mastery on the exam when it’s time to take it.  However, awash in his fear, he doesn’t realize this.

I don’t recall talking about STAAR at home.  We prefer to emphasize learning as opposed to testing in our home, and I made a conscious choice not to mention it.  After all, he’s only seven! So, I can only assume that he has learned to fear STAAR at school.  I don’t blame my son’s teachers for this. Rather, I believe he is a product of the public education assessment system as a whole.   A system that reduces creative, capable, and complex children to a number.  A system that measures all of a teacher’s efforts as valid only if the students answer enough questions correctly.   A system that quantifies all student learning, so rich and varied, into a single score on a single measure on a single day.

I am trained in quantitative research, and I understand the efficiency and psychometric adequacy of our current system.  I value the easily collected and easily summarized data that tests can give us.  However, it seems to me that, in the present assessment system, tests have become the outcome of education instead of learning.  When homework is always formatted in multiple-choice questions, when students are encouraged to use their “strategies” for every single assignment (in math, reading, and science), when students are inundated with tests (See the sundry tests listed in the science booklet instructions.), and when all of this starts as early as first grade, the message that children receive is that the TEST is what is important.  What should be important is the LEARNING, but instead our students believe that doing well on tests is the purpose of education.

Cue the fear and anxiety, because the next message that children absorb is:  “The test is the ultimate outcome.  If you do poorly on the test, then you are not good.”  Somewhere along the way, to students themselves, assessment became not a measure of learning but a measure of worth.  In essence, the system communicates that PERFORMANCE = WORTH.  Students begin to believe that if they don’t pass STAAR (insert any other assessment here), then they have no value.

It is easy to see why so many students have test anxiety.  For if a student believes the test somehow measures worth, then of course he will fear the outcome.  The performance-worth equation is one we have to break.  We need to help students see that their value is not found in their performance on tests.  They have value because they are children of God, created in His image, ransomed by Christ on the cross.  PERFORMANCE WORTH

This is what I tried to convey to my sweet seven-year-old.  I told him:  “If you put forth the effort to learn and learn as much as you can, learn with joy and learn deeply, then you have no need to fear a test.  If you fear the test anyway, then ask Jesus to help you with your fear.  Give it to Him and He will replace it with peace and comfort.  Remember, the test tells your teacher what you have learned and where you have room to grow; it doesn’t say what you are worth to our family and to God.  We will love you no matter what happens.  You are a child of God, created in His image, and He will love you no matter what happens on this test.”

Are you an undergraduate getting ready for a midterm? You might need to hear this, too.  Are you a psychology/counseling graduate student preparing for orals?  Are you an education graduate student preparing for comprehensive exams? Listen up and take this in!

PERFORMANCE WORTH.   The test does not measure your value as a human being.  Because of Salvation, you need no longer be a slave to your fear.  You are a valuable child of God.

Note:  The views expressed in this post are my own and in no way reflect the position of Houston Baptist University, the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, the HBU Educator Preparation Program, or other faculty contributors to this blog.

They Are Huskies

Check out HBU News today:  They Are Huskies.  Recent MEd graduate Thomi Wilson and undergraduate education major Jenneth Oliveras are highlighted for the work they do outside of the classroom.  Dawgs up, COEBS!

Using Discussion Forums in Online Courses

by Dr. Polly Trevino

In the HBU College of Education and Behavioral Sciences we are adding new online courses each semester.  Just like our face-to-face (F2F) courses, HBU online course are interactive, even though students and professor in the online classroom are separated by time and space.  (See Dr. Wilson’s post about interaction in her online graduate courses.)  As we design and teach online courses, we are intentional in structuring interactions among learners.  Discussion board forums are essential for interactive online classrooms.  Are you new to online instruction?  This post will walk you through the basics of discussion forum assignments.

Why discussions?

Discussions forum assignments are to the online classroom what class discussions are for the F2F classroom.  The instructor poses a question, task, or scenario to which students must respond in writing.  Responses are posted publicly for all class members to see, and then class members reply to each other’s postings.  Discussion assignments engage learners in “the cycle of reading, reflecting, considering, and making connections that actually changes the knowledge structure inside the learner’s brain” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010, p. 85).  Students express ideas, “listen” to one another, connect and apply learning, ask questions, and reflect.  The instructor poses questions, “listens” as students grapple with ideas, and facilitates students’ connections and applications.

Discussion forums provide a social context, allowing individuals separated by time and space to become a community of learners.  As a place for community-building in the online classroom, discussion forums are “the ‘campfire’ around which course community and bonding occur” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010,p. 85).  Through writing discussion posts, learners engage with the content, with one another, and with the instructor.  Moreover, in an online discussion forum, all learners have the opportunity to “speak” in the discussion.  Even shy or reluctant learners, relieved of the social anxiety or pressure to respond in F2F discussions, participate in the online discussion forum.

What makes a good discussion question?

Boettcher & Conrad (2010) recommend focusing discussion topics on essential course concepts.  Discussions are appropriate for learning goals where students are asked to apply core concepts in various contexts.  Discussion forums work best when students are problem-solving, linking new knowledge to existing knowledge, or applying new knowledge in context.

When developing the discussion topic, avoid knowledge-level questions that have a pre-determined answer.  Asking this type of question on the discussion forum does not encourage deep interactions.  Everyone’s answer will (or should) be similar, and learners will not have anything to discuss.

