Solving the Assessment Puzzle

Photo of Rubik's Cube on a table, with a man sitting behind it and looking at it.

Education image created by Freepik.

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

Assessing students’ learning is one of the most important things we do as educators. It’s also one of the most complicated. There’s a lot to consider:

  • When will assessment happen? (Along the way? At the end of the course?)
  • How will we collect useful information about student learning? (Through writing samples? Surveys? Online reading questions? Student self-assessments? Performance assessments? Something else?)
  • How will we assess work that doesn’t have right and wrong answers, like creative writing or digital media projects?
  • How will we assess work students complete in teams? (It’s hard enough to assess students individually! But we know collaboration is an essential skill—so how do we measure it in a way that’s fair to individuals?)
  • How will we effectively communicate feedback to students (Via rubrics? Written comments? Oral exams that function as educative conversations?)
  • How will we use assessment to improve our own teaching? (When should curricular iteration occur?)

For every group of students, there’s a different combination of productive approaches to assessment that instructors need to configure. It’s a shape-shifting puzzle that can be exciting, enervating, and downright addictive. If you’re an educator and you’re intrigued by “the assessment challenge,” you’re not alone. MIT instructors are thinking hard about measuring student learning, providing feedback, and improving their teaching based on what they learn through assessments. In the following short videos, six MIT instructors candidly share the assessment strategies they’ve been trying in their own classrooms:

  • In 16.842 Fundamentals of Systems Engineering, students in a Small Private Online Course (SPOC) worked in teams to participate in an international imitation satellite design competition. Aero/Astro Professor Olivier de Weck shares how he assessed work students completed as teams, how he conducted online written and oral exams, and how made use of students’ personal reflective memos to understand what they learned in the course.
  • Elizabeth Choe gets into the nitty gritty of how she approached assessment and feedback in the creative context of 20.219 Becoming the Next Bill Nye, a course in which students conceptualized and produced educational videos (no multiple choice tests here!).
  • Takako Aikawa discusses how she used a daily grading system and interview tests to provide students with feedback about their language learning in 21G.503 Japanese III.  (You can view this video in Japanese, too.)
  • In CMS.611 Creating Video Games, students worked in teams to develop games for a real client: The Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center. Sara Verrilli shares how instructors assessed these projects, emphasizing that students’ processes and project management skills were more important than the final products.
  • Professor Joe Schindall opens up about grading in ESD.051J Engineering Innovation and Design, noting that students’ “passion of engagement” and their willingness to try new things were factors the instructors considered when assessing student learning in this Engineering Systems Division course.
  • Professor Catherine Drennan shares how she uses clicker competitions to engage students and formatively assess learning in 5.111SC Principles of Chemical Science. (Spoiler Alert: Things get heated.)

Want more MIT instructor insights about assessment? Head over to our OCW Educator portal and click “Assessment.” Then filter your results by topic, such as feedback, formative assessment, performance assessment, student self-assessment, and more.

If you find a strategy on our site that helps you solve (or inspires you to think differently about) your assessment puzzle, we want to hear from you! We’ll share some of the trickiest puzzles with the most creative solutions on our Facebook page. Go!

Some Timely Courses for Our Trying Times

Two men standing in a muddy debris-strewn street.

Residents begin to assess the damage after Hurricane Maria hit the island of Dominica in September 2017. (Public domain image by Roosevelt Skerrit on Flickr).

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

We noticed that these courses, published in the past month, seem particularly relevant in light of recent events.

11.027 Global City Scope—Disaster Planning and Post-Disaster Rebuilding and Recovery, taught by Cherie Miot Abbanat.

What’s your town’s disaster mitigation plan? Does it even have one? Does it seem like a viable way of handling an emergency, or is it just a report that sits on a shelf?

Analyzing and evaluating one of these plans is one of your assignments when you take this course.

And what course could be more timely? Recent months have seen so many mind-blowing disasters, one after another—hurricanes of phenomenal destructive power, monster wild fires, crushing mud slides, earthquakes, a bomb cyclone.

The course has four modules: Disaster Mitigation, Preparedness and Planning, Disaster Response, Disaster Recovery and Rebuilding.

21A.429J Environmental Conflict, taught by Professor Christine Walley.

Is there a recent  environmental issue that has not generated conflict? Fracking? The regulation of chemicals and toxins? Offshore oil drilling? The status of natural parks and preserves?

