The Jury is In

I’ve been waiting for today’s Biology class for two weeks.  Why? The day of reckoning.  Or less dramatically, it’s the day I find out, if this stuff really works.

After two weeks of my students taking control of their learning, and teaching themselves, and each other, about the brain and nervous system, it is time to assess the success of this venture.

I decided to have a quiz to gauge what my students have learned. I felt caught by this decision because I’m not sure about the authenticity of this format, especially in light of the way we’ve been learning.  Yesterday, we were discussing the assessment as a class. One of my student’s commented that she knows the information, but when she looks at the questions she goes blank.  She said to me, in all genuineness, “If that happens, can I turn over the paper and write all of the stuff I do know?”  Heartbreaking.  I think the school system has failed this girl many times.

I’ve had that exact feeling.  I’ve taken a course, and learned so much,  but the exam does not accurately reflect all that I have learned.  Twenty-five questions are supposed to accurately depict all that I’ve learned, during a semester, in a fifteen chapter course. It’s disappointing.  And it feels unfair.

Later that night, I created the quiz.  However, afterward, I thought deeply about my student’s comment.  I began to wonder.  If I really want to find out what my students have learned, why don’t I just ask them to tell me what they’ve learned?

Is that really an authentic form of assessment? I definitely didn’t learn that in university.  And I’m pretty sure if I pull out my Making the Grade text, it’s not in there.

So, to be honest, that’s the “quiz” I went with.  One question.  Tell me what you’ve learned.  When I told my students this the next day, they were shocked, but so excited. During the exam I kept hearing, “I really love this exam.”  How many times do you hear that as a teacher?

However, a few were anxious.  What do you mean tell you what I’ve learned? What do I put?  How much do I write?  You know, the kids who want everything laid out for them. The kids who want you to tell them exactly what they need to do for a good mark.  That’s not critical thinking.  I knew they would struggle, but I also know they have to overcome the desire to have everything neatly defined.   Life isn’t like that. Those are the kids I like to continually push out of their comfort zones.

Most of them wrote for a good half-hour.  The girl who normally would have bombed on a quiz? She wrote two pages, including information like the amygdala is the part of the brain that controls fear and, on average, it’s %17 percent smaller in those who are psychopathic.  Wow.

After the quiz, I asked to hear their thoughts on how we had done this unit.  What did they like, dislike, and what would they do differently? The overwhelming response?  They loved it. Some asked if we could do the rest of the course this way.  Absolutely.  I am never going back to the “other” way.

They loved the Khan Academy video, and reverse instruction learning.  They found the illustrations easy to understand, and the format challenging.  And most of all, they love the independence.

Many student’s commented on how our new way of learning is a lot more interesting because it is interactive. It’s not just sit and read and listen. Others commented how they learned a lot more this way. Instead, of memorizing facts for the exam that are quickly forgotten, many felt like they really learned it.  But more importantly, I think it showed them that they are competent and smart.

One of the difficulties some students encountered was not being sure what they should be learning.  It wasn’t defined as neatly as it usually was.  Some students found it more difficult to teach their peers than others.  These are two areas we will specifically work on during our next unit

So, tomorrow, we’ll be starting our circulatory system unit.  And it will run the same way, except for a few changes.

This time, it will look more like a jigsaw.  Five students will comprise each “home” group. Each member from the home group will research a different area.  However, this time they won’t be researching alone.  Instead, one student from each group, will meet in subject-alike groups, and become the expert on their area.  They will work as a team and collaborate on what their final products look like. Once subject-alike groups are finished their research, they will return to their home groups to teach their peers.  By the time they are done, they will have learned about the entire circulatory system.

Each group will be responsible to contribute a document that will be used to create an e-book, which will be posted to our wiki.  This constitutes their notes.  Additionally, they will have to contribute links that can be used by students as further resources, and they need to find a video that can be posted to the wiki, much like the Khan video, to explain the basics.

To help  groups stay on task, and function better, each group needs a foreperson, to ascertain each day, where the group is at, and what needs to be done.  They can also create other positions, if they so desire.

