One of the ways Nueva faculty members help students meet their potential is through assessments. Just as our approach to learning keeps our gifted students at the center, so too does the process for how teachers assess—and then communicate—how students are meeting the learning objectives and where they have opportunities for growth. With projects that are responsive to students’ curiosity and creativity, our faculty ensures that assessments are both standards-based and flexible so that students feel most engaged.
Last week, we highlighted how two of our lower school faculty members approach assessments and keep an open feedback loop. This week, we invite you to read how a few of our middle school faculty members are doing so; check back next week for the final installment about upper school.
Amy Hunt, Upper School Psychology Teacher
Intro to Psychology
What assessments do we have over the semester?
Throughout this semester, students have participated in a series of learning-oriented, formative assessments in which they gained content, learned to give cogent explanations, and acquired some vocabulary about methodology in psychology.
This all built up to a major assessment: a structured seminar discussion on a question that wasn’t revealed until they got to the seminar.
They worked together to answer the question from many perspectives, adding research and theory to their reasoning. This year’s question was, “Has psychology concluded that humans are aggressive?”
This wording of the question led to really rich discussion, especially as students had tickets limiting the number of times they could speak in the seminar. Since the stakes were pretty high and some students found the format challenging, they also completed a reflection on the experience that left space for them to include information and ideas that they would have said had they had the chance and to conduct one last synthesis of everything they’d heard.
I then took my notes from the seminar and the reflection and assessed each students’ performance on the entire rubric.
Then we began studying schemas, a core concept of cognitive psychology, which they also consider as neural networks and as products of culture and experience. Many days in class I would model an experiment illustrating how schemas guide behavior and mental processes such as perception, decision making, memory, and prejudice. Then I gauged their understanding through a formative assessment that uses the rubric, in which they applied schema theory to the “behavior” they see described in literature or songs.
This was an intermediary check for me to make sure they knew how to work with schema theory, to build them up to tackle that big schema essay.
I give very robust feedback that is both general and very targeted to each learning outcome. I try to keep the feedback transparent and explicit. I always include a bit about what a student needs to do in order to move up to the next outcome on the rubric. It’s helpful for students to have that kind of intense scaffolding and to talk about it.
That feedback is there for the students, but it’s also there for me, so that when they do their revision, or when we sit down to talk about their drafts, I don’t have to completely rethink or reread that paper. That record of feedback is for both of us—in our next conversation about their draft, it serves as a map, offering a path forward and guiding our discussion.
That small assignment acts as a warm up for the biggest assignment of the semester: an essay on schema theory. Rather than giving the prompt as “Discuss schema theory” or even “Evaluate schema theory,” I open up the question a bit more and ask, “Does schema theory suggest that we live in different worlds?”
Their essays needed a minimum of five research studies and two theories, but other than that, students can follow a number of very different tracks. One student wrote entirely on the different worlds—different from each other’s and different from the facts—created by our distorted memories. Another student focused on all of the ways that culture, as a set of shared schemas, brings people into the same world. One student wrote entirely on the negative schemas that are a feature of depression. Essays ranged from six to 16 pages and used APA citation style. Once I assessed essays on the entire rubric, some students chose to do revisions, largely aimed at particular learning outcomes.
Why this project at this time?
For our final unit, we looked at love as a set of behaviors and mental processes that psychology can study. We spent a day or two trying to figure out what love is, how we might operationalize it. Then we turned to biological, cognitive, and social-cultural factors that have been studied, particularly the distinct concepts of lust, attraction, and attachment in romantic interactions. We looked at research by Helen Fisher, who studies the biopsychosocial model of love, as well as other research by those who stay in a particular lane, such as Wedekind, who ran studies on attraction as the smell of another with a compatible immune system and Hazen and Shaver, who argued that humans create relationships based on an internal model of relationships built in infancy.
From the previous assessments, supplemented by my notes from class discussions and informal presentations, I had a good sense already of what my students were learning and who needed to work on what.
I thought it would be good to put the last unit even more into their hands, so I asked them to create a mini-project on love, something they could start and finish in a couple of hours, something related to any aspect of the biopsychosocial model of love, and something they could present to the class and share their learning. I gave them a list of suggested formats for their product, from writing a grant to making a podcast to creating a parody of a reality show.
