Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Power of Study Guides and Data

There are few questions I despise more than "Will we get a study guide?" It isn't that I won't or that I hate study guides, but sometimes I feel like kids only ask that so that they don't have to listen during class. Having been a student for the better portion of my 25 years of life and having been a teacher during this age of testing and data overload, I feel as though I've been on both sides of the fence. Last and this year, I started something new with my testing practices and I'd like to share the successes, and failures, with you.

My testing has evolved over my short time in teaching from giving straight up paper tests to online testing. I started with paper testing and paper study guides, then moved to paper study guides and online tests, and this year I am doing online tests and online study guides. I hope to provide some tools and reasoning that you can take back to your classroom and school and give you a heads up about struggles you may face if you decide to go digital.

Paper Tests
 
This seems to be everyone's starting place and is a comfortable place. Even in my second year of giving online tests, I still feel more comfortable with a paper test. Maybe because it is physical and it isn't just pointing and clicking. One of the reasons I feel like I like paper tests is that it requires more than pointing and clicking, it seems like there would be less room for mistake, but many times students will mark incompletely, mark two, or just skip a question. I can't go back while grading at home and ask "which one did you mean" or, "You skipped #5, what answer would you have marked". I also think the argument, "well they didn't bother to double check, so why should I ask them" is invalid, especially if we are only grading on student knowledge. I ultimately abandoned paper tests for the most part due to the things listed below. I will sometimes still give a paper test to a student, especially if they have computer anxiety, consistently do not test well despite proving good study habits, or if they are retaking at test for me.

Positives of paper tests
  • I automatically have to take time to grade each and may catch mistakes not seen before.
  • Easy to hand back for review or grading
  • Easy to put pictures, charts, etc. with little formatting problems
  • Good for students who take extra time to think, require an aural test, feel rushed at a computer, or who like to doodle while testing (yes, I was one of those)
Negatives of paper tests
  • cannot get immediate feedback and data must be hand entered
  • Lots of extra work for teachers whether grading, looking at demographics, or collecting other data
  • not good for students with general test anxieties, students who are intimidated by writing, or who cannot write well
  • Easy for students to make a mistake by skipping, double answering, etc.
  • Students must wait days/weeks to get a grade back and, if they did poorly, cannot immediately work on areas needing improvement.
Online Tests
 
These can be daunting, especially since some state tests require it and it is now the "hip" thing to do. Those of us who don't feel technologically savvy can feel overwhelmed with all the options and sometimes this is more complicated than it should be. I'd love to hear what programs or websites you use. Personally, I like Quia. Quia makes it really easy to create a variety of complex or simple quizzes and breaks down scores in a number of ways. Online testing makes data collection easy as most of the websites and programs I've seen break down data for you. When students take a test I have access to the class average, the middle grade, the highest, and the lowest grades. I also have access to specific question data, as in how many students got it wrong or right. Many people are nervous about online testing in regards to student mistakes and anxiety. I have not seen any massive difference in anxiety levels in students. Many who panic on paper tests were calm at the online test. I did find that if a student was extremely accustomed to a paper test, it took two to three tests for them to become comfortable with an online test. Once this happened, however, it was second nature to them. Many online tests can be set up so that a student is notified if they don't answer a question. They can also choose to skip a question if they don't know it and don't want to try. With this method I give an online test originally and, if the student retests, I give a paper test. This eliminates any mistakes on the computer and also gives a second medium to compare to.

Positives of Online Tests
  • Seems to help eliminate some anxiety, especially over time.
  • Students get immediate feedback and can, depending on what you choose, see the correct answers or just see what they got wrong. Students can go back and review without waiting for a teacher
  • Data is easily organised and, with some sites and programs, downloadable. Data is clear and easy to read and analise.
  •  Teachers can control how students take the test from how many questions they see to whether or not they can right click. This can helps with anxiety and security.
  • Without the hassle of extra printing or copy and pasting, teachers can create multiple versions of the same test or use a test bank.
Negatives of Online Tests
  • Can require some technological knowledge and can be complicated to use the first time
  • require the use of a computer lab or laptops
  • when typing, student noise is louder
  • students may require scratch paper if you allow it. 
  • Because grading is automatic, sometimes teachers may not catch their own mistakes. That being said, the automatic collection of data can help fix this and easily point out "bad questions".
  • If the internet/network goes down, so does the test.

Paper Vs. Online Study Guides

Having done a variety of these, I thought it would just be best to compare these side by side, simply. Additionally, most of my information about the usefulness of these comes directly from student input. Below I am comparing a traditional Q&A/fill in the blank paper study guide and a reloadable online study guide. I have colour coded it to make it easy to read Blue for student input and Red for teacher input.



TopicPaper Study GuideOnline Study Guide
Ease of Accessgreat to have physical copy, easy to leave behind; hard for absent students to get a copycan’t usually print; easy to find; absent students are included; students can access, if available, throughout the chapter for practice, students can re access for review
Usefulnessstudents forget work from class, cannot re-do answers, straight memorisationstudents must re-do work at home, can play multiple times, can take time to look at wrong AND right answers
relation to testif put in same format, students might memorise exactly; often difficult to prepare for with; can be misleading (students just look over it and assume they are ready)often not in same format, students can receive questions from a bank (forces them to have to play multiple times)
“fun” factorstudents are easily bored, can only do once, may be intractive in class, but not at homestudents can play many times and ways, a variety of activities, very interactive

I am more and more convinced that a traditional paper study guide does not serve students the best way possible. While it is definitely helpful to go over this material in class as a review, students often do not remember how they got the correct answer at home. By providing games and study guides that students repeatedly do, they start to figure things out on their own... and studying becomes less of a daunting task that they put off until the last minute.

So.... what does my data look like? Students' grades, for the most part, increased one letter grades when we switched to online testing with paper study guides, but this was inconsistent at best. The class average remained in the C range. It really depended on a variety of factors that weren't consistent enough to make an argument for it. This year, we switched to online study guides and various techniques including timed writes, embedded stories, TPRS, etc. Most student grades are high Bs and low As with quite a few high As. There still were some students who made Cs and Ds and Fs, but there were much fewer. When I polled students about this combination and our class practices (see future post on weekly schedules), this was the overwhelming response:
  1. Students are more motivated to study because it is fun and they see a purpose behind it
  2. Classroom techniques this year have really helped them understand and make connections (particularly with the technique called embedded stories)
  3. I should give them more time and more opportunities to read after I tell a story.
  4. Students enjoy being able to play a game over and over and never get all the same questions.
  5. Students like being able to see the right answers, but still be able to play again and try again before the test, whereas with paper study guides they wrote the answer down and that was it.

Online testing may not work for everyone. I still use paper tests and I will continue to use paper tests for a number of reasons. My goal is to reach as many students as possible in as many helpful ways as possible and I think we've hit on something important in regards to comprehensible input, technology, and by using games in the classroom. I know I am looking forward to more results from my students. I also know that I will continually re assess my methods and update them as necessary.