Fresh Perspectives Interview with Prof. Heidi Nepf

Alternative Assignments & Assessments

Heidi Nepf, Donald and Martha Harleman Professor

Class: Transport Processes in the Environment 1.061
Semesters: Fall 2020, Spring 2021
MIT Department: Civil and Environmental Engineering

Key Takeaways

  • One-on-one oral quizzes are a great tool for assessing not only how students solve problems, but also why they select particular strategies.
  • By allowing students to work on problems in advance, you can reasonably include more complex problems than what might be possible on a timed written test.
  • A key challenge is knowing how and when to intervene, balancing the need to assess what the student knows with the desire to help them learn and correct misconceptions.

Interview Transcript

00:00 What class did you adapt for remote teaching?

In the fall, I taught a lecture class that I’ve taught for many years on environmental fluid mechanics, and normally I also teach a lab at the same time. But in the fall, I wasn’t able to teach the lab. I taught the lab in the spring.

In that class, I usually give four quizzes and a final, and I thought that having the quizzes a timed quiz might be too stressful. 

I talked about it with the students that I wanted to try a new format, which was that I would send them five questions in advance. Then, I would meet with each of them for 10 to 15 minutes and I would randomly select one of the problems for them to discuss with me over zoom. During that time, I could ask other questions related to it add things to the question.

I’d actually been wanting to try this for a while because it allows you to give maybe more complicated problems because you know they have a little bit more time to think about it and in addition when you’re speaking with them one-on-one sometimes you can really sense more clearly what they understand versus what they’re just throwing down on a piece of paper because they remember this equation might be important 

So, after the first quiz, I thought it actually went really well. I felt like I could give them hints when they struggled, but also for stronger students I could push them and go much deeper. 

But I wasn’t sure how they responded to it, so I asked them we all took a quiz in the class if they wanted to go back to having a closed-book timed exam versus having these open-ended quizzes. They all uniformly voted to keep that format. So we did that through the whole term including the final 

02:05 What teaching philosophies guide your assessment design?

It’s more important to me that they can physically reason something, than they can pull out an equation and say, “Oh I remember this is the equation and I know what these variables are. So, let me just stick some stuff in.”

So when you’re doing the oral quiz you can catch them at the moment that they’re starting to be like, “Okay, well here’s the equation” and then you can stop and say, “Wait but before the equation, what do you physically think is going to happen? What do you physically reason?” 

Whereas, when they’re taking a quiz at the desk, you don’t have that chance to intervene — as they begin to go into what I call the “plug and chug” mode, where they just basically pick up something that looks familiar and start talking about it.

02:54 How did you assess student learning throughout the semester without a cumulative final?

In my subject, everything builds on it. So, for the last two or three topics, they build so directly on what they learned at the beginning of the year that when I was having the discussion with the students I could say, “Well, how come you can assume that? Why does that make physical sense to do it that way?” 

They have to draw upon information from early in the semester to answer that. 

03:22 What are you planning to carry from the remote context to your in-person teaching?

I’m tempted to try it again next fall in person. I think the one thing I might add… 

See, so now they were allowed to prepare their notes, and then a lot of times they would start by showing me in Zoom, “Oh here’s how I solved it” and I would have to then say, “Well why did you do this step? Why do you do this step?”

Whereas, I think if we would do it in person, I might ask them to do it in front of me — start to do the writing in front of me so that might make it seem a little bit more natural. So, I could see the problem-solving wheels turning in their head. 

When you write a question that you know they have to solve it without with only like an equation sheet and they have an hour, you write a different kind of a question than when you know they have more time. So, what I’m thinking of doing is still having the short quizzes, but maybe replacing some of the problem sets with rather than handing in a written sheet they come and they talk me through it.

When they write a pset, sometimes they just regurgitate everything they can possibly think of onto the sheet, hoping I will find the things that are correct. Whereas, when you’re in person, really the onus is more on them to understand what they’re saying and I’d like to promote that.

So, that’s a kind of a variant I’m thinking of using in the fall — that [for] one of the problem sets they will come and meet with me and I’ll pick one of the problems from their solve.

05:04 What advice would you give others before they implement oral exams?

I think the hard thing to get used to in an oral exam is deciding what level of assistance you’re going to give on the spot. It’s very personal when you’re sitting next to someone and they’re struggling or they’re getting it wrong and you’re like, “Okay well, that’s not right. Try again.” 

It’s really hard not to just be giving them lots of hints, but you have to find the right balance of giving them enough so they feel like they can solve it in the end, but you still are seeing what they know — because you are trying to both teach them but also at that moment assess them.