Why I allow open-notes quizzes and tests

Every teacher has his or her own educational philosophies and teaching style. One of the things I’ve learned throughout my teaching career is that while good teachers learn from others and take bits and pieces from others to incorporate into their own classes, you can’t be another teacher. No two teachers are exactly alike, and trying to be a carbon copy of another teacher, no matter how incredible that teacher may be, isn’t going to be as effective as developing your own personal teaching style.

That being said, I learned a long time ago that I espouse some unique philosophies on education and teaching, and I run my classroom differently from most teachers I know. Which is fine. I would NEVER try to tell another teacher how to teach. I do not like it when others do that to me, so I don’t do it to them. Suggestions and tips are fine, but I shy away from saying things like, “You have to…,” or “You should…” Instead, if I notice a teacher is struggling or having a certain issue, I share with them, “What works for me is…” and let them adapt it for their own classroom.

If you read my blog regularly, you’re probably already aware of this: I assign seats in secondary classrooms. I don’t allow backpacks at desks. I grade through growth and gains. I accept late work. I rarely assign homework. I allow corrections. Many teachers disagree with my teaching style because that’s not what works for them. And that’s okay, as long as they don’t try to force me to do what works them.

In this vein, I offer another perspective that I have found to be quite rare in my educational experience: open-notes assessments. I’m not talking about a few here or there, I’m talking about every single classroom assessment being open book and open notes.

I can hear it now: “You must be joking!” But I’m not. Much like my philosophy on assigning homework, my perspective on assessments has evolved over the years. Here are the top five reasons why I now only give open-notes assessments:

  • It encourages consistent and high-quality note-taking skills. If my students know they will be able to use their notes on an assessment, they work harder in class to pay attention and write neatly so they can use them effectively later. Yes, they should be using them to study, but allowing them to use notes on an assessment provides another incentive to be on task and pay attention to detail.
  • It provides support for me when parents or administration questions a student’s grades. Much like my reasons for accepting late work, I find many arguments silenced when I tell a parent or an administrator that students are welcome to use their notes, and if they aren’t passing my assessments, it’s likely because they’re goofing off in class rather than writing down the key information.
  • Assessments should be authentic. Again, much like my decisions behind the assigning homework issue, I’ve really come to think critically about what purpose my assessments serve. I used to give assessments that were focused on rote memory skills. Could a student memorize a definition? Could a student memorize a formula? They didn’t focus very much on actual problem-solving skills or application. I realized I wanted to be more interested in whether or not my students understood the material. Had they internalized it? Could they render it useful in a given circumstance? I thought about how in the real world, if a student needed to find the circumference of a circle or develop a subplot in a story they wrote, it wouldn’t be in isolation. They would have access to and use various resources to find what they needed, and then use their knowledge of the concept to apply it. So I allow open-notes assessments because memorizing rote facts isn’t authentic.
  • Piggybacking on this idea is that both my teaching and my assessments are of higher quality because I allow students to use their notes. I have to carefully design my assessments so they don’t have problems that are too similar to what was given in the notes. I have to make sure that they present opportunities for students to apply what they’ve learned and not just copy from what was shown in class. I have to be more creative and have more depth in my instruction and my assessments.
  • Because of this, I’ve found that allowing students to use their notes on assessments honestly doesn’t make that big of a difference in their grades. Aside from a few formulas that they have access to, being able to use their notes doesn’t change the outcome by much for students. If a student truly understands the concept, takes conscientious notes, and studies, s/he’s going to succeed on the assessment, whether s/he has access to the notes or not. If a student doesn’t understand the concept, or didn’t take good notes, or didn’t study, s/he’s not going to succeed on the assessment – and having access to notes isn’t going to change that. The previous 4 benefits still make it worthwhile, though, so I continue to allow open-notes assessments.

“But wait!” Some may shout, “What about the state tests? Students can’t use notes on those!”

I’m aware of that, and I remind students of that at every turn. Most states, however, give formula sheets on the math assessments, which reinforces the idea of authenticity. I have found, though, that on state assessments, my students consistently perform at or above the level of my colleagues who do not give open-notes assessments, which negates this argument.

Is there a right or wrong philosophy here? No. As is true with nearly all aspects of teaching, it’s about finding what works for you and your students and running with it.

