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I've not been writing much on the blog and to my subscribers, I apologize. It's been a long, agonizing year, with an "academic program prioritization" process that led to my major being cut from our college. I will continue to teach, albeit not to art history majors. Now we've made it to the end of the Difficult Year and I'm resetting the blog and my priorities in my position at the college.

Today's post is about setting assessments that don't match learning objectives. I did that for my "finale" for my nineteenth-century art class this past May. I did not want a memorization exam. Although such exams remain the bedrock of much of higher education assessments, especially for art history, I don't find that it tells me much about how much students have learned from my classes, particularly the nineteenth-century art class. In that course, I emphasize that I want them to learn visual analysis: to look and to observe and by doing so, to come up with a thesis of potential meaning just from the formal elements in the painting. For instance, in  Courbet's painting The Stonebreakers (seen below) the meaning of the painting can be gleaned from visual analysis.When we examine this painting in class, I ask the students to tell me what they see. They answer with such observations such as: their backs are to us, so they do not seem like individuals; one seems young and the other older; they have frayed work clothes; they are doing hard labor of breaking up stones; they seem in a closed-in space where the only light is in the upper right corner, and out of reach.

All of that is correct. And what that leads to is a thesis for the painting that is this: the men are trapped, in a sense, in labor that will continue. The younger man will continue working until he, too, is like the older man, unable to carry heavy rocks, and instead will kneel to chip them into smaller rubble. The cycle will continue, for there is no "escape" spatially in the painting for these men. There is no social mobility, no "changing careers" or "moving up."

That is all learned by visual analysis, and trusting that observations can lead to these kinds of potential meanings. Of course, art history is more than just this, and we talk about how one would solidify such an interpretation:  by researching to find out more about when roads were built, who built them, what was working culture like around 1850 in France, etc. But you can get started with interpretive analysis from just looking.

For the "finale" of the class, I decided to make a "Jeopardy!" type of game. There are lots of free templates on the web that will allow you to make a game of whatever topic you desire. We played, and I was dismayed. They did not remember titles of paintings, or some of the dates, or some of the names of painters.

But then we got to "Final Jeopardy." Each "team" was given a painting and they had to tell me everything they remembered about it, using visual analysis. I gave each team a chance to talk about the painting and then we had their answers.

They remembered so much. When the assessment matched the learning objectives - it seemed like magic.  Of course, it was not magic; in class after class after class I  structured our time to give them chances to build their visual acuity and trust that they could - and would - learn what the paintings were seeking to tell them just by looking, carefully, at what was placed before them.

I will admit to not being an assessment guru. My assessments often miss the mark in terms of what I have been teaching them. But this time the starkness between "trivia"-like answers versus visual analysis of entire paintings helped me see that it is so important to line up assessment that will focus on what you were seeking to have them learn. I really do want to know what they have learned. It's just so often that the assessments I have been told to use don't do that.

Do you teach and have an assessment that works well? How does it match the learning objectives you have for your course?

Students: how would you like to demonstrate what you've learned in a class? An exam? Something else? I would be curious to know!

What kind of expectations should a professor have of her students? Of herself?

I am wrestling with both questions right now. I want my classes to always be engaging. I work very hard to find ways to not sacrifice content, but to have students more engaged in the material. I worry all the time about students "not getting it," and as I have posted previously, I am continually trying to think of ways to assess student learning not just for one class period, but how material is retained. And I'm not at all convinced that traditional exams lead to deeper learning or the retaining of information. I am a firm believer that that type of learning works for some students - mostly those who are already good students who master the material quickly and know how to take notes. Many of those go on to then perpetuate the same type of teaching method. But my experiences with engaged pedagogies like Reacting to the Past,case studies, debates and other forms of active learning have shown me how much more students can do if we give them a chance.

But that then "ups" my expectations for every class period. I want and expect deep engagement in every class period.  I don't want to lower those expectations. It would be much easier for me to lecture my way through 90 minutes than to sit and ponder how I could break up the time with something that the students do. And yet, I like to try to find new ways to approach the classroom and topics all the time.

