Sunday, March 17, 2013

Promoting the Democractic Classroom: Having Students Write Their Own Midterm

In class midterms and finals have never been an assumed component of my syllabi.  I have always questioned whether tests allow students to demonstrate integrative knowledge and the ability to apply concepts.  Students can sink their teeth into an experiential fieldtrip or a reflective essay – tests simply measure a student’s ability to regurgitate information.  Furthermore, quantitative assessment of qualitative methodologies seems at odds, almost an oxymoron. 

But this semester I assigned a midterm in a class called “Everyday Life in Urban Settings,” a class that introduces the students to qualitative methodologies and asks them to explore, through experiential field experiences, neighborhoods in the city through the lens of theories about New York City’s changing urban landscape.  In addition to a midterm, students are also asked to keep a weekly blog where they post their responses to the readings and fieldtrips.  For their final, students are asked to create a “walking tour” of their neighborhood, or of the “cultural scene” they have chosen for their Constructive Action class. 

The fact is, students take a test more “seriously” than they do some of the more qualitative methodologies that may better represent course content.  Though the midterm was only worth 20% of their grade, all the students came to class, on time, with the readings and notes from the class semester.  All had prepared.  All stayed and worked for the majority of the 2 and ½ hour class.  What made this test “different” was that I asked students to write the midterm (and post their ideas on a Moodle Forum):  “Imagine you were writing the test for this class.  What questions would you include?”  I explained to the students that the purpose of this was two-fold: 1) it would allow them to review the material, and to identify the most important ideas; and 2) particularly good questions would become part of the midterm.  If they wrote the question, they would know the answer to the question; furthermore, if they read each other’s posts, they could prepare answers ahead of time. 

Almost all of the students posted questions by the Sunday deadline even though the class wasn’t until the following Thursday.  One wrote in all caps:  “PAY ATTENTION CLASSMATES!” as her forum post title.  She introduced her questions with an excellent reminder:  she hoped the test would be more an “overview”, a best hits of sorts, than a “boring midterm.”  Many of her questions, as well as those of others, ended up on the midterm.  The questions overall showed innovation as well as knowledge of the major concepts we had covered.  Before handing out the test, I congratulated them on the questions they came up with.  They said they really enjoyed the process, and that all tests should be like this.  It allowed them to study and reflect, to contribute to the assessment tool in real ways.  They were excited to see their questions on the test, empowering the students and helping put them in charge of their own learning. 

This represents the notion of a “democratic classroom” where “classroom engagement techniques are designed to help students take personal responsibility for their learning appreciate the value of participating in the life of a community, while also developing a sense of self-confidence, empowerment, and efficacy” (Spiezio in Jacob, Civic Engagement in Higher Education, 91)  Asking the students to write questions for the midterm provided them “with authentic opportunities to participate collectively in decision-making processes relating to the administration of a course, including syllabus construction, assessment procedures, and the specification of classroom protocols that both students and faculty are expected to observe (Spiezio, 90).  According to Spiezio, the democratic classroom is a central feature of the democratic academy.  (For more on the democratic classroom, see Kim Zpiezio, “Engaging General Education” in Barbara Jacobi’s Civic Engagement in Higher Education (2009)).

Because students were part of the test-making process, they had a higher investment in the course material.  They knew what to expect.  There were no major “surprises.”  And in my eyes, students had already passed, as they took the time to review the material and apply their inductive reasoning skills to identify the main points of the semester overall.  If in class midterms and tests do make it into my syallbi in the future, so will this democratic test-writing activity.

The students, overall, did well on the midterm.  (Interestingly, the students who posted the most thorough questions on the Moodle forum also earned the highest grades on the midterm.)  When I handed back the midterm, I asked students to reflect on the process.  They said many things that surprised me.  They said they still had to work and prepare, but that they knew what to expect, and that this helped alleviate test-taking anxieties.  They helped each other:  If one student posted a question that another did not know the answer to, they could get the answer ahead of time; in this way, the midterm promoted collaboration and students as “information sources”.  Students actually enjoyed the midterm (yes, you read that right!) because they felt they were part of the process.  I invite you to try this technique with your next midterm or quiz, and post your (and your students’) experiences with this process here.

