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Writing Meaningful Assignments / Test Questions

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If you write your own tests or assignments, then what guidelines do you use to help you craft them so that they're not just busy work?

 

How do I craft good assignments?

 

How do you write good exam questions?

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Less is more. I only give an assignment if I have a clear idea what educational purpose the assignment is supposed to serve. if I cannot answer this question, the assignment is busywork.

 

Tests should reflect what was studied, and should focus on the big ideas and most important points I need the student to retain in the long term. I do not consider tests meaningful that test minute details that can only be crammed into short term memory (what color were Suzie's shoes on page 847 of the novel? It's completely irrelevant for the understanding of the work).

In fact, for many subjects I do not consider tests a good tool for evaluation of student learning at all. In humanities, I always preferred writing assignments.

 

To write a good test, I base it on key concepts the student has studied and practiced in the daily work.

It is extremely difficult for an inexperienced instructor to allocate a time for a given test; giving timed tests that can be completed in the allocated time requires a great deal of experience that even for professionals comes only after years. In a homeschool, I would never give timed tests.

 

What particular subject are you thinking of?

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Less is more. I only give an assignment if I have a clear idea what educational purpose the assignment is supposed to serve. if I cannot answer this question, the assignment is busywork.

See, I definitely agree that less is more and I don't want to give busy work (we're battling the Busy Work Beast at their BM school now.)

 

In general I don't like assignments/tests that:

  • give multiple choice questions
  • ask students to recall trivial details
  • "fun" assignments like word searches or word scrambles
  • subjective or vague non-sense like "Imagine you are a pioneer on the Oregon Trail" in a history or "How do you think Einstein felt when he proved his theory" in science class are also a no-no around here.

However I'd like them to begin having assignments occasionally for a few reasons.

  • When HSing FT, then they have to be evaluated each year and portfolio reviews are our preferred method of evaluation.
  • I want to begin asking them to produce output a little more consistently and coherently inside their content subjects. Its middle school and I feel that it's inappropriate for them not to be required some amount of output.
  • My thinking is that well-crafted assignments can help them develop their study skills and serve as nifty review materials down the line.

Thank you for the point about timed tests. We are definitely getting beyond the realm of material where I feel like I can make a timed exam that is actually worth giving.

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Oh, we definitely had output.

I required notetaking from textbooks, because I consider this an important skill in preparation for college.

In middle grades, my kids liked longer term projects in history and science. They researched a topic of their choice and either prepared a poster or an oral presentation with visuals. That taught them also presentation and computer skills and gave them the freedom to delve as deep into their chosen subject as they wanted.

The only subject where I gave tests was math. 

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What particular subject are you thinking of?

For example, the US History Text that I've chosen is in 2 volumes and has 3-5 focus questions at the start of each of its 37 chapters. There are no key words, chapter summaries or review questions throughout the text. The only thing to guide reading/review are the big picture focus questions that are given.

 

I actually think that the FQ make pretty good short-medium response writing assignments and plan to have them copy out and answer each FQ in writing. I'd also like them to keep a notebook for the course so for each chapter I'd be asking them to

  • Read and discuss the chapter with me
  • Take notes on the chapter for their notebook
  • Copy and answer each Focus Question in writing (many of these questions require 1-2, maybe 3 paragraphs to answer fully)
Which I can't tell if that does or does not sound like too much.

 

 

 

Oh, we definitely had output.

I required notetaking from textbooks, because I consider this an important skill in preparation for college.

In middle grades, my kids liked longer term projects in history and science. They researched a topic of their choice and either prepared a poster or an oral presentation with visuals. That taught them also presentation and computer skills and gave them the freedom to delve as deep into their chosen subject as they wanted.

The only subject where I gave tests was math.

Sorry, I didn't see this. I was responding to the other post still. In our home, we have been doing "Weekly Presentations" since 1st grade. Weekly Presentations have comprised the majority of their elementary output. Each week they pick or are assigned a topic; they read library books on it (I discourage internet research at the elementary age) and they prepare a display (magnetic white board, actually) and write note cards.

 

Saturday, they dress up in their snazziest clothes and present their topic to me and their brother, a couple of years ago I added the stipulation that they must have a Q&A session after their presentation. They get feedback and then they get a new topic and the cycle begins anew.

 

We won't be dropping them in the middle years, but I'd like to add other forms of output. But what? How do I keep it balanced and how do I safeguard from assigning busy work?

Edited by Gil

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...

 

We won't be dropping them in the middle years, but I'd like to add other forms of output. But what? How do I keep it balanced and how do I safeguard from assigning busy work?

 

 

Have you looked at WTM output recommendations?  Outlines and summaries? 

 

I am still in the middle of this myself, and the long-term project thing doesn't work well here.  What I have found useful is coming up with a rubric of some sort for taking notes from a textbook and having the child master that content.  Since we are also teaching writing, then I can give end-of-chapter questions as open-book exams.  If I want to. 

 

The format of the notes depends on the text.  For our math book right now, we do vocabulary + formulas that are helpful to know.  For Novare texts there is highlighted vocabulary, and so I have the child enter the vocabulary and also bulleted answers to review questions if I think those add a lot: we do this roughly Cornell-style so he can quiz himself.  For other books I've had him do something like one sentence per paragraph if he takes notes for the whole, longish reading; or WTM-style 2- or 3-level outlining if he's just doing a couple of pages. 

