Monday, September 25, 2017

Teachers. Thoughts on Grading #5. Group Work

This is the fifth of a series of 8 posts that ran sporadically
from 4/18-7/24 of this year. 
I never posted #8 because I decided
to reprise the series for the new school year.
I'm running all 8 posts on consecutive Mondays starting 8/28. 
If you're not a teacher and you're reading this,
let a teacher know.
I've been in enough "inservice" sessions to guarantee that the information in this series is better than most they'll be sitting through this school year. 

Almost every teacher uses student groups at some time. Many teachers do a great job explaining the expectations for the group dynamics. At least that many do not explain those expectations. Another group, which might be the intersect in a Venn diagram of the teachers above, misuses group terminology.

Let’s start with some background.

 When I started teaching, groups were usually random assemblages of students. Often self-selected, equally as often teacher-selected, the directive was, “Work together to finish this assignment.” Most nightmares involving group work are the result of the above situation.

In the 1980s, Cooperative Learning Groups became popular. Hosts of teachers were trained in cooperative learning methodology. Regardless of the extent of a teacher’s training, too often, what was advertised as “a cooperative group activity” wasn’t one. What follows are the definitions used in this post.
Cooperative Learning
One of the most popular pedagogical strategies in the last decades of the 20th Century is cooperative learning. Much research has been directed at the effectiveness of students learning in groups vs. students learning in individual situations. The vast majority of data collected by these studies support group experiences as the most effective learning modality, particularly for students from underrepresented groups.
Group/Team/Cooperative Group
Many teachers use the word “group” any time they have more than one student working on a common assignment. For purposes of this class the following definitions will be used:
Group                         a loose, frequently randomly assigned, collection of students whose task is to generate some form of product. Roles within the group are not defined prior to group formation. The group itself determines resources and access to those resources. The most important outcome is producing the product. The size of the group and the length of time the group is together as a group is highly variable.
Team                          a loose, frequently randomly assigned, collection of students with a goal. While the goal may be academic, it is more likely to be physical (e.g., “to win”). Achievement of the goal is the primary reason for the team’s existence. Size tends to be more than 6 team members. Teams function for single contests through entire seasons.
In Teams and Groups, little attempt is made to be certain that all individuals on the team or group contribute equally to the task at hand. In fact, in the case of a team, lesser skilled members are often excluded from much/all the group activity.
Cooperative Group   a tight-knit collection of students with pre-defined roles working together to produce a consensus product. Contributions from each cooperative group member are expected to be both equal and appropriate. In addition to academic processes, learning and demonstrating appropriate social skills are frequently goals of this type of classroom organization. Working together in a tolerant and supportive atmosphere is a crucial component of a cooperative group. Resources (or access to resources) is limited to specific cooperative group members to assist in the cooperative nature of the venture. Size is usually 3-4 students. The length of time a cooperative group functions varies.

Without a doubt, the most common student complaint about group work is . . .
. . . The Group Grade.

Far too many teachers give everyone in a group the same grade without considering the quality of the contribution to the product by individual group members.
I’m not saying that a teacher should never give everyone in a group the same grade. There are plenty of times when I did that. However, those times were always when the grade was minimal and/or the entire group activity was clearly visible to me.
Example. Quizzes in groups using whiteboards to display answers. When I used this strategy, it was obvious if all students were participating “equally,” or at least equally enough to all receive the same grade.

Most of my group work was some level of cooperative grouping. It was uncommon for all students in one of those groups to receive the same grade. Some version of the formula below was used in that group grading.
[(Your question score) x 2] + [average of all individual questions in group] + [group score on the GC] = 120 pts possible.
As displayed above the formula was for an exam.
What? You gave group tests?!?
Yes, at least one—more on that a bit later.
Right now, let’s look at a “catalog” assignment. Here student groups research a single part of the whole topic. I taught science. Over the years, I assigned
“The Whole Cell Catalog”—each student researched a cellular organelle.
“The Invertebrate Catalog”—each student researched one or two invertebrate phyla.
“The Botany Catalog”—each student researched a structure found in a flowering plant. Shown below.

Notice on the three numbers on above page and the page below. Those are scores received from the rubric below. Notice on the TOC that there are three DIFFERENT scores for members of this group.