Advertisements

Portfolios: How Those Plastic Milk Crates Became My Friend (and Helped Me Tackle Paperwork)

Portfolio grading is all the rage in elementary school. And I get it. I do. It’s the most accurate way to monitor student growth throughout the year. But elementary teachers only have one roster of students. In secondary education, portfolio grading is nearly impossible. With at least six different rosters of students at about 25 students each (if you’re lucky…), portfolio grading simply requires time that teachers do not have.

It is possible, though, to incorporate some aspects of portfolio grading in secondary classrooms. One way teachers do this is periodic, though perhaps infrequent, student conferences to go over writing, assessments, and general progress. That, too, consumes a lot of time, and depending on the makeup of your classes, may not be feasible, as it requires the teacher to be focused on one (or a small group) of students while the remainder work independently (alone or in small groups). I know I’ve had many classes that – despite my best efforts – would become a three-ring circus if I tried student conferences.

Several years ago, my district adopted a curriculum that strongly encouraged the use of portfolios in the secondary classroom. I’d been teaching long enough by that time to know I would not be able to implement it in the way it was intended, but I was determined to try something and see how much I could do. I fully intended to do some type of student conference at some point in the year, so I had to make sure I kept the record of student work in my possession. Because, let’s face it: if we gave our students their work and told them to hold onto it until later, we’d never see it again. Instead of handing graded work back to students, I began filing them in folders. I had to get creative with this because I didn’t have access to any filing cabinets that I could use hanging files with (and, looking back, wouldn’t have wanted to use it anyway), so I used the next best thing: milk crates.

Did you know that milk crates are the exact size to fit hanging file folders? Well, they are. I bought a bajillion hanging file and manila folders and made portfolios for each class. I let students decorate their manila folders (which they loved – even the high schoolers), and all their work went in there.

I never got around to student conferences that year (or any subsequent year #teacherfail), but the use of these milk crate files had an unexpected benefit: It lessened lost work. Both students and I had access to the work from throughout the year. This meant that they could use old assignments to study. It meant they could find and correct assignments for additional credit. It meant I had a student’s (mostly complete) work record at my fingertips, and I had ammunition for parent conferences. I brought the files with me and set them in front of parents who were demanding an explanation for a student’s grades. It shut people up pretty quickly when they saw the quality of work (and, in some cases, lack of work altogether) their child was producing. This was true for my administration as well, if they had questions about a student’s work or grades.

It’s an easy thing to implement, and it saved me a lot of time and headaches with paperwork. Now, they’re a staple in my classroom every year, and I even “hire” a paper captain to do all the filing for me. I have more time and energy to devote to teaching, which is, of course, the entire point.

Why I Stopped Letting My Students Have Their Backpacks at Their Desks During Class (aka the Backpack Bay)

In a long-ago post, I mentioned that one of my “hills to die on,” so to speak, was about backpacks in my classroom. Unless the school I work at has a no-backpack in class policy (and I did work at such a school that tried this policy one year), I can’t mandate that my students not bring their backpacks to class. That aside, I do have control over the procedures for my room.

I used to let my students keep their backpacks at their desks. They would put them under the desks, behind them on the chair, on their laps, or some would even hang them on the back of the chair. I got so tired of tripping over backpacks, constantly hearing students shuffle around in their backpacks, and having to reprimand students for trying to use their backpacks to hide that they were eating in class or using their phone. I was over it.

This is where the backpack bay was born. I cleared off a 2-shelf bookcase and started requiring students to store their backpacks there during class. They were expected to come into class and go to their seat, get out the necessary materials for the day, put their backpack on the shelf (or on the floor in front of the shelves if they were full), and come sit back down. At first, students don’t like this rule, but they get used to it pretty quickly.

I’m very strict about accessing backpacks during class. It’s permitted, but only one student can be at the backpack bay at a time. I also require students to keep any water bottles they may have in their backpacks. They can get a drink if they need to, but they aren’t allowed to keep the water at their desks.

I have received many compliments throughout the years I’ve done this from people who come in and can’t believe how easy it is to walk around my room! It also improves student focus and engagement because they don’t have their bag to mess around with all period.

I tried coat racks one year, but made the mistake of going for the cheap ones rather invest for the long haul, so they fell apart halfway through the year. After that, I went and got plastic storage tubs – big ones – and started using those. I have 6 and that was enough for even my largest class of 29. They held up beautifully.

backpack bay.PNG

One unexpected benefit of this rule was that I became better at time management (and my students became involved in it, too). I found I had to make sure I wrapped up my lesson in time to let students retrieve their bags and pack up before the bell rang. I kept better track of time and stayed on schedule more consistently.

