The Assessment That Changed How I Teach

Introduction

This article is about an assessment called "group quizzes." I titled this article "The Assessment That Changed How I Teach" because the advent of group quizzes is the most definitive and material change that has taken place in my classroom since I've noticed a substantial shift in my teaching. That shift is one in the direction of student-centered discussion, engagement in learning and self-reflection. I know that correlation does not imply causation and I've also been teaching for nearly a decade, so I'm sure this "change" can't solely be attributed to the success of an assessment strategy, no matter how fantastic it may be. Perhaps the strategy is really a catalyst for what was already set in motion by both years of experience and other events outside of my control. But I will offer this: if you are a teacher and you are even interested in shifting the focus of your classroom to center on your students and especially if you are willing or have already tried some new techniques to that end, I would say you are in precisely the position I was in when I discovered an assessment that was everything I was looking for. 

 

GROUP QUIZZES

My assistant principal doesn't like giving exams. He says he doesn't want to allow the outcome of the exam to dictate the value of the course. Neither does he feel like an exam provides reliable evidence of learning. When I first spoke to him about this during my first year at Brooklyn Technical High School,  he gave me an example of something he had read about and believed was a much better example of genuine assessment. It's called a "Group Quiz".

 

In a group quiz, students are assigned to groups according to their ability and given a multiple choice test. There are three rules for this test:

Rule #1

The group will receive one answer form. They must work together to fill out the form, as everyone in the group will receive the same grade. (This is one of many reasons why the groups must be homogeneous, so no single member is tempted to depend disproportionately on another member.)

Rule #2

The test is open note, open book, and even "open Internet." The last term catches students by surprise and I explain that by "open Internet," I truly expect students to bring their phones to class  and use them to access the Internet, so long as they do not use it to text or call.

 

 
The group quiz answer form 

The group quiz answer form 

 

Rule #3

The last and most important rule: the answer form they receive will have a column for their "1st","2nd", and "3rd" choices for each question. During the exam, I move around the room and mark their choices as they write them down. Therefore, if a group's 1st choice is incorrect, they have an opportunity to try again before the period is over. In fact, they can try two more times. When the time is up, students score three points for a correct answer on the first guess, two points for a correct answer on the second guess, and only one point for the third. (On exams with answer choices A-E, which I do in AP courses, they get four guesses, scored 4,3,2,1 accordingly.)

One more note on the homogeneous grouping: aside from encouraging students to depend on one another equally, by putting the weakest students in the same group, I am able to target my instruction more effectively. While the majority of groups are self-correcting, I can spend my time with a weaker group and guide their problem solving process. 

 

Immediate Outcomes

I've had the opportunity to share this technique with dozens of teachers, many of whom have tried the assessment strategy in their own classrooms and returned with feedback. It is wildly successful. Many teachers who are concerned the structure enables students to cheat actually report that students happily work within their own groups without even glancing at the progress of the groups around them. Teachers find that the open note, open Internet policy actually reinforces effective note taking, as students learn by experience that class notes are more readily accessible and easier to understand than whatever they can pull up online. Because students have multiple chances to answer a question, discussion and answer-checking are encouraged in away that are difficult to evoke from a regular classroom activity or traditional assessment. Finally, students are happy because while a group test is never "easy," a little bit of effort and thoughtful discussion almost always result in a passing grade. By comparison, traditional exams – even multiple choice ones – taken in isolation are almost always forfeited by a few despairing students who claim they "just don't get it". The group quizzes are a rewarding alternative.

 

Long term Outcomes

This I believe: no matter what you try to teach or tell students, if it isn't being assessed, its importance is lost. For instance, I've encouraged students to check their work and the work of their peers and I've explained the importance of such a practice, but I've never graded my students against this standard explicitly. (I've heard of teachers who award points on each exam question where a student verifies his or her solution by "plugging it in." I myself have not tried this.) Before I began using group quizzes, students did not uniformly check their work or even question the accuracy of their answers. But since group quizzes became commonplace, I've noticed a shift in the culture of my classroom. The group quizzes make collaboration, checking work, and consulting resources valuable in a very tangible way. The classroom culture that has emerged reflects these values and even has an effect on me: because this new environment is much more conducive and even rewards student-centered activities, I find it is much easier to engage students in their learning, which in turn reinforces the culture of the classroom. There is a bit of a positive feedback loop in that regard. 

 

Next Steps

If you are interested in trying a group quiz in your own classroom, you can start with this template. (The link is to a variation of the answer form that I used for a workshop I facilitated in 2015, but you can modify it to your needs.) If you would like to learn a little more about the implementation of group quizzes, check out this talk by Eric Mazur on "Assessment: The Silent Killer of Learning". It is a long, but excellent video and if you want to jump immediately to the part about group quizzes, skip to about 41:50.  (Or even a little before that if you want more context.)

 

UPDATE

I often get asked whether grouping the students homogeneously sends a negative message to lower-performing students. While their is potential for a sort of stigma to rear its head, it is easily wiped out by a few other points that I wish to reiterate (Granted, how you manage this will always depend on your students, your relationship with them, and the culture of your class.)

I always, always emphasize a culture of learning. I tell students when I first explain this activity that one of the benefits of working with other students of a similar performance level is having the ability to communicate effectively with group members. It is easier to ask questions and express ideas when you feel there is less of a risk of being judged for it. Furthermore, I explicitly tell them it enables me to provide support for the groups that need it and (very important) I actually follow though on that promise (by helping students find information in their notes, directing their thinking or asking them questions to help them check their work before running their final answers by me.) It's one thing to say you will provide support, but it's quite a bit more meaningful and lasting when the students see you actually deliver. Finally, while students have received their quizzes and are aware of their own scores, I announce the groups and seat them randomly in the class. While the students ask each other "what grade did you get?" they cannot determine whether they own group is the lowest-performing group in the class.