Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Conclusion (For Now): A Student-Paced Unit of Instruction

A couple of posts ago, I described my experiment with a student-paced unit of instruction. Students were given 14 school days and 11 tasks to complete in order to learn about the chemistry of solutions. That unit is now complete and today I will share my thoughts on how it went.

A Quick Overview

Students did learn about the chemistry of solutions. Almost everyone took the test as planned on the day we originally planned it to be taken. Almost everyone completed and turned in almost every piece of work that was required by the end of the unit.

Cause to Celebrate

There were a number of reasons I thought the student-paced unit was a success:

  • I was more able to answer individual questions and offer small group assistance. Quick questions answered on-the-fly redirected students and provided clarification. One day a group of seven students told me they were all very confused and would I just give them a mini-lesson to help. I did and they almost didn't need me to finish. As their questions were answered, they turned more to each other for help and suggestions.
  • When students had questions about work, they were often more focused than the typical "I don't understand anything about this." Kids who had completed introductory material could come right in and identify what was confusing and get the help they needed.
  • We had extensions in place for students who finished early (see above!). I had one group of four who created a pacing plan on day 1 of the unit so that they would all reach both of the extensions. They maintained their pace exactly as they envisioned and completed both extensions. They got to complete activities that I wouldn't do for my whole class and they enjoyed the results. 
  • I didn't lose any papers. Let's be honest: 11 different assignments coming in one all different days by 44 students. The potential was there for things to be misplaced. I am very organized but this was still a challenge and I conquered it.
  • Within two days of completing the unit, all of the work from the unit was graded and posted to my online gradebook. That never happens. It's nice to be starting a new unit without the cloud of work that needs to be graded hanging over my head.
  • The conversations I heard students having, and the things I heard them saying about learning, were awesome. When I heard a student say, "I'm actually trying to understand chemistry," I responded with, "What do you typically do?" And he said, "Not that." There were lots of "how do you know?" and "can you show me how to do that?" that I heard in groups of students every day. I saw students owning their learning. And that was entirely the point of the unit.
  • On a typical test or quiz day in Honors Chemistry, around 20% of my students don't take the assessment for one reason or another. On test day in this unit, only 3 students (~7%) didn't take the test. And two of those students had missed 3 or more days of the unit due to out-of-town absences.

Room to Grow

Of course, there were struggles, too.
  • I saw many students off-task as the unit progressed. They weren't causing problems, but were using the time in chemistry to complete math homework or study for other classes. This typically caused problems toward the end of our unit as they rushed to complete things they had put off.
  • Despite my warnings that if students wanted quizzes back before the test to help them with feedback and to study, they would need to take them two days before the test, many delayed until the day before the test to take one or more quizzes. In fact, about half of my students took the final quiz on the day before the test. This meant they did not see their quiz before the test, so it is likely they made the same types of mistakes on both assessments.
  • There weren't many students who asked for small group help. I would have liked to do more of that, but I was also trying not to insinuate myself into their process too much. Maybe if we continued with this type of structure, that would improve? Kids kept referring to this as "self-taught" and it was never supposed to be that. I was hoping to enact the Montessori approach of giving lessons but that didn't pan out as much as I hoped it would.
  • Some of our tracking mechanisms fell apart a little during the unit. I needed to do a better job helping them track their progress in the spreadsheet we were using and on our whiteboards. When our "tomorrow I'm going to" whiteboard became an eye sore, one of my administrators bought us these whiteboard magnet name plates and it kept things looking more ship shape.
  • The chaos in the lab was still giving me anxiety at the end of the unit. The perils of having 5 different experiments (plus two extensions) all co-mingling on our dispensing table was a constant source of high blood pressure for me. Despite my best efforts to create masking tape barriers and labels, students spill things and don't clean them up or move things to where they are working. I would need to enact different expectations for what this looks like in future iterations. 
  • Students were allowed to choose between two labs for each of two topics in the unit. All of my students chose the same experiments. While there was room for variation, the students did not choose variation. Unfortunately, many opted for experiments that had questions to complete as the follow-up work instead of a written lab report (even though students typically score higher on lab reports!). In many cases, I would have chosen a different experiment for them because it was a richer experience.
  • I think the test score was a little lower than typical. In the last several years the average on my solutions test was between 77-80%. This year's test was more like 73%. When a test isn't around 78%, I curve it to get it there and I did that with this year's test. Looking back in my old gradebooks, there is no way for me to know if I had curved the tests in the last several years.
  • Several of my colleagues told me that "everyone hated this." I wish more people would have talked to me about it or asked me why I was trying it and what I hoped would come out of it. I get the feeling that others won't be in a hurry to try something similar or help kids process how they grew because of this.
Stay tuned for my next post. I asked the students for feedback about the experience of the student-paced unit and I will share what they thought. Preview: We didn't always see everything the same way.

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