Going Paperless: What about the worksheet?

This is the third article in a series about making the transition from a traditional classroom to a paperless classroom.

One of the things that I hear the most (and that came up in the Earth Day podcast with LiveBinders) is this:

What about math classes – they have to do worksheets!

I’m a science teacher, specifically a Chemistry teacher, so I know all to well how much practice it takes to really understand how to “do” math (and work science problems). I get it. I have to admit, this was one thing that I really never thought I would be able to get rid of. Students have to practice with the problems, they need to practice at home, and they need to be able to master the steps in solving science problems.

This used to always translate to worksheets for me, and I’m sure this is the same reasoning for a math teacher. I really thought hard about how to make the transition to paperless on this one, and my initial reaction was “Hey! We’ll use a Wacom tablet for practice in the classroom, instead of a worksheet!”

I quickly created a PowerPoint presentation that had slide after slide with a gas law problem, and my classes had a lot of fun experiencing the cool new gadget. At first, they had troubles coordinating their writing, but eventually, they got the hang of it. We spent the class period passing the tablet from student to student, each one changing the color of their pen so they could be unique, and I went home thinking I had figured this paperless thing out.

However, once I got home, I started reflecting, as I always do, and I started thinking about what I’ve always believed about technology – that we cannot substitute technology for something traditional, we must innovate and find new ways to teach using technology. I realized something.

I had substituted the tablet for the worksheet.

I had just spent my entire day doing the same thing I had always done. It was sufficient to teach the content, but it wasn’t enough to make me feel like I’d come up with something new. My lesson didn’t have paper in it, but that was really all that had changed.

Simultaneously with trying to focus on going paperless and creating more engaging lessons using technology, I’ve been doing a lot of experimenting with assessment. I wondered, “How can I assess what my students learned yesterday without having them solve problems on a worksheet (or in a quiz on Blackboard)?”

Here’s what I did, and I really enjoyed the product: I assigned groups the next day and we did a project that took three 90-minute class periods. There were four to a group (producer, scribe, researcher, creative resources). The product was to be a video (under 3 minutes long) that would present the steps to solving an Ideal Gas Law problem, along with a little of the history behind the law and what each component of the formula is. The target audience was to be middle schoolers – this would make my students have to think about how to make the lesson engaging and fun, while delivering information that would be at the level of a middle schooler’s math capabilities.

For classroom management, and to keep the students focused on their work and not on chatting on their laptops, each day there was to be only one student in each group with their laptop on.

Day One: Researcher was using theirs to research the gas law, problems to solve, and reporting out to the rest of the group. A brief outline of how they planned to deliver the information was agreed to by the group and the benchmark for the day was a report from the scribe showing the outline and the beginnings of a storyboard.

Day Two: Creative Resources had their laptop on. This person was responsible for downloading the pictures that the group was going to use. The others were working on the storyboard and the benchmark for the day was one resource to be emailed to the teacher (including the citation stored in the comments section of the Properties of the file) and the storyboard was to be turned in.

Day Three: The Producer had their computer on, putting the resources together into a finished product. Group members were completing any last-minute videos, recording songs the groups may have written, etc. The project called for some work to be done outside of class, and students were given a weekend to get the video produced to be presented the following Monday.

My students, for the most part, did a pretty good job. Some of them wrote rap songs. One group even recorded a commercial break in the middle of their video, with a group of students sitting on a stairway trying to figure out an easier way to solve the gas problems their teacher had assigned and the spokesperson for the Ideal Gas Law stepping in to save the day.

During the presentation of the videos, the student audience had their laptops on and recorded their critique of the videos (other groups and their own) using a form I had created in Google Docs.

The result of the project was a success, both from the standpoint of an engaging lesson and as an assessment tool. It became clear as I listened in on conversations and watched the final products which students understood the content and which ones didn’t. Asking questions during the presentations furthered my understanding of who knew what.

Instead of sending home a series of practice worksheets and having students take a traditional pencil and paper assessment, I allowed my students’ creativity to shine through the assignment. This made for an enjoyable few teaching days for me and I believe my students enjoyed both the process of creating the videos and watching the other groups’ presentations.

I believe the day spent practicing with the Wacom tablet was needed – I just think it wasn’t enough. If I had sent my students home with worksheets to complete, I would have never known if they had truly done the work on their own. By assigning the video project, and actively monitoring the process, I was able to accurately assess mastery and move on to the next topic.

For some, three days of class time might be a luxury, and it usually is for me. The timing of this project lent itself to that third day. However, I’ve thought of a couple of ways this lesson could be made shorter:

  1. Have students use free software like Jing to record a screencast with narration of how to work a problem. Even with screencasts, there can be engaging components thrown in. This could be done on an individual basis, rather than as a group.
  2. Establish that the entire video is to be made of stills and use PhotoStory as a quick way to produce the video with narration.

What other ways might I change up this lesson so that it is more effective? I want to hear from you!

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