I am absolutely sold on the power of student-centered learning and moving myself off center stage.  I have received comments from other teachers who have heard from my students how much they’ve learned, and how excited they are to be doing it this way.

Yesterday, when one of my student’s commented that she preferred “the old way”,  most of my students loudly protested.  Even if I wanted to go back, I couldn’t.  I think there would be a riot. One of my students emphatically spoke up stating, “No!  all of our other classes are like that.  I like this class this way because I can do this one, and I want one that I can do!”  I was speechless.

This is a student who struggles in a traditional classroom, and experiences limited success. And she doesn’t think she’s smart. But the truth is, she is.  She gets Biology. During class discussions she grasps the concepts, as soon as, or sometimes sooner than, students who have 90’s.  There’s obviously a disconnect somewhere.

This is not something I expected when we first started this.  I had no idea what the outcomes of this would be, or that it would be so rewarding.  For the first time,  one of my students has a class she feels she can “do”.  And I feel incredibly honoured that it’s mine. This makes all the uncertainty and missteps worth it.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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48 Responses to The Jury is In

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Jury is In | Wright'sRoom --

  2. Wow, what an inspiration, really and truly I would never have thought of that, but so simple and clean. Probably a mess to mark in order to fit it into a ‘traditional’ system for others to understand, but wow what a possibility.

  3. I’m so spoiled by teachers like you that I have “met” through this class. This week, I had a very disappointing day. I work in a nature center – so I see kids for 2 or 3 hours at a time. I don’t have the luxury to get to know them or see how they normally learn back at their schools.

    This was an Envirothon team. (Teams from various schools compete in May on topics related to the environment.) Since it is an elective activity, you would think that the participants would be motivated to learn. I had set up a whole bunch of stations where they could interact with the materials and learn on their own… They were clueless how to begin. I ended up giving a bunch of mini-lectures. That seems to be what they wanted: for someone to open the skull and pour in the knowledge.


    Anyway, I applaud your approach and wish I could meet other teachers in my region who would teach like this!

    • I think it’s hard to teach kids when you only have them for a couple of hours, which is why I was never much for subbing. But I think it’s incredibly admirable that you’re trying to get kids to think. Keep trying, it may stir something in them so that they desire to do it more.

  4. Alan Stange says:

    Beautiful! I need to emulate what you have done with my own students in five and six. I began the year with an inquiry unit and I am launching my next interdisciplinary units now. Assessment is always an issue so your thoughts are timely. That assessment should differentiate for the students. It might not be appropriate to use an essay with all of my students. The ones who need a scaffold to guide their thinking should have one and the ones who need to simply “talk out” their learning need that opportunity too. When you open the box, the possibilities are very exciting for everyone. Thanks for sharing.

  5. mwclarkson says:

    Inspirational, awe inspiring and slightly embarrassing reading (as an educator I’ve been wanting to do more independent / student-led learning but haven’t). This is a joy to read – genuine, practical ideas, experiences and opinions – thank you for sharing.

  6. J says:


    This is amazing! I love how you are allowing the students to take control of their own learning. I wish I would have had more teachers like you!

  7. Heather Ross says:

    Shelly, this is wonderful. You’re doing great work (actually making a difference in your students’ lives). I’m going to pass this post on to our instructors.

  8. Rod Murray says:

    Bravo! A fascinating read and the insights you and your students now have about learning is revolutionary, to say the least. The question is, how can we prove that doing this differently benefitted students, because that’s what our data driven school districts and politicians understand (in some cases, it’s all they understand)?

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  10. Barbara says:

    This is so exciting! Keep up the great work…
    We have done some similar work at the elementary level but your post may push us to the next step. It is interesting to note that this year one teacher here had a similar experience in finding that a student who usually never passes a test is doing great work. In her class she writes “tests” that have three very open questions about each topic and students pick one question for each topic and write everything they know. It is a little more structured than yours but it has worked great with 5th and 6th grade. The best part is the kids are proud of their work!

  11. Thumbs up – thanks so much for sharing. It’s sometimes hard to explain to people what authentic assessment “looks like” – examples like this really help!