Ideas for other disciplines abound.
“In every disciplinethere are key concepts that are grouped together to form larger sets of information. Dictators, kings, and presidents are linked to various Forms of Government. Onomatopoeia and simile are two of many Literary Devices. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc., are grouped as Mathematical Functions. Cell Organelles make up cells. The list of such aggregations is very long.” (p 130*)
*For specifics see pages 129-140 in Chapter 5, You Can Do It! Implementing Success in Your Classroom in Tune Up Your Teaching & Turn on Student Learning by Dr. JoAnn Jurchan and me.
     Let’s take a look at the most complete version of the peer grading process I used for any group project. Clicking HERE for a link to a downloadable copy of all these as a .zip file. Also, the complete Whole Cell Catalog assignment and two other catalogs are in a FREE download at:  

 I also used the following.
When grading, each student gets his/her page plus an additional amount based on the entire catalog (the Group Grade).  I’ve even used this modified version of the Group Test formula.
[(Your page score) x 2] + [average of all individual pages in group] + 
[group score on the Cover/TOC] = 120 pts possible.
I know this formula ends with 120 points and the formula above is for 60 points. As the teacher, you are the keeper of all points in the universe. I discuss course grades in the last blog in this series.
When using the formula for a catalog, you only average the pages included in the final product. If a student doesn’t turn in a page, they get zero for their page, but that zero is not included in the [average of all individual pages in the group].
Regardless of the method used for scoring, you can see how grades of students in the group might/could/should vary depending on their contribution.

Email me: with questions/comments.
Or, if you'd like more information or samples of anything described in this series, send an email there!

The next Teachers. Thoughts on Grading will have examples study guides and their grading.

Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook:
My website is:

I'd appreciate your feedback!

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Authors: ADverbs often SUBTRACT from your writing- numbers 11-14

Consider the following four sentences. Adverbs are highlighted in yellow.

11.     The prisoner’s hands were clamped tightly to the bars of his cell.
       12.    The bicyclist pedaled carefully across the slightly bumpy road.
       13.    The teacher looked sharply at her students.
       14.    He laughed cheerily and looked at his watch.
There are only four sentences in this group.
Nevertheless, thanks to sentence #12, I've cleverly managed to end up with 15 adverbs in total to critique in the three posts on this topic.

Sentences like those above are common in the works of novice writers. 

Unfortunately, they are common in the works of writers who edit less [vigorously] than they should.

Why is that? Does the sentence above need [vigorously] to convey the thought?

I do often insert adverbs—intentionally and unintentionally—in my first drafts. When I do my first edit, I re-write scenes where the only way a reader might know that something was said “excitedly” is through the use of that term. Your story should draw your readers into the minds and moods of your characters.

From time to time during the next two months, I’ll revisit this topic. More than one book I’ve been asked to review has been mired in the pit of excessive adverbs. I lost interest in the stories because there were

  • many times when I was told what I already knew or felt.
  • other times when the adverb didn’t match what I felt about that scene in the story.

The five sentences above are reprised below. Following each sentence is an explanation of why the highlighted adverb isn’t needed. I've added a feature to these four: a Possible rewrite. 


The prisoner’s hands were clamped tightly to the bars of his cell.
By definition, clamp--hold (something) tightly against or in another thing (Google)--is to apply pressure on something to hold it in place. Hold it tight. Clamping tightly is like swimming wetly. It's hard to know how to rewrite this quote without knowing the setting. Did the prisoner just learn of his/her execution date? Was the inmate in the next cell part of the reason this prisoner was incarcerated? 

Possible rewrite: The prisoner's hands gripped the bars with such force that the guard was certain the inmate's fingerprints were imprinted in the metal.

The bicyclist pedaled carefully across the slightly bumpy road.
Double whammy here--two adverbs in the same sentence. I've had some trauma on bicycles. Once the front wheel came off and I was launched over the handle bars as the front fork stabbed the ground. I do know that pedaling is an up-and-down motion. A rider might need to be careful about getting trousers caught in the chain while pedaling. 
Is slightly bumpy more or less bumpy than rough? or uneven? Is it more bumpy than rutted

Possible rewriteThe bicyclist jerked the handlebars first left, then right to avoid potholes and rocks as he pedaled across the empty field.

The teacher looked sharply at her students
I taught high school for 31 years and university classes for 13 more. I've looked at students in many ways. I've spoken sharply. I've looked "sharp"--as in dress--on occasion. 
I don't recall daggers or arrows shooting from my eyes at any time.

Possible rewrite: Tired of all the time wasting by her class, the teacher gave each of the biggest offenders her best "teacher look."

He laughed cheerily and looked at his watch.
It was not my intention to end this series with this example. It is, however, a good one to close the adverb loop. Of all the adverbs criticized in this series, this case is the easiest to justify leaving in the sentence. Maybe.
Cynical laughter and hollow laughter are never cheerful. I contend that if the reader doesn't know that the laughing character is cheery, the author needs to re-write the scene. 

Possible rewriteWhen his dinner partner finished telling her joke, he laughed before looking at his watch. 

Give yourself a shot at rewriting one or more of these. 
  • First, think of the situation.
  • Then write without an adverb. 

If your stories don’t draw your readers in, adding adverbs subtracts from even more from those stories.