Right now I am planning a hybrid class as well as two other classes that will meet face to face this coming semester which begins in one week. I'm trying to anticipate engagement with the material as well as finding out new information about the works of art I will teach.  I'm also trying some new game elements in the second half of the introductory survey course. I don't want to kill myself, but I want my classes to be the best that they can be.

Fellow faculty, how do you balance high expectations and making sure you do not blitz yourself completely?

Today I read this column by James Lang in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The title of his piece is "What Will Students Remember From Your Class in 20 Years?" Lang recounts how he had this discussion with faculty from different disciplines. Almost no one said anything about specific course content, and yet many of us teach that content as if content is the end of the world. "Oh, I can't not cover "x" work of art in the survey course!"

What do you want your students to remember?

I have already thought about this and this is what I want them to know. I want them to know:

  • How art historians think what they think and know what they know;
  • Why art historians have different ideas about works of art and that works of art can have multiple interpretations;
  • How to talk and write about works of art;
  • How to visually analyze works of art so that propaganda and commercialized ads don't lead us to decisions we don't think about first;
  • How to read a critical piece of writing that has a thesis and to determine if that argument is proved

That is just the start. I also want them to remember that they did things in my class. That they were involved. I do not want to them to ever remember me telling them everything. I want them to remember the debate they had about whether or not the Elgin marbles should go back to Greece, or if the Second Crusade should be aimed at Edessa or Damascus, and what the future of art should be in Paris in 1889.

I believe that these goals are all incentivized by active learning. If I tell them all the things, then they are likely not to remember it next year, let alone in 20 years.  James Lang is a proponent of making small changes to teaching that allows for more student reflection and activity. That doesn't mean that I sometimes don't have to just tell them things, but it does mean that wherever possible, they are going to be actively engaged in observing an Egyptian work of art, or designing a new type of church for Justinian, or debating the role of artists in fighting fascism.

I probably won't know if I make the mark in 20 years. But I am pretty confident I am laying the foundation firmly for them to do so.

I try to employ active learning in every one of my classes. This past spring semester in my Medieval Art history class that I've blogged about before, we played both a short Reacting game on the use of icons in the church and a longer game on the Second Crusade, I used several case studies in which they had to solve an art historical problem, conducted several in-class writing assignments in addition to out-of-class papers, and students wrote a weekly blog post.

However, at one point in the semester, when we were reviewing material that I thought they had learned, they could not remember details. It was so disheartening. I worry nearly all the time about what they are learning. Many of my colleagues would probably say I obsess over it. One weekend during the past semester, during a Twitter exchange, I noted that I worry they are having a "grand time," but that I wonder if they are learning anything.

Cathy N. Davidson was talking about assessment, and how our assessment right now is giving us information on the twentieth-century products we are producing through our educational system. I agree so much with her and want to tell everyone to read her book, The New Education. It is inspiring and so important. During the twitter exchange she noted to me:

"As long as I go to the meta level and then they can (I use Think-Pair-Share a lot for this) I feel sure they are learning. Focusing on what you want think they need to learn on a meta level is great."

She also sent me a link to her blog post from June 18, 2015, entitled "Why Start with Pedagogy? 4 Good Reasons, 4 Good Solutions."

This has me pondering. Yes, I can "Think-Pair-Share" my way through each class, but how do I know any of that is sticking after the class? The students may have learned the material during the 90-minute class period, but what about a few weeks later? Do they still remember it?

I'm considering more "in-class assessment instruments" for the fall semester (but would like to call it something else...not quiz...not exam). I do not want it to be high-stakes and stressful, but I also feel an obligation to them to ensure that their education is leading them to know new things and remember them. This past spring when I was feeling this way I put them in groups and had them prepare questions that then two groups answered, and the group who created the question decided who answered better. So, some competition in there, as well as ownership. That worked fairly well, though I was making up a lot of it as I went. I might try to do something like that again, but with a bit more pre-planning.

Readers: if you employ active learning, how do you ensure learning is taking place? How can you tell? By what means do you check to see if learning manifests?

Students: how would you like to prove that you have learned? I hear all the time how you hate tests - so what are some alternatives so we can know if you're learning?

