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Unlocking awareness and ownership of learning.


This paper describes a self-assessment process put in place by a performing arts professor and a mathematics education professor teaching Styles of Acting and Directing and Teaching Math for Elementary School Teachers respectively. Through journaling and portfolio responses, students gathered evidence of learning that was then articulated in a final self-assessment where they assigned themselves a grade for the course. Students reported awareness of their own learning styles as well as ownership of their learning that was different to previous learning experiences.


We teach and learn in an era of unprecedented accountability. Students ate being tested at every grade level with high stakes implications for learners, teachers, and administrators. Such high stakes tests place incredible pressures on educators, lead to misidentifying inferior and superior schools, compel teachers to abandon curricula in areas other than literacy and mathematics, promote cheating on tests, and limit instructional strategies to merely skill acquisition (Popham, 2001). We ate forcing children to all become compliant players of the "game of school" rather than encouraging their natural appetites for learning (Fried, 2005).

Philosophical Framework

How do we help pre-service and in-service students learn to create classroom learning communities that embrace a broader regard toward learning than test-passing? School reform and accountability discussions take center stage in professional education journals. Such studies find that there are identifiable aspects of classroom cultures, such as reflective practice (Taylor, 2000), self motivation (Sarason, 2004), internal trust and learner awareness (Martin & Booth, 1997; Raider-Roth, 2005), and classroom discourse (NCTM, 2000; Meier, 2002) that contribute in significant ways to our understandings of what students know. What would accountability look like if the experience entailed more than passing a test and took into account such elements of classroom teaching and learning?

As Philip Taylor writes, the assessment process needs to encourage students to become reflective practitioners, working to develop theories about their own learning and producing knowledge through their own explorations of course materials (Taylor, 2000). Sarason claims the single most important factor in the learning process is the awareness of one's self that there is a need to learn more (Sarason, 20004). If we can focus the learner's awareness on the act of learning rather than on the product or end point of the process we can help children to develop deeper learning connections (Marton and Booth, 1997). Constructing classroom learning communities that enable children to build the internal trust in their own knowing is what Miriam Raider-Roth believes is key to meaningful and connected learning (Raider-Roth, 2005). The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics puts forth a vision in their Standards for teaching mathematics that embraces communicating ideas and interpreting information. It is through communication and interpretation of information in which students must "explain" their thinking, construct proofs of knowing, and make deep, reflective connections among mathematical ideas (NCTM, 2000). Similarly in its new Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Arts, the New York City Department of Education identifies five strands for learning, one of which is entitled "Making Connections." By developing an understanding of self and others through theatre, students make connections within the art form and through the art form by applying their learning to other disciplines and experiences. The knowledge is constructed through an analysis of self and individual process (NYCDOE). What if the process of learning what was learned was more organic than administering a test to determine what students know? Dennie Palmer Wolfe posits that assessment becomes meaningful only when it is embedded in instruction and not an after-the-fact, teacher or test-judged event (Wolfe, 1998). McVarish and Solloway hypothesize that freedom from such judgment is a way to help students to feel more comfortable in order to acknowledge and value their own way of thinking by participating more fully in making known just what their thoughts are: in other words, making public what they know and how they know what they know (McVarish & Solloway, 2001). Such classroom cultures, where communities of trust and sharing of ideas is the expectation, have been associated with positive student learning outcomes (Meier, 2002).


The sine que nom of our vision of self-assessment is that each student must continuously monitor learning progress as a means to begin to comprehend how learning actually "works." As university professors, our goal is not limited to helping students learn what we expect them to understand, but also to assist them in being reflective, life-long learners. Our dilemma was to find a process of evaluation that encourages students to keep track of their own learning, and make public what they know as they learn. In so doing, it is our belief that our students might become more inclined to internalize the lessons learned as they document how they are learning the material and the methods that are working best for their styles of learning. This is a qualitative study of two classrooms of students enrolled in classes at a large, urban private university in the North East. Students enrolled in a Styles of Acting and Directing course were undergraduates and the students enrolled in the Teaching Math for Elementary School Teachers course were graduates. Both courses are located in a School of Education within the larger university.