This course provides the theoretical frameworks for thinking about such conflicts, and focuses

…on a number of often contentious issues, including: ideas of “nature” and the politics and practices of nature conservation; the links between toxic pollution and health effects; the complexity of human / non-human relations as seen through the lens of multispecies frameworks; and debates over crucial contemporary issues ranging from climate change to natural gas exploration.

17.269 Race, Ethnicity, and American Politics, taught by Professor Ariel White.

The course description sums it up nicely:

What is “race”? How could we possibly measure it, and does it really matter? What does it mean to say that a policy is discriminatory, and how have social scientists and courts tried to measure racial discrimination? What do Americans think about race in the 21st century, and how do these opinions shape their voting and protest behavior?

After taking this course, students will be able to discuss different ways of imagining race and ethnicity, and their historical underpinnings. They will be able to describe and critique the ways in which racial attitudes are theorized and measured, and think about how these different attitudes are expected to shape political behavior…

Teaching a course on such a sensitive subject requires more than a little thoughtfulness. The course site includes some fascinating Instructor Insights, including “Facilitating Talk about Race and Ethnicity” and “Fostering Intuition about Social Science.”

21H.983 Gender, taught by Professors Lerna Ekmekcioglu and Elizabeth A. Wood.

As much as gender is discussed in the popular media, this course explores some challenging questions that you don’t see posed very often, at least not directly:

How does gender work? How is the body itself sexed and gendered in different times and places? How do gender, race and class work in historical context? Does gender influence state formation and the work of the state? What role does gender play in imperialism and in the welfare state? What is the relationship between gender and war? How does the state regulate the body in the modern world? What are some new directions in the study of gender?

17.480 Understanding Military Operations, taught by Professor Owen Cote.

Right now some 300,000 US military personnel, often using highly sophisticated technology, are deployed in over 150 countries around the world. This course offers the chance to assess the thinking behind deployments like these and how they might change in the future.

The course covers a full range of topics, from military doctrine to tactical mobility. As the course description states:

This seminar will break apart selected past, current, and future sea, air, space, and land battlefields into their constituent parts and look at the interaction in each of those warfare areas between existing military doctrine and weapons, sensors, communications, and information processing technologies. It will specifically seek to explore how technological development…is influenced in each warfare area by military doctrine.

The Year is Ending, but these Teaching Insights are Fresh

By Sarah Hansen, OCW Educator Project Manager

MIT instructors share their teaching approaches in a special section of their OCW courses, called “Instructor Insights.” In these sections, you’ll find instructors discussing topics of interest to education professionals, such as course design, active learning, and engaging learners.

The year may be coming to a close, but we’ve recently published 11 courses with new Instructor Insights—and they are super fresh! Below are a few highlights:

Find something you like? Share directly to Facebook using our “Share Quote” feature.

And if you like these, there’s many others in our collection of all OCW courses with Instructor Insights.

Nine-Day Workshops with Lessons to Last You a Lifetime

Collage of four photos showing students working on and showing their electronics systems.

Students in an electronics workshop that features Arduino microcontrollers collaborate to design a prototype. (Image courtesy of Andrew Ringler.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

You’ve got the month of January off from regular classes, and you want to do more than sleep in. It’s a good time to experiment, to do something unusual, maybe create a software project. But what if you don’t really have the background for this sort of thing?

Sign up for a workshop that requires no experience at all!

Two such workshops taught by the same instructor have just appeared on OCW site: Collaborative Design and Creative Expression with Arduino Microcontrollers and Learn to Build Your Own Videogame with the Unity Game Engine and Microsoft Kinect.

In the Arduino workshop, students in small teams create different projects using Arduino microcontrollers, including a hand-motion controlled “car,” dazzling light displays, and a punching glove that measures the intensity of its blows.

In the Videogame workshop, student teams create videogames in which the player moves and controls an object in space by body motions: animals try to escape from a zoo, cubes assemble to build and decorate houses, objects traverse landscapes full of obstacles.

The OCW workshop sites have videos of class activities and student-narrated projects, so you can see what the students did and how they thought about what they made.

Fostering Learner Self-Confidence

What these workshops have in common is an unconventional teaching methodology championed by Kyle Keane and Andrew Ringler, two of the instructors, and shared in their Instructor Insights for the Arduino and the Videogame workshop. Each set of Insights is tailored to the demands of that particular workshop.

