Measuring What We Value

Jim Doherty (@mrdardy) writes about a challenge in measuring what we value and valuing what we measure.

A colleague of Jim’s posed this challenge

You have said, and I agree, that we ought to value what we assess and assess what we value. So, if we value collegiality and collaboration amongst students, what is a fair and appropriate way to assess that? I feel like your group quizzes are part of the answer, but I also feel like there is more to it.

This is an interesting question as it hits on an existential matter. What are we doing in school (and in math class)?

Assessment is a tricky thing. For sake of partial completeness, I will acknowledge the following: (a) the generally accepted method of grading students has flaws (take a bunch of scores throughout the course and average them together), (b) there are many grading systems, which are all flawed in some way, shape or form, (c) the topic of grades and grading can become a religious debate — that is, there are often axiomatic differences about the very nature of grades and grading. On point (c), this particular article is about how to assess something that we value (collegiality and collaboration). Thus, an axiomatic challenge to assessment is out of scope and better left for another day.


With all that said, my thoughts now follow.

When I think about grading or any type of measurement of human performance, I always keep this quote in the back of my mind by Eliyahu M. Goldratt

Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave.

As Jim notes:

I have been in too many classes where students ‘participate’ in conversation by simply echoing the opinions of others so that they can get their names on the participation roll.

Herein lies the problem. Collaboration / collegiality are in a murkier state for assessment versus, say, “Solve for \(x\) in \(3x + 7 = 2\)”. The latter is firmly rooted and has a definiteness from a measurement standpoint — worst case, we can simply mark the solution as correct or incorrect if we don’t want to engage in the murky business of partial credit. Though, that murkiness can still be rigorously codified into a grading rubric or explicit instruction.

Teamwork (my catchall phrase for this article for collaboration / collegiality) is a different animal and assessing teamwork should necessitate a different model for evaluation.

If you’ve ever worked on a team, large or small, there will be disagreements. There will be arguments. There will be annoyance. There will be freeloaders. There will be an incomplete product or at best a cludgy, rickety product that meets the minimal specifications. There will be all those negative things. But, does that mean that the team is functioning poorly, for sure? It’s hard to say.

For something as opaque and open-ended as teamwork, I prefer a strategy that is a mix of hands-on-ness from the instructor and autonomy from the students. Here’s what I mean for a typical high school class — you can adjust your involvement depending on your students’ age, experiences, etc. Note that what I suggest below is extremely high-level and is aimed at starting the discussion (with me or with yourself in your own mind).

For sake of argument, let’s say that this is a two-week project that students have to work on in a group. In ninth grade, I had a one-year project with one partner. That was an interesting experience.

I would pick a few projects that will require teamwork. If you want to keep this solely within the topics you’re teaching, then so be it. If you can make it interdisciplinary even better. I’m a fan of mixing military history with mathematics, as an example.

Ideally, these projects should have parts that can be intuitively parceled out to team members. Overlapping roles is fine [also a good lesson in addressing issues related to “turf”]. In any case, pick a bunch of projects and keep them a secret.

Ask students to put themselves in groups. And if you’re looking to avoid friend-bunching, then have them be randomly assigned. Your choice. I could go either way. For short-lived projects, I might be inclined to have them be randomly assigned. For larger projects, I wouldn’t be bothered if they grouped themselves based on pre-existing relationships.

As an aside: be wary of “the tyranny of the extroverts”. Forced collaboration won’t promote a good understanding of teamwork. You know your students. If you know that some students will have a hard time working in a group for whatever reason, then be their partner. Don’t force them to work with others if they are nowhere close to working with others. There are tactful ways of doing this without singling them out. For example, you can put them on a team, but you can be the project manager from day 1. These are your judgment calls! There is no formula here.

Here’s the first task, announce the projects that the students can choose and let them pick their project. This will give you, the instructor, a first data point on which groups are going to face immediate dysfunction. Keep this in mind.

The second task is to see how they will organize their workflow. Student autonomy is key. I would recommend that they submit a plan of action for how they will get their work done. This is not unlike “the real world”. The emphasis, however, is on recommend, which is a slight deviation from corporate work. For the latter, a plan of action is often required. I say recommend over require because this is a class project and I want students to understand / learn the many dimensions of what it means to work on a team. I tend not to immediately invoke myself as their project manager, conditional on their age. Maybe with six-year olds, I may do a little bit more project management than, say, eighteen-year olds.

The point here is to let students fail through their choices. It’s an important lesson in teamwork.

As the days go by, I would continue to silently monitor each team. If there are teams that have hit complete dysfunction, I would step in as a mediator / project manager. The rationale is that more often than not, there’s a breakdown in trust or leadership [eg, power struggle]. I do take it as my responsibility to help create an environment where students can trust each other and take ownership.

There are some teams that will be able to work well together. Maybe they were all friends, in which case, what can we really say about collaboration? They had a headstart in that they had an agreed to culture. Then there will be some teams that have a generally happy interaction, but still got nothing done. And finally you’ll have the teams that fought all the way through and either got something out the door [it could be good!] or they failed miserably.

Where does the assessment part come in? As I said, this is fuzzy. Part of the assessment should certainly be on the final product. Even teams that don’t have the most pleasant of interactions can produce a good product. The other part of the assessment should be about teamwork.

I would do this in a two-tiered, conditional way with the following grading schema — and I expect no end to disagreements on this. Final product is worth anywhere from 50% – 75% of the grade. The remainder of the grade is dependent on a group-written (or individually written) reflective piece about the group experience and one-on-one interviews with the instructor. Remember, assessing teamwork is necessarily different from assessing the mathwork for \(3x + 7 = 2\).

It can seem like a lot of work, but if we’re interested in assessing this experience, we’ll have to do some legwork of our own.

What should the reflective piece be about? Nothing. Everything. It’s a freestyle writing prompt that should address what the student liked and didn’t like about working in a group, what they felt were the group’s strengths and weaknesses, and whether they would work with each other again on another project and why or why not.

This is supposed to be about their development with working on a team. Thus, they should self-assess and self-evaluate. You, the instructor, can evaluate the truthiness of their self-evaluation via the one-on-one interviews.

Why does the overall project have a variable product weight at 50-75%? If the product is good, then weight it at 75%, if the product is poor then weight it at 50%. Interpolate for anything in-between and let the balance be made up by their “teamwork” evaluation.

I would be willing to let a poor product slide if there is truly good reflection and growth in what it means to work on a team. If you want to give that team a second chance on getting it right, then go for it. This is why, I stated that we suppose that this is a two-week project. There is time to try again.

Fail fast and iterate often with this kind of stuff. Let their final grade be their final performance. In a 14-week semester, this experiment can be run many times. Dismantle good teams. Keep bad teams together. Dismantle bad teams. Keep good teams together. Experiment!

What I’ve given is a high-level outline. I leave the details to you. No doubt, if I were to do this in my classroom, I may make changes from what I’ve suggested. This type of assessment needs to be customized and needs to remain highly variable always keeping in mind:

Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave.

You will make mistakes as an instructor / project manager. But this will represent opportunities to demonstrate how you overcome those errors and find better solutions. Best yet would be if you could partner up with a peer of your own to design this mini-curriculum. That would be an example of modeling teamwork.

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