Unpacking the Process

In the arts course each student is asked to complete an initial self-assessment within the first two weeks of class. Students are asked to outline goals that they have for their work in the course for the semester, and to pose questions that they would like to answer through their own exploration of the course material and processes. Students revisit these goals and questions in a midpoint self-assessment. Here they ate provided with a series of questions to prompt their thinking about how they have been functioning in the class, what connections they have been making between the course materials and the performance work, and what progress they have made toward meeting their goals and answering their questions. Students are also asked to pose new questions and goals if they feel that any of their original goals have been reached or their questions answered. Students will also sometimes refine their original goals or question, realizing that they need to be more general or more specific in their inquiry given the structure and time constraints of the course. The professor reads the self-assessments and holds a one-on-one conference with each student to discuss areas where further evidence is needed or deeper reflection is necessary.

In the mathematics education course, students keep a reflective journal in which they record mathematics encountered in their everyday lives and connections made among the readings, their student teaching, and the activities and discussions that take place in class. The math journal is a means to reflect on what they are learning, seeing, experiencing, and thinking relative to their mathematics learning. Students are asked to consider how learning in this course compares to their own mathematics learning history. Midway through the semester the journals are read by the professor and pertinent questions and comments are noted for the students to continue to think about further. When our students reach the end of the semester they complete a final self-assessment that includes assigning themselves a grade for the course and supporting that letter grade by providing evidence of learning. When a student engages in the writing of the final self-assessment, the information from the responses can be used by the student as evidence to support the final grade. Once students have completed this final self-assessment, each meets with the professor for a review and discussion of the reflective journal or portfolio. The discussion takes the form of a conversation about the student's learning and the questions the student may still be pondering, which leads to a dialogue about the evidence provided. How is the assigned grade supported by the evidence? Where does the assessment lack evidence? How does the student see the grade? As a result of this discussion, the student may be asked to either provide more evidence, to adjust the grade to fit the evidence that they've provided, or accept the grade they have assigned themselves.

Initially, when these procedures were outlined for the students, numerous questions surfaced about how the process would unfold. The majority of students were so conditioned to having the teacher assign the grade to their work that it was difficult to comprehend the power that this particular method of assessment would yield to them. A small sampling of students became antagonistic and insisted grading was the responsibility of the teacher and not the student. Another small sampling of students responded with a sigh of relief, thinking this was going to be an easy "A." These initial self-assessment misconceptions disappeared once the students participated in the rigorous process of documenting evidence of their learning.


Evidence in both courses was collected from observations, student interviews, and student work samples. The data were collected throughout the duration of the course and for the analysis a purposive sampling of students was chosen. In the Styles of Acting and Directing course, evidence was also derived from students' portfolio responses. In the Teaching Math for Elementary School Teachers course, evidence also came from students' reflective mathematics journals. In all instances students were asked throughout the semester to record their thinking and questioning relative to coursework, practice, and readings. Students completed a minimum of one response per week, and in those responses, they were challenged to make connections among the theoretical readings, the course activities, discussions with classmates, and their practice. In order to understand the perceptions, feelings and knowledge of those students being interviewed we conducted interviews with student participants after they submitted their journals. These journal-guided conversations were used to elicit from the students rich, detailed material that were then included in the analysis (Lofland & Lofland, p 12). Using the journal entries as a point of discussion, we were able to avoid questions that required a simple "yes or no" response. (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982, p 95). We followed Holstein and Gubrium's (1995) argument that "the active interview is not so much dictated by a pre-designed set of specific questions as it is loosely directed and constrained by the interviewer's topical agenda, objectives, and queries" (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995, p. 29).

The data were coded (Ely, 1998, Denizen and Lincoln, 1998) and themes were identified based on the philosophical framework. Ely et al. (1997) and Wolcott (2001) urge that writing the analysis begin early in the process of thinking about the analysis. We met regularly to discuss and begin this process of jotting down our collective thinking. We searched the data for initial categories and ownership and connections emerged as large "bins" (Walcott, 2001) or as Ely et al. refer to as "smallest meaningful chunk that I will calla category" (Ely, 1997, p. 145).


Once the data were placed in these "bins," we continued our analysis, which revealed patterns within each of these categories of ownership and connections. The findings below represent a sampling of the student responses that we encountered. We were initially overwhelmed by the level of articulateness that we discovered, but then we realized that the power of this process lay in the ability of the students to use their own words and voices to articulate their learning and their understanding of praxis.


