Using Blended Learning for Assessment

Last week, I finally finished my online course. I was completing the Additional Qualification, Integration of Information and Computer Technology in the Classroom, Part 1 with Queen’s University Continuing Education. It has been a long three months, but it’s also been very rewarding. I played with a lot of new #edtech tools, as well as saw the bigger picture of what we need to think about when we use #edtech (i.e. safety, communication, accountability, digital citizenship).

Like most teachers, I feel that assessment is an area of weakness. I decided to try some new assessment strategies today in a collaborative setting.* I arranged the students in mixed-ability groups, making sure to disperse stronger students between them all and then asked them to work on their usual paper assignments … digitally.

First, they were asked to go on Geogebra and show their solutions to three graph theory questions. Each group had approximately 4 students, so they had to divide the questions up and also check each other’s answers to make sure they were posting the correct one.

After that, they look at Today’s Meet, which is a simple web-based chatroom. This is what it looks like; the left hand side is the messages as you type into the right-hand. The students are able to see my instructions and also click on the URLs to take them to their respective digital “parking lot”:


The “parking lot”, where they post their digital sticky-notes, looks like this. is a free website and it’s definitely a great tool for teachers who are new to #edtech. You simply double-click to add your notes.

Also, if you actually want to see the page live, feel free to click here.


As students wrapped up their work, I asked them to write a comment and give feedback to other students. I laughed at the one above that says, “Remarkable – New York Times Magazine!”

Overall, this was a really successful class that used blended learning and a variety of assessment of strategies. The kids also had fun trying something new and I was proud to see them collaborating and supporting each other. We need to do this more often!

*I’ve been meaning to use more Kagan structures through the year, but got lazy after term 1. 



Testing Apps: GradeCam

A fellow colleague tipped me off on an interesting app last week, GradeCam. You create multiple choice worksheets and students can either use an Elmo or a laptop camera to scan the answers into the system. The website will then mark the paper and you get the data logged right away!

It was fun to play around with it, but considering I only have 25 kids in my largest class (of two!), it’s not something I would need to use right now. This would be much more useful if I had 5-6 large classes, or if I taught at the college level.

I should have saved this app for the end of the year, when we start practicing for multiple-choice style answers for the provincial exams. Ahhhh well, guess I’ll just let my 60-day free trial run out and just stick with practicing multiple choice on Socrative.


The Power of Speech: How Oral Presentations Impact ELLs

As a teacher, I am always trying to figure out to improve my own skills and my classroom. One of my initiatives this year is to focus on developing better metacognition within my students and developing their speaking skills.

First of all, they’re pretty shy. I can’t speak for native students everywhere in Canada, but my students are known to be pretty taciturn. And although they know me quite well and trust me, most of them are still hesitant to solicit an answer or voice their opinion in a large crowd, even if they are amongst their peers that they’ve grown up with for most of their life.

One of the methods I’ve used to encourage more verbal participation is to make a game of it. Each term, students are awarded “Oopsies points” if they see that I’ve made a mistake. At the end of the term, the two people with the highest number of points are given a prize*. Specifically, spelling mistakes are low-level mistakes and only get a single point. Conceptual errors, whether on a test, assignment or chalkboard, are worth three points.

A game setting encourages participation in a light-hearted way and gives some friendly competition. It keeps me on my toes and it also encourages students to challenge authority. I do not want them to think I have all the power in the room. They need to be encouraged to think on their own and to question elders, very much the opposite of Cree cultural norms, but by no means am I encouraging disrespect. I myself grew up in with Confucian values as a Chinese person, but I think it’s important to help young people speak up when they see something is wrong. Without this capacity, horrible things can happen – sexism, racism, violence, exploitation, abuse – the list goes on. Therefore, this skill is important not only in the classroom, but outside the school and in their community.

The second initiative I’ve set out is to have students do one oral presentation each term. For science, both the Grade 10s and 11s were given the last month to research one element of their choice and to make a short Powerpoint presentation. Most students had 3-4 50 minute periods to work on it. Each presentation averaged four or five slides; the most important information that was:

  • basic information about each element – mass, colour, boiling point, melting point, atomic structure
  • interesting facts about the element
  • where the element is found and how it is important to people
  • references and websites used for research

Overall, most of the students did pretty well! There were lots of interesting facts that I learned myself and didn’t even know about. And in fact, several students put up some great puns and ChemCat memes. This was probably one of my favourite ones, and I had never seen it before!