 

Essentially I want the child to master the content of a course (for our Memoria Press texts, there is clear memory work for this; for other courses, I use the child's own notes) and to be able to write well about it.  Thinking clearly and analytically is important but is easy for me to assess informally (for this child, at least) and in the writing.  The memory aspect is esp. important for our classical studies and, I expect, will be for our science, given our teaching methods. 

 

But: we are very much a work in progress on this!  and, as you can see, it is just one of many good approaches.  So much depends on your style, your child, and the way your homeschool runs best. 

 

Edited by serendipitous journey

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I'm copying and pasting someone else's response to me when I was asking this same sort of question for a particular class I was creating:

 

The person wrote:

 

"Here are ways to assess: discussion, quizzes and tests, essays, projects (models, power points, create newspaper articles with pictures, do a project board, a diorama, mapwork.)"

 

I've done the discussions, quizzes, and essays. Some classes really require all that (math, literature), but some don't. So recently I created a 10th grade Egyptology class that has all the other things, so we could get a break from tests and essays: models, power points, a brochure, mapwork, etc. It's been a nice change from the question/answer scenario.

 

The projects have included a fairly involved project where he planned a vacation to Egypt (didn't go on it), creating a brochure for a person traveling to Egypt, creating a powerpoint of the various Egyptian gods, writing a short myth based on the gods, creating various maps. And even though it's not really high school level, we finally mummified that chicken. At this age, though, he did it all on his own, without mom handling the dead chicken for him. I just couldn't let us get through homeschooling without a mummified chicken for our bookcase.

 

Last year, for history, I had my 9th grader answer the focus questions from his history book--short answer essays, like you mentioned up thread. It worked fine, except he hates writing so he was deeply unhappy about it. But it did get the job done insofar as it wasn't just multiple choice or fill in the blank and he had to think about what he'd read so he could compose short answers to the questions. He just doesn't like writing, so it was a time suck for us. By the end of the year, I'd dropped down from his answering all the focus questions (2 or 3 were asked) and let him pick just one to answer. There are only so many hours in the day.

 

But since he was so unhappy about it, for his Egyptology class this year, I ditched any writing like that and let him do projects instead. He does enough writing in other subjects. Sometimes it's a balance of how much work you give and sometimes what is busy work to one person is active learning to another. So, there's always an element of tailoring the activities/questions/writing assignments to the student.

Edited by Garga
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Have you looked at WTM output recommendations?  Outlines and summaries? 

No, I've never read WTM even though I've checked out 2 different editions on different occasions from my local library. I went today and checked out the book again. Since I have actually something I'm looking for, I'm probably going to read the (pertinent parts of the) book this time. Fingers crossed that I do.

 

Currently my kids are attending a school that uses the AVID binder/notebooking system, which I actually like, but generalized and in mass, and without tailoring it, It's a bit too much and loses it's potency.  I think that with a little more customization and focus, the system will be a powerful tool and it's definitely a skill I want them to refine and then continue to use and hone.

 

I am still in the middle of this myself, and the long-term project thing doesn't work well here. For us, a week is a good length of time. It's short enough to not seem soooo far off that you procrastinate, it's long enough to get into a topic, without getting bored of it and gives them time to write up their notes and make their presentation. An important thing is that I don't let the topics drag on and on and on. If they miss a week, they've missed it. They get a new topic and start again.  What I have found useful is coming up with a rubric of some sort for taking notes from a textbook and having the child master that content. This is a big part of what I'm hoping to learn from the WTM book. I've learned that I'm awful at rubrics.

 

 

The format of the notes depends on the text. For us, this falls in with the other point. I think they need to learn to take notes from different styles of texts, but I also need to figure out WHAT those notes need to look like for different subjects. Hopefully the book will shed some light on this for me. For our math book right now, we do vocabulary + formulas that are helpful to know.  For Novare texts there is highlighted vocabulary, and so I have the child enter the vocabulary and also bulleted answers to review questions if I think those add a lot: we do this roughly Cornell-style so he can quiz himself.  For other books I've had him do something like one sentence per paragraph if he takes notes for the whole, longish reading; or WTM-style 2- or 3-level outlining if he's just doing a couple of pages. Thanks this description is helpful. I"ll be skimming the book for note taking instructions, then come back to this.

 

Essentially I want the child to master the content of a course and to be able to write well about it. Yes, that's my basic goal too. I want them to be able to recall the information out of context, after the course (for future reference, to make conversation or even to build on to later) and to be able articulate themselves on it in speech or writing.

I'm copying and pasting someone else's response to me when I was asking this same sort of question for a particular class I was creating:

 

The person wrote:

 

"Here are ways to assess: discussion, quizzes and tests, essays, projects (models, power points, create newspaper articles with pictures, do a project board, a diorama, mapwork.)"

 

....

 

Sometimes it's a balance of how much work you give and sometimes what is busy work to one person is active learning to another. So, there's always an element of tailoring the activities/questions/writing assignments to the student.

 

Thank you for the list of various outputs. Some of those are ideas I wouldn't have thought of.

The last part is especially helpful to keep in mind.

Edited by Gil
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I'm loving this discussion and wish I had time to ponder it more and add to it. It makes me think of retrieval practice and the balance between covering content and spending time to master and my dislike for so many workbooks, but realizing that some of the questions in them are good and wishing I was a better judge of what was a good question. I also appreciate that thought that what is busy work to some might be meaningful for others. I'm going to have to really think on all of this. 

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