  12. David Jakes says:

    Awesome. Congratulations.

  13. Chris Cooper says:

    How would a teacher give a grade for such activities? Without a set rubric in place, it would be hard to justify a grade. Tell me how to make this work because I love it!

    • That’s a great question. And, to be honest, at this point, I’m not sure. I’m currently in consultation with our division’s assessment “expert”. I’m hoping either he knows of a rubric, or that we can design one, because I’d love to be able to use something like this again.

  14. Thanks for a great post. You never really do go back after an experience like this.

  15. Love this idea! I have been reading many of your posts and following what you are doing in the classroom. I plan on trying your ideas with my classroom. I hope it is as successful.

  16. angela says:

    what an awesome teacher you are! i felt emotions of a kindred spirit beginning to well up inside me as i related to your teaching style and your comments regarding student-led teaching. i was a home-educator of my son from 5th grade onward due to that same desire to create a well-rounded person who could grow to love learning (as you obviously do!) and to think for himself, not just be a regurgitator of facts with a complete ineptness for applications in the real world! thanks you for your dedication and for being courageous to speak out and go against the flow!!!

  17. Great post.

    Great work.

  18. Klista says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! We tend to underestimate our kids a lot; this shows that they’re not just lazy or stupid, they just learn differently than we did.

  19. Jeremy says:

    Wonderful! Thanks for sharing – and providing enough detail and relfection on the many aspects of what you and they did in order that I could really appreciate the whole thing (very science-teacherish of you).

    I’ve had comparable experiences this year with my AP Gov’t course, as I’ve handed more and more of the class over to them, in terms of format of work, delivery of it, and even in part assessment of it. And they’re rising to the occasion, big time.

    Trying something radical is, obviously, risky…and yet all this talk of change is just lip-service to a dream if we don’t step out into the minefield and find a way through.

    Thanks again.

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  21. Mark Moran says:

    This is the future of education. It can’t come to the rest of the world soon enough. I hope this post is read 100,000 times. I’ll do my part to make it happen.

  22. Shawna Stangel says:

    Hi Shelley,

    What an amazing journey you have been on. It has been a pleasure to read your blog every week and see the transformation of your practice and belief not only change but become stronger.

    You wrote, “This is not something I expected when we first started this. I had no idea what the outcomes of this would be, or that it would be so rewarding. For the first time, one of my students has a class she feels she can “do”. And I feel incredibly honoured that it’s mine.”

    I have no doubt that this same student feels as though she shares this class “with” you rather than taking it “from” you. In fact I’m quite certain that her words in reflection of this class could be similar to yours – just replace the word “students” for “teachers” within your quote, and it would fit the thoughts of this learner.

    Keep doing the wonderful work that has kept us all reading!


  23. fearghal says:

    Wow. Thanks for sharing this.

    I’m a biology teacher in Scotland and I’ve been experimenting with very similar approaches with similar fantastic outcomes:

    I’ve recently discovered this fantastic book, which if you’ve not come across already I would highly recommend:

    Thanks again,

  24. Paul Slowey says:

    Hi Shelley,

    Love your work. I’d like to talk to you about using your story in a book I am publishing. Can you please email me when you get a chance.

    Many thanks,


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  26. Scott says:

    I’m highly impressed and exited for you. What a journey learning can be!

    I’m interested in the reaction from your colleagues when you tell them or they find out about your method. I’m having some interesting reactions from some of my colleagues to my “challenging” methods. You seem to have students on board, and that’s what matters. Have you had any luck getting another teacher to join you?

    Keep it up!

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  28. Tracy says:

    Hi Shelley,
    It’s awesome to hear that high school science classes can work with this type of assessment because so often we hear that AfL doesn’t work within that specific area. It’s so inspiring to hear how this has improved student confidence and has allowed all students success.
    One suggestion I would make to you about making this work for “marks” and your rubric is to have the same type of question as you did… “tell me what you know about…” , but make one specific to each of the major outcomes for that unit/chapter. They can tell you specifically what they know about each outcome and then your rubric can be made using these outcomes. I have found this very useful myself and makes that rubric so much easier for you to create.