Next Author’s Blog: My Kindle Scout Experience

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Teachers. Thoughts on Grading #4 - Peer Grading Advanced Concepts

This is the fourth of a series of 8 posts that ran sporadically
from 4/18-7/24 of this year. 
I never posted #8 because I decided
to reprise the series for the new school year.
I'm running all 8 posts on consecutive Mondays starting 8/28. 
If you're not a teacher and you're reading this,
let a teacher know.
I've been in enough "inservice" sessions to guarantee that the information in this series is better than most they'll be sitting through this school year. 

This blog addresses a situation that is common to all teachers whose curriculum includes advanced topics. The process I’ll describe will work with any level of content. I used this method most often in AP Biology because I used other methods described in these blogs in all my classes

It is difficult to know how well students understand advanced concepts. Many students in AP and similar courses are excellent test takers. An “A” on an exam on a topic demonstrates a high level of “book knowledge,” in all cases. The level of understanding is more difficult to measure by traditional testing methodology.

To address the “understanding” component, I have students do a variety of creative activities. I use analogies and have students generate their own. They solve a mystery when discussing DNA. They draw “portraits” of family members after a genetics simulation. I addition, are various times my students have, among other things,
     ·      Written letters to the developer of the microscope and 
     ·      Written letters from their brain to their lungs attempting to get the human to stop smoking.
     ·      Written dialogs between them and a deceased friend who died of drug use where the deceased friend warns them of the dangers of drug usage. 
     ·      Written journal entries chronicling the development of a bird embryo.
     ·      Written poetry to highlight environmental issues.
     ·      Drawn comic strips illustrating different invertebrates.
     ·      Drawn/Digitally produced comic books and graphic novels on how rocks form.

     ·      Drawn or painted original art highlighting endangered species.

The assignment highlighted in this blog is: The Voyage of Uli Urea. Students describe filtration and urine production in the kidney in a story.

The Voyage of Uli Urea
Your excretory system does a magnificent job of removing some very nasty waste materials from your bodies. You hardly ever think about this system. BUT, you might if you had finished a L-A-R-G-E soft drink about an hour ago and you were sitting on the wonderful seat of a yellow school bus and you were bouncing along on a rough stretch of roadway and the mean, rotten bus driver would not stop and take a "potty break."
Anyway, you are to pretend to be "Uli Urea," a molecule of nitrogen waste in the blood of your body. Use the words listed below in a cute story that describes the excretory process.
To come anywhere close to full credit on this assignment, you will have to use information from your Campbell text. Other sources are, of course, okay, but if you use anything but Campbell, you must reference your information. In addition, you have to explain what happens in the Loop of Henle (both down and up)—you’ll need to use terms like hypertonic, hypotonic, permeable, impermeable for any hope at full credit.
 The first time you write one of the words from this list in your story it must be in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS and UNDERLINED. Example: KIDNEY. The words must be used in cor­rect order that they occur in the excretory process or you will lose points.
The terms marked with asterisks (*), must be in the correct anatomical order.

Your final draft should be word-processed using as many pages as necessary. You will be allowed one error in spelling or grammar per page of text you write. After that first error, points will be deducted for each additional mistake.

Once the stories are complete, students “trade and grade” papers using the PPT slides shown below.

The graders use pens or pencils I provide. Three times during the process—after slide 5, after slide 6, and at the end, they record partial scores in the margin. They total those scores. See the sample below.

Go back and check the grading slides. Note how the marks on this paper correspond to the directions. Because of that, I know which items are correctly sequenced. My job is to determine the correctness of their usage.

After this process, I had only to read the papers for coherence/content, adjust an occasional grading error by the student grader, and deduct points for grammar if there is more than one mistake per page. More often than not, any grade adjustment ends up in favor of the author of the paper. It takes relatively little time for me to do my part of the grading. All the grunt work was done during the peer grading session.
Students like knowing how they did on what was graded before class ends. Because my time commitment is reduced, they get their final grades quickly as well.
In addition, I have a clearer picture of the level of understanding of students on this concept, which will be on their unit exam, than if I asked the to "draw and label a nephron and describe each label in one sentence."

An Aside:
Kids tend to be brutal sticklers to what I say or show when grading. For example, if I say, “there should be twelve items in these two paragraphs,” it’s not uncommon for a hand to shoot up. “This paper has eleven in two paragraphs and one in another. I gave them eleven.”

When that happens, or if I adjust while reading the paper, I—the teacher—come across as a helper, not an executioner. “Thank you for the extra point,” is common. For an example of how little most students understand how their grade in the class is calculated, keep coming back to this blog.

Next Blog: Grading-Part 

Email me: with questions/comments.
Or, if you'd like more information or samples of anything described in this series, send an email there!

The next Teachers. Thoughts on Grading will discuss group work and study guides.

Follow me on Twitter: @CRDowningAuthor and Facebook:
My website is:

I'd appreciate your feedback!

Email me at:

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