What I really didn’t expect was to see that presentations affected their overall understanding on a much deeper level. While this might seem obvious, remember that my students are ELLs (English Language Learners); Cree is their first language and a large portion of my students struggle with literacy. I’ve been working in the north for 3 years and I have never seen such a strong impact in such a short amount of time!

The unit test scores were the highest they had ever been**, students were using the vocabulary regularly and there was a lot less misunderstanding about scientific terms. I even heard more students helping each other and defining terms. Therefore, ELL students spending time to research an idea deeply and working to develop an oral presentation helps their literacy skills in multiple ways. This makes sense when you look at Bloom’s Taxonomy.***

In the past, I had students repeatedly ask me what ‘atomic mass’ and ‘valence’ mean, despite having explained it many times quite thoroughly. When students worked on their presentation, during their research and reading through websites, they would come across these terms pretty regularly. They would quickly realize that they would need to figure out these terms in order to understand what they were reading. They would also be analyzing the information to see if it was pertinent and evaluate whether they would include it or not (i.e. using higher levels of thinking). The process of creating criteria forced them to think more deeply about their topic and helped them understand concepts that translated to better test scores and improved performance on assignments. 

It is great to see how my students are doing so well. Working in the north is challenging and it’s easy to fall into the pitfall of making excuses. I know in the back of my mind I had doubts of whether they’d be capable or not. I sheepishly admit I was afraid of being disappointed. I imagined the worse scenario; that the computer lab periods would become a big waste of time. What actually happened is that most of them stayed focus and worked far harder than if I had just given a simpler assignment!

It is amazing what is possible when you trust your students and give them the opportunity to set the bar high!

*The term 1 prizes is a medium-sized poutine and drink at the local diner.

**The highest score was 61 out of 63 on the unit test. A large portion of them had done extremely well. However, there is the condition that my Grade 11s are repeating the science course, so this is not to be compared with a new cohort of students.

***I know there are revised copies, but for the sake of simplicity, I will only refer to the most commonly used version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

“Test Flashbacks”: Science Lab Safety

This is my third year of teaching. One of the things I’ve neglected to do in the past two years is to to take up tests.

Often, I felt that students didn’t care about correcting their mistakes and/or it would take too long to go through every single question. But was this a projection of my own feelings? It really is the responsibility of the teacher to set the right tone if a task is important; just because I get the impression that they don’t care doesn’t justify not doing it.

And we started with the most important unit: science lab safety. I have an obligation to fix major misconceptions. I cannot afford to have students misunderstand a major safety rule when working with chemicals and dangerous lab equipment.

So today, I told Grade 10s and the 11s that I’d like to improve as a teacher, because having a growth mindset is important. I said that this year, we will always have a “test flashback” to discuss where we went wrong. This is how we learn and this is how I can enhance students’ metacognition.

There are four main purposes to the flashback:

  1. To note major mistakes – Which part did I struggle with?
  2. To learn from our mistakes – How can I improve next time?
  3. To see how the class did as a whole – Did everyone flunk? Did everyone do really well? How did I do?
  4. To review important ideas – What were the “big ideas” in this unit? What should I remember?

I don’t go through every single question. I look at the larger trends and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the group. I take photos of actually answers but never, ever reveal who wrote an incorrect responses; however, I might point out a nice drawing Joe or Sally made.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 7.57.46 PM

I asked students, “How many got at least 8 out of 10 on the lab equipment section?” Nearly everyone raised their hand. I asked them to think, “Why was this an easy section?” We discussed how we had used digital flashcards on Quizlet to play a game and familarize ourselves with the equipment. We had talked and practiced saying words aloud (most of my students are English Language Learners so verbal practice is important).

Then we looked at “My Favourite Mistakes” and discussed the correct answers as a class. This idea comes from “My Favourite No” from the Teaching Channel.

Here’s one example:

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I made a joke out of this one. I held my coffee mug in my hand, turned it upside down and said, would this be a good way of heating my cup over the fire? Everyone laughed. Will they remember it? Of course!  Laughter helps with your memory.

At the end of the Powerpoint presentations, I gave everyone a slip of green paper. They were asked to choose one of the three mistakes and write an explanation of the correct answer. They were given thumbtacks and stuck it up on the bulletin board, which acted as “The Parking Lot”. Students were asked to write their response on the back and others could come and see what other responses were written.

It was a great little lesson and an easy way to give another mark!