A Brief Reflection on Some of My Experiences in Using Assessment to Strengthen Student Learning

Jeffery J. Boats, University of Detroit Mercy

While finishing my doctorate in absentia from Carnegie Mellon, and prior to coming to the University of Detroit Mercy, I had the privilege of working as a lecturer at the University of Texas at El Paso as part of the NSF's MIE (Model Institutions of Excellence) grant. The purpose was to develop cooperative learning pedagogy involving clusters of pre-engineering and pre-science students. By clusters, I refer to the formation of 4-student cooperative learning teams which remained together in Engineering, Mathematics, Science, and English classes over the course of several semesters.

As a tangential participant in the administrative aspects of the program, I did not partake in the large-scale assessment of the program. However, as a teacher of cluster groups in pre-calculus (MTH4109), I was an integral part of the classroom summative assessment. A key feature of the summative assessment was the interdisciplinary project, which coordinated integral concepts from each of the students' core courses (i.e. a pre-biology student in Intro Biology, Pre-calculus I, and English Composition might write a paper doing an elementary statistical analysis of data collected from articles on deforestation). The idea, obviously, was to foster a sense of community with colleagues, an ability to work with others, and an ability to adapt and apply practices from one discipline to another. The sense of community, in particular, is important at commuter-oriented campuses such as UTEP.

The effectiveness of cooperative team projects was not lost on me; when I later taught Pre-Calculus II (MTH4110), I designed projects for which teams had to first solve problems based on the coursework, and then investigate specific scientific literature regarding problems of a similar nature from beyond the course. Most importantly, for each project, each team reserved a half-hour block of time outside of class and office hours to give formal presentations of their work. Each member had to significantly participate in the presentation (also part of the grade). Lastly, the only way to achieve a full 100% score was to investigate a related topic still beyond the topics I'd asked, to such extent that I personally learned something new from the experience (why let the students have all the fun of learning?). Some of the students were very enthusiastic about the chance to teach the professor a thing or two, and many of them eventually succeeded.

The results were encouraging. The assessment rubric for each project involved checking of several lists of requirements. One list spelled out presentation requirements (everyone participates, illustrations clearly displayed and used fluidly with explanations, etc.), one list counted topic requirements (problems solved, ideas applied to interdisciplinary topics, etc.), and a small list scored the depth of the group's original investigations beyond what had been asked of them. I formulated, and occasionally negotiated, this assessment while in the group's presence, which led to improved clarity in the students' communication of conceptual knowledge as the semester went on.

Less formally, the students also evaluated themselves and their teammates, honestly, on their cooperative participation and individual work ethic. This informal team assessment caused a few (lazy and) embarrassed students to "shape up" noticeably, and was probably more effective in this regard because the feedback, sometimes more like a "wake-up call," came from peers.

I believe that including students in the process of their own assessment not only strengthens the quality of the feedback they receive, but also empowers them with the (quite correct) impression that they have the authority to choose the direction of their growth, and to take the initiative to make great leaps on their own.

I now teach at the University of Detroit Mercy, with far different duties and teaching opportunities than before. But one similarity remains - I still teach a commuter-heavy population. I am the director of the Master of Arts in the Teaching of Mathematics (MATM) program, and the majority of my students are teachers in the Detroit Public School system, taking night classes.

I still teach cooperative project-based classes, and am very interested in attending the March 2002 PKAL Roundtable, in hopes of learning more about the various forms of assessment. I particularly look forward to discussions regarding building understanding and confidence of faculty in using assessment tools and strategies (Plenary I). I think broadening my knowledge base in this area would help me to better prepare future K-12 teachers. Also, UDM's Mathematics Department will likely be reviewing its large-scale assessment practices soon, and considering the importance of this endeavor, I wish to participate in it as effectively as possible.