MUST READ: MCNY Library Acquires Civic Engagement & Higher Educatioon

Jacoby, Barbara & Associates. Civic Engagement in Higher Education. Jossey-Bass, 2009

This collection of essays focuses on the increased role that civic engagement takes in modern colleges/universities.  The authors spend considerable effort proving how new models of education are necessary to prepare students for the new demands of the 21st century, such as interdisciplinary approaches, integration between classes, and connection between the real world and the classroom.  Many of these ideas have been forwarded by Purpose Centered Education for decades.  

That said, it is important to understand and contextualize that advancements being made in higher education to promote civic engagement are not counter to what is being done here at MCNY.  Instead, this volume will help place our college’s unique approach to education in the context of a larger conversation. Lionizing one approach while vilifying another serves no one; I believe the purpose should be quite simple: create better classes, empower students to make changes in their lives and communities, and engage them to become better students and citizens.  We are not alone in this mission.  We can maintain Purpose Centered Education while educating ourselves about the innovative pedagogy occurring across the country.

This brief overview cuts to some of the highlights of the text.  The Introduction (Chapter 1) provides excellent overview, history of service learning/civic engagement in higher education, as well as substantial resources. (This chapter can be found online, and the full text is now available in the MCNY library)  

Points of interest, particularly for our emerging “First Year Experience” program, include the descriptions of innovative first year programming at colleges in “Civic Engagement in the First College Year” by Mary Stuart Hunter and Blaire L. Moody, especially pages 74-78,   The “Chapter on Engaging General Education” provides illuminating descriptions and applications of the “Democratic Academy” – “premised on a theory of civic education that can be combined with service-learning and other pedagogies of engagement to support an evolutionary process of character and education” (Spiezio, 85) -- which represents quite closely the goals of MCNY’s Purpose Centered Education.  This chapter includes both practical steps and an empirical case study.  In “Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility,” the authors show how three intersecting education reform movements have laid the groundwork for the exponential growth of programs geared towards civic engagement:  U.S. diversity, global learning, and civic engagement.

“Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility” provides perhaps the most compelling evidence that Audrey Cohen’s model of education has in fact become a major component of higher education in the 21st century, though no one in the literature credits her for such.  (Do a quick database search on one of the major academic databases for “Purpose Centered Education” and then “Service Learning.”  You’ll see what I mean.)  This chapter outlines the work Part of AAC&U’s 5-year initiative, “Greater Expectations:  Goals for Learning as a Nation Goes to College”, a working group whose task was to identify possible “arc” from elementary to college of cumulative civic learning.  Their findings were published in Purposeful Pathways:  Helping Students Achieve Key Learning Outcomes.  The article shows how the working group developed a “new model of civic learning that could be applied from elementary school through college and, in the process, establish the habit of lifelong engagement as an empowered, informed, and socially responsible citizen” (Musil [in Jacoby], 59).  The “six elements (or “braids”)” of Civic Learning Spiral bear a striking resemblance to Cohen’s 5 Dimensions:  1) Self; 2) Communication & cultures; 3) Knowledge; 4) Skills; 5) Values; and 6) Public Action.  Though Cohen is not credited in such models, we can instantly recognize the connection between the six braids and the 5 dimensions in Purpose Centered Education.

Jacoby is one of the leading scholars on the progress classroom, and her collection represents the best of the best of educators doing work that would make Audrey Cohen proud.  As we move forward, I think the greatest tribute we can make to Cohen and her innovative approach to education is to let it live, and I think part of that life depends on understanding the many intersections between Purpose Centered Education and other models of education.  I invite you to peruse the offerings in Civic Engagement and Higher Education.  I think you will be as blown away as I am.