Being Nueva students, they took my basic prompt and created an impressive range of products. And these were only with a few hours’ work:
- An explanation and evaluation of a research study on levels of satisfaction in arranged marriages
- A few projects analyzing relationships: one from a dating show, one from a novel, one from a Broadway musical
- A few video projects, including a documentary, with interview footage, of teens attempting to pinpoint the moment when attraction or friendship became love
- A song, composed and then performed in class, based on a synthesis of all the different theories and concepts we’d looked at, which beautifully captured the slippery definition of just what love is
- There were two surveys, one that formed the basis of the worst possible study of love that the students could create—intentionally breaking every methodological rule—and the other an attempt to measure whether platonic, romantic, and familial love have distinct sensations and emotions.
- One student created a map of love. Another created a dating service that gives you the chance to smell your future partner through a device attached to your phone as you scroll.
- One student created a love game that you can’t win: the rolls keep bringing players back to the same pattern, the same internal model of relationships, the same choices.
- Another group created a series of questions designed to undo the halo effect that often causes people to see a romantic partner through rose-colored glasses
Beyond the importance of giving students the freedom to interpret the task in their own way, I also wanted them to have another chance to meet particular learning outcomes. So, in addition to a rationale for their project in which they explained why they created what they did, they also identified which learning outcomes they’d like to be assessed on. Knowing that in such a small project they wouldn’t be able to meet all the rubric demands and that some learning outcomes wouldn’t fit the format of their project, I allowed them to target specific learning outcomes of their choice.
In practical terms, one student chose to create the “bad methodology” study above in order to consolidate their understanding of research and meet that learning outcome. Another student deliberately loaded their project with related terminology in order to meet that outcome, and so on.
Amber Carpenter, Upper School English & Creative Writing Teacher
Our goal in tenth grade English is to expand and deepen skills in reading, writing, critical thinking, and collaborative dialogue. We focus on examining and understanding the relations of culture, identity, and power by focusing on literature produced outside the West.
We also dive deeply into issues raised by imperialist ideologies and their aftermath. Some of the essential questions for the fall semester include:
- How does a literary text in the Western canon reinforce or undermine colonialist ideology through its representation of colonization and/or its inappropriate silence about colonized peoples?
- What do our texts reveal about the operations of cultural difference––the ways in which race, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, cultural beliefs, and customs combine to form individual identity––in shaping our perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world in which we live?
- How do our writers and thinkers utilize literature, language and storytelling to express their lived experiences at the political, social, and cultural levels?
We designed four Major Assessments (MAs) this semester that assessed each student on their mastery of our English standards. These English standards build upon each other and work together to support strong communication and critical thinking.
The fourth and most recent major assessment was a pastiche assignment on Thi Bui's graphic novel memoir The Best We Could Do.
Students produced pastiches—an artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period. In this case, they created graphic novel memoirs in the same artistic style as their text, creating a lost chapter or epilogue that expands on the themes the author Bui tackled in her narrative. Through this project, we wanted students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of rhetorical purpose and techniques through the graphic novel genre. This required students to perform close reading of the text, tracking a repetition of some type, including—but not limited to—framing, layout, color, design, images, words, dialogue, or characters’ behaviors. They then applied some of Bui’s artistic choices in making their own graphic novel.
As an alternative, other students chose to write an autobiographical pastiche, which utilizes Bui’s style and incorporates the themes that the author tackles in her graphic novel memoir.
While the project focused on the students’ close reading skills, they had to apply them in a way that is different from the traditional analytical essay. For example, “Writer's Voice” was assessed through the ways in which students brought together words and visual elements to connect to the audience.
To determine each student’s level of mastery for each rubric standard at reporting times, we consider consistent performance over the semester, and we also take into account that students develop over time—which is one of the strengths of using a rubric.
Students were given a “Rubric Self-Review Checklist,” which offered several questions in each of the rubric categories, which included connecting texts and contexts, argumentation, close reading, and more.
For grade 10 especially, it’s a transitional period. They’re truly growing in their rhetorical practices, and we’re doing our best to get them to show as much of that growth as possible in their thesis statements, arguments, analytical skills, structure, and fluidity. I offer feedback by highlighting text on their documents and providing explicit feedback that references language taken directly from the rubric—so, to really point out for them the areas in which they really demonstrated mastery or those areas in which they can continue to improve.
Based on this process of giving feedback, we often see the students’ writing grow and improve between August and December and January to June.