The main goal for the workshops is to help students build confidence so they can gain independence from their instructors and learn on their own. To do this, they employ a variety of techniques to shake students out of their accustomed ways of thinking about learning and creativity, so they can move forward and be productive.

Building Productive Teams

To work with a team you first have to get on one, and to do that, it helps to know which people seem best suited as teammates. The workshop employs some techniques used in improv comedy to get people familiar with one another fast. Keane explains:

I use improv warm up exercises (games performers play to get ready for a show) to help participants explore how verbal and nonverbal communication impact their collaborative relationships in the workshop.

He encourages students to explore different possible teams and to not be afraid to move out of one and join another. With little or no experience, students are bound to make impractical suggestions and show a certain degree of ignorance.

Modeling Vulnerability

To help defuse student’s fear of embarrassment, Keane shares his own, and in doing so he models vulnerability, which

…is not a very common post-secondary teaching strategy, but…it’s an important thing to do when building team dynamics, because, let’s face it, opening yourself up to critique is terrifying…So, as instructors…we stand in the front of the classroom and talk about how it feels to be vulnerable. We’re weirdly explicit about it, but we find it extremely effective.

Going hand in hand with this technique is showing (rather than telling) students that it’s OK to ask for help: “It’s better to coach them and to model how to bring in others to solve problems.”

Being Creative, Not Original

In a nine-day workshop, there is hardly time to reinvent the wheel, yet in conceiving a creative project, students often think that’s what they have to do. To defuse this dynamic, Keane reframes the creative process away from being completely original to building on existing ideas and taking them in new directions. So the workshop

…involves students mimicking, step-by-step, projects that have already been built and then deviating from them—to give students permission to build on existing work.

Failing on Purpose

At the same time, to get students comfortable with risk-taking Keane gives them “assignments that ask students to do the impossible (like build a video game in six hours as a team, for example).”

These present opportunities for learning how to work with people having very different skills:

Participants don’t truly understand they need to collaborate with people who bring different skill sets to the work until they fail at a project…[Failure] helps drive home the importance of working in groups of people with diverse interests and abilities.

In Keane’s view, if a project is “designed to fail,” it holds the potential for longer-term success:

If it’s a designed-to-fail project…you pick something that’s kind of kooky that you want to learn, because no one’s going to know that you overstretched your skill set and tried something that was outside of your range. In this workshop, we explicitly allow (and encourage) participants to take these risks.

Moreover, doomed projects

…free participants to do things they might consider ridiculous, crazy, or imaginative. If you know the project is not intended to be successful, why not stretch your perceived boundaries?

Indeed, why not?

Inspire your network with our new “Share Quote” feature

When you read something that’s inspiring, do you want to spread the word?  We hope so!

OCW’s growing collection of Instructor Insights pages is chock full of inspiring ideas for educators, where MIT faculty talk about how they teach. Our brand-new Facebook “Share Quote” tool makes it easy to share your favorite nuggets from these pages.

Simply highlight any text on an Instructor Insights page. When the “Share Quote” bubble pops up, click on it, and a Facebook post window pre-filled with your selected quote will appear. Add optional commentary, click the “Post to Facebook” button, and you’re done!

Good Food, Good Teaching

An illustration of several game dishes on white plates.

This illustration of several game dishes from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) adorns the home page of the new OCW course 21L.707 Reading Cookbooks: from the Form of Cury to the Smitten Kitchen. (Image courtesy of Wellcome Images. License CC BY.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

The year-end holiday season is fast approaching! Soon families and friends everywhere will be celebrating, with meals as the centerpiece of the festivities.

What better time to explore OCW’s fabulous collection of courses on food and cooking?

These courses have fascinating reading lists, ingenious assignments, and links to a full pantry of resources on the internet.

