Reforming Formative Assessments

Our last project was creating a documentary film. Working alone or with a partner, students created a 5-7 minute video for a C-SPAN competition called StudentCam. The theme this year was “Your Message to the New Government,” and students chose their own topic to explore.

This was the 9th year I have done this project with my students. Each year, I have experimented with various ways of scaffolding the final product. This year worked pretty well. Here are things I did differently:

  • I had them choose a topic and begin research before winter break, during first semester finals. Over a third of my students exempt my final anyway (according to district policy, they earn exemptions for attendance and grades), so this gave them something constructive to do. In the past, we started work in January and they only had two weeks to complete the entire thing. I had not intended for them to work on it over the break, but knowing their topic may have primed them to pay attention to the issue during that time. When we came back from our break, they were rady to hit the ground running.
  • We looked at some exemplars together, and for the first time, watched some videos in which the contest winners explained their process. These were very helpful! All the winning videos included interviews of experts, and I asked my classes to explore people they could interview to learn more about their topics. Consequently, they knew more than ever about their issues because of their meetings.
  • We also focused more on B-roll (background) footage. The way they used this footage was a step up from previous years, when I had not emphasized that aspect of film-making.
  • When I first started the project many years ago, my lesson plans were very specific:  one day everyone learned a particular task, the next day they learned something else and did the same thing to their video. That isn’t a recipe for a creative outcome.  I tried to open things up a bit two years ago, after reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive. He said human beings need autonomy, mastery and purpose. The StudentCam project had a strong purpose, but I choose to increase the autonomy by having students do a set of tasks at their own pace and in any order. This year I decided those tasks were not contributing to a consistent outcome, so I threw them out.
  • Formative assessments for this project included a quiz on the rubric, submitting ideas for B-roll footage, checking that they had downloaded C-SPAN footage (a requirement), and printing a written script for the narration of their video. Upon printing the script, each student or pair had a conference with me to see if they were on the right track. The main thing I wanted to know was whether they knew enough about their topic. I stressed that I wanted to learn something from their work. A few days after the conferences, three days before the due date, I took another grade on whether they could show me two minutes of edited footage in Adobe Premiere. Formative assessments need to be timely and relevant.

The final results were good. Many students submitted their work to the competition. Some are still working on completing their video, ten days later (on their own time). This was a tough project, but overall my students learned a lot from it. I learned to make my formative assessments more meaningful, and give up more class time to let students run with their ideas.