3D Models to Masks: Alternative Approaches to Assessing Learning

Thacher teachers enliven the classroom with alternatives to papers and exams.
Each spring, the Thacher community gathers to learn about subjects selected by seniors for their capstone projects. From looks at possible solutions for the overfishing problem, to understanding how to reduce the number of commercial airline crashes, the Senior Exhibitions illustrate the varied interests of this group of students. Their research and presentations provide a vehicle for students to investigate real questions and to see that the skills and knowledge they are acquiring have relevance well beyond an individual class or a high-stakes test. Now that Thacher has moved away from the AP curriculum, our faculty members are freer to adopt modes of inquiry and assessment that, like the Senior Exhibition program, invite students to follow their own interests and to apply what they learn in more meaningful and more engaging ways. 

“We know that deep learning and mastery of material comes when students can apply knowledge and transfer skills to novel situations and authentic contexts,” said Tracy Miller, director of studies. With that in mind, the faculty has been incorporating more alternative assessments into the curriculum. Their goal: Give students opportunities to synthesize course materials in new ways and the freedom to decide how to demonstrate their learning. “These kinds of assessments can confound students in hugely productive ways: it can feel much messier to not know what's on the test and to be challenged to use class material and skills to tackle big, open-ended questions and assignments,” said Ms. Miller. But as necessity is the mother of invention, these stuck places often spark creativity in students, cement their understanding and help them to make connections between the classroom and the kinds of real world tasks they will encounter as professionals.

How are members of the Thacher faculty implementing these approaches? Read on for a sampling of some of the ways alternative assessments are enlivening our classrooms and labs.

Story Maps (History)
Dr. Spinney’s U.S. history classes have developed story maps, interactive, multimedia products akin to the types of scrollable articles you might find in many contemporary publications. Here are two exampls of these research and writing intensive projects:Industry and Society, Institutions of Cultural Genocide.

Websites (History)
Mr. St. George’s Post Colonial Africa class created websites that explored human rights on the African continent.

Letters to the Editor (History)
Mr. Carney’s Honors Contemporary Ethical Issues students had the option of participating in a debate or writing a letter to the editor about one of the issues the class was investigating. 

Emily Goes to Madison Avenue (English)
Dr. Boyd assigned a group project to design a product commercial around favorite Dickinson poems.

True-life Challenges (French)
For her upper level French classes Ms. Kasimirowski-Garcia uses problem-based learning assignments and assessments that simulate true-life challenges students have to resolve, often in cooperation. 

Filming a Scene (Spanish)
Ms. Perry taught a unit on political repression in her Spanish III class. Her students researched authoritarian political leaders, gave oral presentations on their findings, then read Ariel Dorfman’s play La Muerte y la Doncella. As a final project, the students will write and film an additional scene for the play that helps to explain the rather ambiguous final scene.  

Mask Making (Spanish)
Mr. Sánchez’s Spanish III class spent a trimester focusing on Costa Rica's culture and society. After learning about the country, students were asked to summarize what they learned or to choose something that stuck with them from the course and put it into a mask. It was a way for them to think about the entire trimester, make connections, and deliver their knowledge in a different way. 

Clean Water for Turtles (Chemistry)
Mr. Hattori’s Advanced Chemistry class studied the chemistry of water in a joint project with the Turtle Conservancy (TC) down the road, which works to protect tortoises and freshwater turtles worldwide. The class tested for sub-optimal conditions in the turtle ponds, then presented their findings and recommendations to the TC staff, which implemented the suggestions, improving conditions for the reptiles.

Focus Group Feedback (Astronomy)
Dr. Swift’s Astro Research class is not traditional at all. Each student is evaluated case by case based on the tasks and weekly class goals. They are evaluated in person each week during the “focus group” sessions and are given direct feedback on their methods, approach, attitude, work schedule, and progress. 

Three-Dimensional Optical Illusions (Math)
Mr. Wadsworth’s calculus class created three-dimensional optical illusions. They used the 3D printer to make models of non-planar vector valued functions that appear to be two different surfaces simultaneously. This was inspired by the work done by mathematician Kokichi Sugihara and his "Ambiguous Cylinder."
Writing a Roller Coaster (Math)
To assess students’ understanding of polynomial function behavior, Mrs. Snyder's Math IIIA class created roller coasters by writing a polynomial function that met certain parameters. 
Compendiums (Math)
Ms. Vickery is having her students create a compendium of all the integration techniques learned in Calculus II. Students are challenged to creatively convey ways to integrate functions using the different methods studied. Their projects include a cookbook, workout regimen, comic book, fairy tale, crime mystery, and others.

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