Instead, choose questions that can have more than one answer.  Ask learners to:

  • conduct research related to course learning and report to the group,
  • express opinions about an issue,
  • analyze a real-world issue in light of course learning,
  • answer higher-order questions rather than lower-order questions, or
  • incorporate personal experiences with academic analysis.

Learners’ answers will vary, which will motivate them to read other’s posts to see how their classmates answered the question.

How many discussion topics should I ask my students to complete in one week?

The answer to that depends on the type of questions you’re asking and what else you’ve assigned that week (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010).  If your discussion questions are short-answer essay questions in which you ask the learner to comprehend and summarize concepts or apply them in simple contexts, then you might have as many as three discussion questions in one week.  If your discussion questions are more complex and require research, application in complex situations, or problem-solving in case studies or scenarios, then two discussions in one week would be sufficient, provided that there are no other assignments due that week.  If there are other assignments due, then one complex discussion might be sufficient.  Weeks in which students submit a major project or have an exam might not have any discussion questions.

How can I facilitate online discussions?

There are several techniques that instructors can utilize to encourage students to interact and elaborate their thinking.  First, require that students make a specified number of replies in each forum.  Typically, all students are required to make an original response to the discussion topic.  A requirement to reply to their peers’ posts will encourage reluctant students to interact with their classmates.

Additionally, you, the instructor, should participate in the forum and respond to students’ posts.  Respond to the content of the posts in the public forum, and give evaluative feedback to students privately.  When you participating in the forum:

  • Comment on something the student has said in the post:
    • That reminds me of…
    • Thank you for bringing that up…
    • I see your point that…
  • Relate two students’ posts or summarize and synthesize student comments:
    • Check out ___’s post.  She also commented that…
    •  ___ and ___ argued for a different approach to the problem.  How would you counter their position?
    • The majority of our class argued for X, although for various reasons…
  • Ask students questions to encourage elaboration:
    • Can you explain what you meant by…?
    • What has been your experience with…?
    • Would you agree or disagree with that?
    • How does X relate to Y?

Finally, use student names in your responses.  If you’re responding directly to a particular student’s post, then address him/her by name.  When students see that the instructor knows and uses their names, they will feel acknowledged and be more likely to learn and use their classmates’ names.  Before you know it, your students, separated by time and space but connected with technology, will become a functioning learning community!

References: Boettcher, J.V., & Conrad, R. (2010).  The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

5 Ways to Connect with Students in an Online Course

by Dr. Polly Trevino

At HBU,  professors care about our students.  We get to know our students and form strong connections with them, which is one characteristic that distinguishes HBU from other institutions.  As we build our online programs and increase our online course offerings, we want to establish rapport with our online students, just as we would our on-campus students.  At first glance, it appears difficult to create similar rapport with online students; however, you can connect with your students in the virtual classroom.  Here are 5 simple ways that you can connect with students in an online course.

Begin the course with introductions.  Introduce yourself, and give students a chance to introduce themselves.  Introduce yourself in a short video or post a page with a biography and pictures.  Describe your professional background, your scholarly interests, and any personal details that you feel comfortable sharing with your students.  I include pictures of myself with my family on my bio page because it humanizes me.  After viewing the page, students know that a real person, not an automated cyber-bot, is teaching the course.  Don’t stop at just introducing yourself.  Give students a chance to introduce themselves in a forum.  Respond to each student’s introduction.  Welcome him/her to the class and comment on something they mentioned in their introduction.

Use students’ names.  Address students by their names.  In the online classroom, most posts or participation is accompanied by a student name/username, so it is obvious who is commenting or posting.  Nevertheless, address students by name in forums, emails, chats, and other communication.  Not only does this humanize students in your mind, it helps you remember their names.  Moreover, when the class sees you addressing students by name, they will be more likely to address classmates by name and direct comments, questions, and conversation to classmates.  This encourages a sense of community in the online classroom.

Be present in the course.  Remember, you are still the same caring, enthusiastic professor that you are in the face-to-face classroom.  Only the modality for expressing your professorial identity has changed in an online classroom.  Because your online students do not physically see you, you must use course tools to be present and be “seen” by students.  Post messages, such as announcements and reminders, several times a week.  Give previews or summaries of course topics in a News/Announcements forum or as class messages.  In forums, participate in the discussion and respond to student posts.  As you respond, synthesize student posts and ask questions to extend students’ thinking (just as you would in a face-to-face discussion).  Give regular feedback using rubrics to grade discussions and assignments.

Relate content to students’ life experiences or contexts.  You can do this in your class messages or announcements.  You can also design discussion tasks that require students to apply course learning to their own experience or context.  You will learn a lot about students from their responses to topics that ask them to link new knowledge to previous knowledge and experience.  Then, you can incorporate what you’ve learned about them into your responses to their posts and in future discussion posts.

Incorporate synchronous sessions.  Synchronous sessions, when you meet with students in real time, can be chat sessions or video conferencing sessions using Blackboard Collaborate.  Attendance at these sessions can be required or optional.  In my experience, students appreciate the extra support that these sessions provide.  Many attend, even when attendance is optional.  These sessions give students a chance to ask questions, hear you lecture, or interact with you and with each other.  Students get a sense of who you are as a professor, and they realize that you care about their learning.

So there you go!  Five simple ways that you can foster relationships and build a learning community with your online students.  Try them in your virtual classroom!

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