[I am trying really hard not to use the words assessment, metrics, rubrics...or any of the buzzwords for teaching and learning right now - and it's hard!!]

This post is a follow up to the one I published last week about planning an in-class assessment of what students had learned so far this semester. We are about at the half-way mark, so it seemed to be a good time to do it.

I had six total topics, and six groups of four students. They had to come up with a question based on one of the topics the course has covered so far.

Hiccup #1. Some of their questions were really mundane or way too specific. So, I had to help them develop more nuanced questions about the material to allow answers to dig more deeply into examples.

Then I gave two of the six questions, randomly, to each group. Of course some of them said, "Can we answer our own question?" Um. No. They had to come up with a presentation for their question, and two groups answered/presented per question.

Hiccup #2. Some made Powerpoint presentations and we had email and a Blackboard meltdown last week so I was scrambling a bit to project the PPTs in the class. But we managed. But it was a lot to manage.

Each group that had developed the question had to assess which group answered better and why. I think this was the best part, and one that I came up with on the fly. If they are going to be responsible for their own learning, then they have to be responsible for assessing who answers better. I'd like to try something else on this in the future. Those who answered the best will get an extra point (or something) in the Reacting to the Past game we play later in the semester. By and large, I agreed with their assessment of which groups answered better. I was keeping notes.

Then, each student had to answer individually the remaining three questions and turn them in the next class. I just reviewed them and there were some great answers, and some not great answers. Some confusion, and some real understanding.

I had hoped that they would all answer everything correctly and it would show me that my commitment to active learning was giving even better results than traditional lecture-only based instruction. I can't go that far. However, I do think they are learning at least as much when I used to teach this course more traditionally. And I gave this assessment as a surprise. In the future I may try to find ways to circle back to what they are learning more often - not just with the last five minutes "What did you learn today?" reflections, but something to connect concepts more holistically. Because some of them were not doing that.

What are other ways that you can assess the learning in an active classroom without relying on traditional memorization exams? How can you "get at" the overall learning that is taking place over the course of the semester, and not just class-by-class assessment? And how can we see if and how they are managing to make sense of the course as a whole?

2

I have been vexed all weekend by a class that I don't think is remembering enough of what I have been teaching them. I was frustrated in class on Thursday when many of them could not recall basic concepts that we had covered previously. And when we had in-class exercises to explore the concepts, it appeared that they had learned it, at least at that immediate point in time. But later, recall was not happening. I do not have high-stakes exams, because I don't believe that the students will remember very much after an exercise that is about memorization for a one-time event. If they just memorize and forget, what is the point?

Tonight I started Ira Zepp's book, Pedagogy of the Heart: A Teacher's Credo. I read about 10 pages of it, but it already zapped me like lightening. He said something in the book about not wanting to teach in a way that "lords it over the students," like he possesses all the knowledge that they lack and that students should feel lucky to get. I don't want that kind of classroom. I want students to feel empowered, even as they learn new things, because right now, no: they do not know much about medieval art. They are there to learn.

I pondered this all weekend: how to come up with a way to assess my students' learning in the 30-person Medieval Art course without a high-stakes test all while keeping to my principles and commitment to active learning. I finally came up with the answer (for now):

They will decide what they should know.

I will have students sitting at tables of four in this class. There are seven tables (plus two chairs). Each table will be assigned a topic that we have covered so far in the course. They will develop a question for the other tables, possibly including an image or images to accompany their question. They will share the questions and the tables will all have to answer the different questions. I want them to do the grading/assessment, too, so I am trying to figure out if I can have every table answer each question, and have the question creators also assess the answers, all in the 90 minute time-frame. We'll see.

Ira Zepp left us in 2009. He is a legend on The Hill, at McDaniel College where he taught for many years. In 2015 I was awarded our college's highest honor: the Ira Zepp Distinguished Teaching Award. The more I learn about the man in whose name the award is bestowed, the more I want to do him proud, and be the kind of teacher he would want me to be.

I want to give my students the power: the power of being in charge of their own learning and their own education. It's a pedagogy of the heart, after all.

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