Fresh Perspectives Interview with Dr. Rea Lavi

Alternative Assignments & Assessments

Rea Lavi, Lecturer (Curriculum and Assessment Designer)

Class: Discover the Magic of the Ways of Thinking: NEET!, SP.248
Semesters: Fall 2020
MIT Department: New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET)

Key Takeaways

  • Planning out lessons in 5-minute chunks can ensure that the limited class time is used well and objectives are met. 
  • Simple tools like Google Forms and Kahoot can be used for formative assessments during or outside of class and are most effective when used frequently and in multiple ways. Specifically, forms can collect feedback, function as reflective exercises to enhance learning, and check for understanding. 
  • Scaffolded practice assignments during class give students a chance to clarify their understanding before engaging in more difficult out-of-class assignments.

Interview Transcript

0:00 What class did you teach during the pandemic and how was it structured?

In fall 2020, as we went off campus and into remote teaching, I was asked to take over SP.248 and told that I could essentially make it in my own image. Of course, not entirely because there is a goal for SP.248, which is to expose the NEET program in each thread to the students. And that is a constraint that has to be part of it, which also means that I’m co-instructing that course with five other instructors, so that’s certainly a challenge.

And what I wanted to do was to put the Ways of Thinking in the center. The Ways of Thinking are a list of cognitive approaches to problem solving that we want to teach our students in NEET. I wanted to put those in the center of the course, which is quite a challenge for a first-year class. And also, at the same time, expose the students to each one of the threads and have all the instructors involved.

So what we came to eventually was that, firstly, we have to limit the Ways of Thinking, the number that we’re going to focus on. We can’t focus on all 12. So we actually chose four Ways of Thinking, which happen to be analytical thinking, creative thinking, systems thinking, and making. The deal was that we had these case studies, two-week case studies that focus on a specific thread and a specific way of thinking. So as you can see here, the basic structure of the course is that we have creative thinking and digital cities. So we actually give them an open-ended problem.

In this case, it was the issue of maintaining social distancing while walking your dog. And we got some data from the Cambridge municipality for that and so forth. And we taught them some creative thinking exercises, how to define problems, how to come up with ideas. And the general structure of the class, which was three units, was that there was a 50-minute lesson on Zoom and then two hours outside of the lesson, mostly working in teams.

1:57 How did you plan your remote class sessions?

Each lesson was planned in five-minute increments. And they found it very, very useful. And I would actually go through the lesson plan with the instructor for those two weeks. I would go through the lesson plan a few days before to make sure that we know exactly where we are. Because if you don’t control time in a remote lesson, you’re lost. One more thing I would say, I made sure that there is an active learning element in each lesson and that I’m using online forms.

So, for example, with the team assignments that we had outside of the lesson, I always made sure to have what I call a training assignment in the class, which is an individual assignment, which has the same format as the team assignment but is much simpler and quicker to do, five or 10 minutes. And each student would need to go through it and submit it. And then, we would go through what is the solution and so forth.

So this would prepare them for working at home. I never got questions– almost never got questions. Oh, we weren’t sure what to do with this assignment or this question wasn’t clear– because they’re already going through it. And also, this makes sure that they have to sort of wake up a bit in the middle of the lesson and do something. And it also served as kind of an attendance list. So I don’t have to spend time on attendance because I can see already who submitted.

So one of the keys here, I think, is that at home, most of what they’re doing is active learning. They’re working in teams. They’re relating concepts. They’re discussing. And what they’re doing in class, I would say at least one third of the lesson is also active learning. 

3:34 How did you assess student learning?  

They have assignments, and they have reflections. And I’m testing– and they have questionnaires. So I’m testing recognition. I’m testing application. I’m testing reflection. I’m testing their overall satisfaction from the course in different aspects, which are not part of the learning itself. And I’m using assessment not really as a summative thing– to give them a grade– but as a formative tool, so I can know what’s going on. Because I’m using multiple assessments, I can pinpoint much better what’s actually going on with the students.

And when you do things remotely and online, you can actually collect a lot of data and make use of it. So that’s very useful, I think. But I would say, generally, if you want to do good formative assessment, you have to do it often. And you have to do it in multiple ways. And you can do formative assessment during the lesson. You can ask– for example, put up a multiple choice question. Ask students to put their hand up and then form a discussion around it.

Or, you can do it in a more database, pinpointed kind of way, which is how I explained with the Google Forms, for example, even just a five-minute assignment or a 10-minutes assignment. And you can see immediately where the students are. There is various tools. So I use Forms, but you can use a tool called Kahoot– K- A- H- O-O- T– which is really useful for that kind of stuff. And students can just use their smartphones.

One thing I would say is like don’t fear the smartphone or the laptop because the students are going to have them on their desks anyway. And they’re going to be on the laptops anyway in class. And when you’re on Zoom, you have no idea what they’re doing. So I’m actually a big believer in having them have to use their laptops and their smartphones throughout the lesson. I mean, you usually can do it the whole time. But as long as they’re actually filling out your form, it means at that point they’re not on social media or doing other things.

There is one thing which was very useful, which is the mid-term evaluation. So I did a mid-term evaluation, which was anonymous. And the typical– you usually get 15% to 20% response, which is what I got this time. But it was really useful because the students had highlighted a particular issue with teamwork. That I then, in the next lesson, managed to sort of dedicate 10 minutes to give them some guidelines how to better facilitate their teamwork, take care of specific issues that came up with specific teams.

But there were some individual assignments which were mostly reflective rather than testing their knowledge. There were some short questionnaires about the various Ways of Thinking. But most of the individual work was actually a reflection of– how do I see my own knowledge of creative thinking, and systems thinking, and the other things? How do I see my own ability? Can I give an example from my own personal experience? Can I connect this to something that is relevant to me?