If you think this might improve your classroom management, movement, and student focus, here are a couple of tips:

  • Make the bay at the front of the room. That way, you (and the whole class) can see whose bag is being accessed to prevent problems.
  • Be consistent with enforcement. If class has started and I see students whose bags are still at their desks, I’ll either go to them and quietly remind them to put their bag away or I’ll make a general statement about remembering to put backpacks where they belong.
  • Students like to keep their bags on the floor (not sure why), so think about requiring the bags to touch the wall so they don’t start sprawling into other floor space.
  • Think about allowing students to retrieve their bags in groups (perhaps by row or groups – if you use collaborative seating arrangements). You will have a huge bottleneck if you let all the students up for their bags at the same time.

Why I Use PowerPoint to Teach Middle School Math

Nowadays, one of the major components of many teacher evaluations – including mine – is student engagement. Especially as a new teacher, I struggled with what felt like a game of “Whack-A-Mole” – getting student A on task only to find student B across the room is flinging paper at the student in the next seat. It was a never-ending cycle that left me exhausted. No matter what I did, I couldn’t figure out a way to get every student on task, doing what I needed them (and what they needed) to be doing.

why teach PPT whackamole

It took me a while to figure out that there were two major reasons why my students weren’t always on task. And no, it wasn’t that my lessons themselves weren’t “engaging,” although, as a new teacher, that actually was part of it, but not the central part. I know this to be true because as I progressed in my teaching career, I learned how to make much more engaging lessons, but unless I employed the tactics I’m about to explain, I wound up with the same problems.

The two reasons my students weren’t always on task were

1) they didn’t know what to do/didn’t have something to do

and

2) they couldn’t do what they were supposed to be doing.

Many of my students were off task because they didn’t know what to or have something to do. I had way too much downtime in my lessons. The students who were mature were able to sit and wait until the next component – which, admittedly, wasn’t long. It wasn’t like I had 5 or 10 minutes of dead time, but any teacher can tell you that even just 10 seconds of space is enough to derail a student who is either immature or not self-directed.

Students goofing off in classroom

Students goofing off in classroom — Image by © Sean De Burca/Corbis

So, what’s a girl to do? I abhorred the idea of busy work – I still do. Whatever I had for my students to do, it had to be authentic and worthwhile. It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember the flash of lightning that hit me for the inspiration, but at some point, I decided to try PowerPoint lessons. I put together all the vocabulary, notes, examples, and practice problems for a concept into a slide show and required my students to take these notes for a grade.

why teach PPT projected slide

Do you know what it’s like to hear the angels of heaven sing?

why teach PPT angels sing

I suppose it sounds like different things to different people, but that day it was the sound of silence. It was my whole class on task. Seriously. Every single student. And I know that most teachers will confirm that novelty and/or gimmicks may solve a problem in the short term, but give it about two weeks and things often go back to the way they were.

why teach PPT wait_for_it

That didn’t happen. I used PowerPoints with the same success regarding engagement and on-task behavior throughout the rest of not that year, but subsequent years. This is because PowerPoints give students clear and consistent expectations of what they are supposed to be doing, and provides enough information on each slide to keep students engaged if they finish one definition or problem before other students.

The other reason my students were off task was because I was expecting them to do things they couldn’t. Many of my students – like so many in our country – were performing below grade level. When I was putting up one problem at a time and asking students to work on it, the ones who couldn’t do it were off task. Once I changed to PowerPoint lessons, though, this problem was eliminated. Instead of one or two problems at a time, I was able to have several – sometimes up to ten different problems on a slide! I was able to have different levels of problems so that everyone was able to do what I wanted them to do. Additionally, the other slides alleviated this problem because everyone can write down information from a slide. This may not seem worthwhile, but I made sure my students knew two important things about this: 1) this was building notetaking skills, where were vital for their future in education, and 2) these notes were graded, so even if they didn’t fully understand the lesson, just by writing down the information on the slides, they could earn a grade that would help them overall.

why teach PPT important

And guess what? This all had an unexpected side effect: because these low-performing students now knew what they had to do/had something to do AND could do it, they actually began to improve their understanding and comprehension.

why teach PPT whaaat

If you’ve never tried using a PowerPoint in your middle school math classroom but you’d like to, I’d encourage you to check out some ready-made lessons that are Common Core-aligned. These are my most popular and best-selling lessons:

Independent vs. Dependent Variables

Ratios and Proportions

Integers and Absolute Value