Friday, December 5, 2014

Is there more than just giving tests? Reflections on a math PBL by Shira Teichman.

Anyone who knows of my background in Secondary Math Education and/or my current position as a high school math teacher feels obliged, it seems, to email me links to the myriad of math-related articles that are currently riddled throughout Twitter feeds and newspapers.

Many articles have little to no bearing on my teaching (e.g. the private school that I teach in did not need to reorient their curriculum to fit the Common Core), but one recurring topic did truly tug at my pedagogical conscience: TESTS. How much emphasis should we give to students' performance on tests?  Why are tests so anxiety-provoking, to the point that they often hinder students from showing their knowledge masterfully? What are other forms of assessment that can supplement tests? How truthful is the age-old saying, "either you know it [on the test day], or you don't!"?

In an attempt to answer some of these questions, I brainstormed with a colleague and we decided to assign an Independent Study project to be completed once during each of the four terms of this year in two classes that we co-teach. These projects would serve a dual purpose. They would help diminish the weight of tests in the average calculated each marking period. Moreover, these projects would give students the opportunity to apply some of the skills they were learning to real-world scenarios, thereby reinforcing knowledge in the context of an interesting topic of study. 

My "grade-level" sophomore Algebra 1 class does not cease to amaze me; all of them were receptive to, and most of them were quite enthused by, this idea. The students were allowed to choose from a list of topics of study - ranging from the distance from Earth to the Sun during a year's perihelion, to unit pay rates of entertainers like Leonardo DiCaprio as compared to athletes like Koby Bryant. 

The beauty of this Independent Study was that both the teachers and the students worked independently. Once they chose a topic, the students accessed and printed accompanying worksheets from our class website and answered the questions that followed a graph, article, or excerpt of information. Although they were allowed to confer with teachers and classmates, or look on the web for help, students could complete the assignments entirely on their own. Furthermore, as teachers, we worked very "independently"; these assignments were taken from excellent websites such as, and, which our Math supervisor mentioned briefly in a summer professional development session after she met some of these site-writers at the ISTE Convention.   

We were amazed with the results of these projects. When we eliminated the build-up of pressure and the frantic race against the 40-or-so minute timer that accompanies a test, the students produced work that showed self-motivationcreativitythoughtfulness,application and retention of skills, and mathematical rigor. We are particularly proud to see our sophomores strengthen their ability to learn and produce mathematical work independently of a structured classroom lesson. Aren't all of these components what we math teachers strive to see students display on a test...?