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.

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My Newest CIM: RL.7.3

For those of you who read regularly, you’ll remember that I’m working on my 7th grade line of Continuous Improvement Model mini-lesson resources. I’m making good progress and I have recently finished and posted the CCSS.ELA.RL.7.3 resource. With this, I’ve also made a bundle with RL.7.1, RL.7.2, and RL.7.3, so you can save over 15% if you are interested in all 3.

What is a CIM? The acronym “CIM” stands for “Continuous Improvement Model.” It is one name for the research-based strategy that follows the “I do,” “we do,” “you do,” teaching model. In this resource, there are 3 lessons. Lesson 1 is a teacher-modeled lesson. Lesson 2 is a collaborative lesson where the teacher leads the class. The students complete lesson 3 independently. This resource is, in and of itself, a scaffolding tool. It is designed to help students master standards in a gradual manner.

This product is a 3-5 day tool for teachers to instruct, assess, and reteach skills and concepts associated with the RL.7.3 standard: Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot). It also aligns with Florida’s standard: LAFS.7.RL.1.3, because of how Florida adapted their standards. It may also align with your state’s standards if your state doesn’t use CCSS.

The only Common Core practice I’ve been able to find is general and mixed-standards. Mine is the only one I know of that does individual standard, targeted instruction and practice. It’s low-prep and easy to implement. I use literature in the public domain from reputable authors (like Kipling, Twain, and Poe – this resource uses works by Hawthorne and Maupassant), so you’re exposing your students to quality literature with targeted standards practice. It takes out all the prep and guesswork!

If you’re looking for a quick, targeted, and easy resource for this standard, come check it out!

Football Freebie! 10/21/14

As the secondary ELA assessment coordinator for my school district (one of the ten largest in the country…I coordinate over 75 exams!), I have found that the transition from the old standards to the new CCSS (okay, so Florida has the LAFS…yes, the LAFS – but at the secondary level they’re all but identical to the CCSS) has been difficult for teachers in terms of understanding the types of questions they ask students and where those fall on the standards “spectrum,” if you will. In the old standards, students at the secondary level were responsible (largely) for questions asking them to make inferences, draw conclusions, identify devices, etc.

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Old secondary questions.

Now, these teachers feel like they’re “not allowed” to ask those types of questions anymore, because they do not demonstrate mastery of the secondary standards – particularly the key ideas/details and craft/structure clusters (1-6). What I’ve been trying to impress upon them, however, is that they should still be asking those questions in class during discussions and in-class assessments. The difference is that they will not see those types of questions on the new state assessments (like PARCC, Smarter Balance, or FSA – for Florida).

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New CCSS questions.

I found it extremely helpful (and teachers have agreed) to have a document where the standards are presented vertically. So instead of seeing all the standards for grade 5, standard RL 1 is on a single page and it goes from K-12, so a teacher can see where the question they’re asking falls on the spectrum.

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Sample page from resource

I have found that the majority of the “old style” questions now hover in the grades 2-4 range. Additionally, there are certain grade levels that have very specific caveats (rhetoric, for example, makes an appearance in the upper grades, poetry is emphasized in middle school, etc.), and it is helpful to see where the more generic concepts fall – either prior to or beyond the year of focus. Therefore, I have put together a document for ELA teachers that vertically presents all the RL and RI standards. These are the CCSS (Florida teachers, Hillsborough County has a document for you already…you can search around for it or contact me directly and I can get it to you). I would ideally like to eventually have a document that includes the W, SL, and L standards, but I simply didn’t have time for that this week, and since the Reading standards are the most prevalent (from what I have found, anyway), I went with those. Please leave me feedback about 1) whether or not this document is helpful, 2) if it would be helpful to have the additional standards in a similar document, and 3) if something like this would be useful for the Math standards as well. Enjoy!

ccss vertical alignment

CCSS Vertical Alignment Resource