24 February 2014

Reflecting on Paper 1 in IB Global Politics

IB assessments are challenging. In contrast to other externally assessed courses which are offered in the US where students are rewarded by guessing right on multiple choice questions and manufacturing structured responses without any regard for analysis, synthesis, or style, assessments in IB courses dare students to write, to speak, to demonstrate, and to argue their ideas in variety of ways. IB courses the social sciences (Individuals and Societies) generally offer two types of written, paper-based assessments. In IB Global Politics, Paper 1 is a source (stimulus) based paper that tests student's knowledge and understanding of relevant source material; their ability to analyse relevant material and provide supporting examples; compare and contrast relevant source material and organize this material into a clear, logical, coherent and relevant response; and  compare and evaluate source material in order to synthesize and evaluate evidence from both sources and background knowledge of key issues and concepts in global politics in a clear, logical, coherent and relevant response.

The Year 1 student's process with Paper 1 began with a slow and steady introduction to both the formatting of the question as well as strategies on how to develop responses to the four questions that make up Paper 1. Rather than simply giving a "mock" Paper 1, marking-or worse yet, grading it-the students had the opportunity to read the feedback I wrote for each of their papers before providing their own reflections on the process by completing a debriefing survey. This process of reflection allowed students the time and space to articulate what they felt went well during their first Paper 1, to identify the areas where they felt they could improve, as well as to provide me with feedback about how our learning during this process could be improved the next time. Many students wrote that since they now felt comfortable with with answering the Paper 1, they would be interested in practicing it in a much more formal sense; timed writing, not having the mark scheme available for them to refer to during the process, as well as using the process of marking as a debriefing session.

If its not apparent by now, let me be blunt: I value student engagement and agency in constructing and participating in our learning over scoring high marks on a single test. In fact, I contend that combining the practice of empowering students along with long-term thinking about learning and practicing with challenging content and assessments does more to build a student's intellect and durable skill sets than ersatz high-stakes tests artificially administered at the end of the week, a chapter, or a marking period.

And now, the data....

Students were asked to report, "How would you rate the quality of your work towards each of the Assessment Objectives in your Paper 1?" according to the four Assessment Objectives covered in Paper 1: Demonstrate knowledge and understanding; Demonstrate application and analysis of knowledge and understanding; Demonstrate synthesis and evaluation; and Select, use and apply a variety of appropriate skills and techniques. A student could rank herself according to the following scale for each of the assessment objectives: very poor, poor, acceptable, good, very good. The following charts offer a summary of the students' responses to the survey (N=18)



Year 1 students in IB Global Politics reported that their responses to the Paper 1 were generally above the midpoint on the scale. The modal response to all of the questions was "good" (43%), followed by "very good" (33%), "acceptable" (21%) and "poor" (3%). Most students felt that they had a good sense of the knowledge and understanding necessary to answer the demands of the questions for Paper 1. In contrast, students expressed the broadest range of opinions when it came to the self-assessment of their approach to using skills and techniques in Paper 1. Put another way, students report that they are less confident in their ability to successfully operate the mechanics of Paper 1 than they are in the information that is relevant to the assessment itself. This finding is consistent with anecdotal responses from the students themselves; many of whom are enthusiastically anticipating working on another Paper 1. 

I don't think that its too much of stretch to say that the students' eagerness stems more from a genuine interest in having the opportunity to successfully demonstrate their knowledge than a concern about "not doing well" on a test. More importantly, this data directs both the students and I to focus on different tasks the next time we tackle a Paper 1. At that time, we'll (a) review the data from this survey, (b) ask students to review their individual responses to this survey, and (c) incorporate student recommendations to write a Paper 1 in a timed session where we mark and debrief their work in a subsequent class period. Now, if only all learning took place in such a deep, constructive, and empowering environment...