Let’s start with a couple of delicacies on the OCW site that are, well, fresh out of the oven:

And here are some more dishes on the cultural aspects of what we eat and how we prepare it:

  • 21A.265 Food and Culture taught by Professor Heather Paxson
    What’s the connection between what we eat and who we are? How are personal identities and social groups formed via food production, preparation, and consumption? Readings are the staple of critical discussions around what makes “good” food good.
  • 21W.730-4 Writing on Contemporary Issues: Food for Thought: Writing and Reading about Cultures of Food taught by Dr. Karen Boiko
    This course explores many of the issues that surround food as both material fact and personal and cultural symbol. The class reads and discusses essays on such topics as family meals, eating as an “agricultural act,” slow food, and food’s ability to awaken us to “our own powers of enjoyment.”  Writing assignments tap into personal memories and reflections on the assigned essays.
  • 21H.S01 Food in American History taught by Anya Zilberstein
    This course looks at food in modern American history as a story of industrialization and globalization. Topics include: slave plantations and factory farm labor; industrial processing and technologies of food preservation; the political economy and ecology of global commodity chains; the vagaries of nutritional science; food restrictions and reform movements; food surpluses and famines; cooking traditions and innovations; the emergence of restaurants, supermarkets, fast food, and slow food.

And what MIT collection would be complete without some fully hands-on approaches to the subject?

  • ES.287 Kitchen Chemistry taught by Dr. Patricia Christie
    This seminar investigates cooking on a scientific basis. Each week students do an edible experiment and look at the science behind how it all works. Assignments range from “Guacamole, salsa, make your own hot sauce, and quesadillas” to “Scones and coffee” and “Jams and jellies” to “Pasta, meatballs, and crème brulée.”
  • ES.S16 Advanced Kitchen Chemistry taught by Dr. Patricia Christie
    This more sophisticated seminar features a weekly edible experiment that explores a specific food topic. Aside from these scrumptious assignments, the course site has links to resources such as Health benefits of chocolate, Flow diagram of cheese making, History of tofu, and Everything you did not want to ask about root beer.
  • ES.S41 Speak Italian with Your Mouth Full taught by Dr. Paola Rebusco
    If you want to learn a language, what better place to be than the kitchen?  For each class in this course, a different dish is prepared, while students ingest bite-sized pieces of the Italian language and culture.  By the end, students are able to cook some healthy and tasty recipes and understand and speak basic Italian. The course site includes instructional videos both on language and on cooking. Mangia!

MIT Energy Initiative celebrates 10 years of innovative research and education

Grid of six photos.

Top row (l-r): Tata Center spinoff Khethworks develops affordable irrigation for the developing world; students discuss utility research in Washington; thin, lightweight solar cell developed by Professor Vladimir Bulović and team. Bottom row (l-r): MIT’s record-setting Alcator tokamak fusion research reactor; a researcher in the MIT Energy Laboratory’s Combustion Research Facility; Professor Kripa Varanasi, whose research on slippery surfaces has led to a spinoff co-founded with Associate Provost Karen Gleason. (Photos: Tata Center for Technology and Design, MITEI, Joel Jean and Anna Osherov, Bob Mumgaard/PSFC, Energy Laboratory Archives, Bryce Vickmark.)

It’s said that our ability to harness and use energy underlies the very development of modern civilization. Now, as the world grapples with climate change induced by many decades of runaway carbon emissions, our long-running quest for simply more and cheaper energy shifts toward cleaner and zero-carbon sources, and more just systems and policies to ensure that all people have fair access to essential energy resources. It’s no exaggeration to say that our future lives depend on it.

Ten years ago, the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) was launched to build momentum, coordinate efforts, and generate the innovations needed to fuel this energy system transition. A lot has happened in those 10 years, as MITEI’s Kathryn M. O’Neill reports in MIT News:

On any given day at MIT, undergraduates design hydro-powered desalination systems, graduate students test alternative fuels, and professors work to tap the huge energy-generating potential of nuclear fusion, biomaterials, and more. While some MIT researchers are modeling the impacts of policy on energy markets, others are experimenting with electrochemical forms of energy storage.

This is the robust energy community at MIT. Developed over the past 10 years with the guidance and support of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) — and with roots extending back into the early days of the Institute — it has engaged more than 300 faculty members and spans more than 900 research projects across all five schools.

In addition, MIT offers a multidisciplinary energy minor and myriad energy-related events and activities throughout the year. Together, these efforts ensure that students who arrive on campus with an interest in energy have free rein to pursue their ambitions…

…What has MIT’s energy community as a whole accomplished over the past decade? Hockfield says it’s raised the visibility of the world’s energy problems, contributed solutions — both technical and sociopolitical — and provided “an army of young people” to lead the way to a sustainable energy future.

Read the full story >

MIT OpenCourseWare is pleased to feature many of the subjects in the MIT Undergraduate Energy Minor on our Energy Courses page.