    Keep up the great work!!

    • Thanks, Tracy. I was incredibly surprised to see how well it worked, and how beneficial it was for my students. I really like your idea of including a question for each of the specific outcomes. That’s really useful; it provides structure, but at the same time still allows freedom for student’s response.

  29. Pingback: A brave step forward | Malcolm Bellamy's Lifelong Learning Blog

  30. Fred Harwood says:

    I’d like to offer a qualifier to this technique in support of this alternative assessment and as a warning.

    I too decided that the blank paper test had merit so years ago I told my Gr. 9’s that “in a week they would have a test on coordinate plane geometry (linear equations on a Cartesian grid). This test will have two questions, one will be like the synthesis question on the board that requires you to utilize a lot of the ideas you have learned. The other will be ‘tell me everything you know about coordinate plane geometry.’ You have one week to prepare.”

    I created a rubric of what ideas they were to have learned (I didn’t create it with them which I would now.) I assessed the test and then marvelled at the results. Many strugglers did very well and one student who had never achieved less than 95% on any math assessment in her life got 86%. The results were greatly varied from their usual performances on my other traditional testing. The ace student got 10/10 on the synthesis question but struggled with the tell-me-what-you-know. I thought this was okay since I offer students to write a new assessment of a unit where they were unhappy with their results. My ace student prepared for the rewrite and got 10/10 on the synthesis question and 86% again as a total.

    I was ready to declare this alternate assessment invalid because the results didn’t match my expectations for their abilities. Fortunately, my mother phoned that night and we talked for 45 minutes. After I hung up my wife said, “You talked for a long time! What did you talk about?” I could tell her the first thing and the last thing but the middle 20 minutes were blank. Two months later my wife asked, “I wonder how your uncle’s operation went?” I told her with full details what my mother had told me in the middle 20 minutes of our conversation those months ago.” I realized that I store information in my brain under triggers. You hit the trigger and the information spills out. Many students also have these triggered storage of information. My ace did. If I asked her for any individual or clustered process/knowledge on coordinate geometry, she’d ace it. How do you find the equation of a line between two points, Ace? She’d tell me. But tell me all you know was not a good enough trigger.

    We need to gain assessment information from a variety of sources to triangulate the information. We need to recognize the diversity of our students. I currently have a star who answers intelligently in discussion, helps all those around her with their understanding with excellent conceptual grasp and good language but she freezes up on tests and has never shown me what she is truly doing in her mind. So we work on her emotional intelligence to get her over this hurdle just as this alternate assessment did for your student, Shelley.

    Has this blog audience considered how to teach students to learn and organize their information for these types of assessment? It would be an excellent idea to frame why “making notes” is better than “taking notes”! It would be great to create the rubric for assessing it after they have organized their understanding in a mind map. Then both globular thinkers and triggered thinkers would be recognized. The mind map would act as a trigger for my ace student and yours would shine in the development of the web. If we utilized groups for these developments, then our two stars would complement each other and others would contribute ideas that might have been missed. This would be a great assessment as learning activity in preparation of the summative assessment.

    Could students also peer assess the process in teams afterwards as continued learning? I wouldn’t include their assessments in my grade book but think of it as another AAL activity.

    • Wow, you’ve made some really great points, and have given me a lot to think about. I really like the idea of using mind maps. And while I haven’t used them thus far, I think it’s something I will look into, especially for my senior science students.
      I was reading last night how synthesis is one of the most valuable skills we can teach our students. And I think you’ve identified why. Our students need to be able to assess and pull together the most valuable information, and be able to use it, often in new ways. This is something few of my students know how to do.

      If you have any resources for mindmaps, I’d love the links!

  31. Rick M says:

    I was in a 4/5/6 blended class that was considered a pilot class for this type of learning! We did independent projects with guidance just like the one you describe. I believe the pilot ended after my grade 6 year! These were my most memorable years of school and I remember every project I did! We did a lot of metacognative type of activities (Edward Dubono’s – Thinking skills). Was school/learning fun for those three years of my life, and I am sure the others in the class would agree!

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