Most students reported an increased awareness of their learning experience. Students often made powerful discoveries that an instructor might have alluded to or a fellow student might have commented on, but it took personal discovery before the student gained a workable awareness. Consider the following:</p> <pre> The most important thing I've discovered this semester is my issues with my body as an actor. I can't say that I've dealt with them, I think that's going to take significant time, but just coming to the realization that I had these body-related issues and inhibitions was a real breakthrough for me. I completely changed the way I attacked my scenes, my warm ups, my physical preparation and blocking in scenes, and my eventual performance and comfort level on stage. Andrea, an undergraduate performing arts student </pre> <p>Andrea had entered this particular course with some major acting challenges to overcome, and was able to see her way through her own self-reflection during the semester. While suggestions were made to her along the way, it took her own discovery to help her internalize the lessons that she learned. As a result, she responded that these lessons carried over into her other work in the course. The following writings of Erica, a graduate mathematics education student highlight how her new awareness has contributed to her learning asa teacher:</p> <pre> It became very evident that the teacher's personality and character directly affect the students' responses to the subject which she is teaching. On my journal entry #3, after the class discussion of our mathematical autobiographies, I wrote, "...I came to an interesting observation: Our positive or negative experiences in math were based mostly, if not entirely, on our response to the teacher's personality ... bad experiences were all related to emotional stress." I also wrote that I was very surprised by the fact that our reactions to math were based more on this emotional state of the classroom environment than on our actual math skills and abilities. I am so impressed by this realization. I've always known that a teacher is very powerful as far as attitudes reflected in her students, levels of confidence. But I never really thought about the full extent of influence that a teacher has on the emotional state of every one of her students. Erica, a graduate mathematics education student </pre> <p>Erica was a teacher, yet her own journal writing "awakened" for her a much deeper appreciation of the power she had as a teacher of young students. In conversation, she spoke with conviction about how her practice had changed as a result of this newly acquired insight. She reported that she was now more careful about how she talked about math with her students, and more enthusiastic and positive about the way in which she engaged with mathematics in her classroom. The comment below from Tamara, a master's student offers some insight about how creating responses as part of the self-assessment process brought back her artistic impulses:</p> <pre> I also enjoyed creating visual responses. I got so used to responding only by writing a paper that at first, I did not know what to do. However, as I began creating, I remembered that long ago I liked to draw pictures and create picture books. In this process, I was able to play with my perspective, and see things more flexibly. Creating a visual response stimulates my artistic senses such as using colors, shaping the form, choosing the material. Through the process, I was reminded of the pleasure of creating, and this allowed me to combine my artistic sense with what I had learned from reading. Furthermore, I realized that everything that I have learned in life could connect to produce something innovative. I am now thinking of starting to play piano again and drawing pictures, things I had stopped long ago. Tamara, a graduate performing arts education student </pre> <p>As a result of responding to the readings and the scene work in the course, Tamara rediscovered her artistic impulses and became more aware of how those impulses can help her to make meaning as a learner and as an artist. Teachers cannot measure this kind of realization, this learning, unless the student articulates and provides evidence for the learning. Increased awareness must be documented and/or articulated by the learner, not "judged" by a teacher.


To us, ownership is the idea that students take on the learning as their own and take responsibility for their own beliefs. By so doing, students gain a greater understanding and appreciation of their learning and the process that goes into it through their own self-assessment. This was reported by Julia, a math education student:</p> <pre>

These reflections on my own personal math experiences helped me to

begin thinking about and examining the process of teaching and

learning math in depth. When examining my journals I can see my

progression of thoughts, ideas, and insights over the course of the

semester. While at the beginning of the class my entries were focused more on what we did in class and read in the text book, I

gradually began to make important connections among different aspects of the class. My journal entries began to flow together, one

building on another. I found that I was actually documenting my

learning process and that by reflecting upon my journals and their

responses I was learning even more. Julia, a mathematics education

student </pre> <p>Students also made connections to other classes and the material that they were learning in those classes. Some would say that students are making these kinds of connections all the time, but in our view, the self-assessment process brings them to the forefront and allows the student to take ownership of the learning as they articulate it. When the student writes about the connection between materials, it makes the learning real and documentable, rather than staying trapped in the head asa feeling or an intuition. This kind of response to the self-assessment process was not unusual. Because students owned the learning that they completed in the course, they had a strong sense of commitment to the course itself. The journey had been an intimate one between themselves and the material, and that made the experience memorable.

And in this example of owning the learning, Michael synthesizes one of the major readings from the course, links it to his own learning, and then articulates a new philosophy toward learning that he has adopted as a result of the self-assessment process:</p> <pre> In my midterm assessment I looked at this class in terms of feeling comfortable taking ownership in my own learning, and using that comfort to push myself further. The rest of the semester has continued along a similar path where little by little I learn how to give myself recognition for discoveries. Adding to that now, I can use [Anne] Bogart as an analogy. I think learning can be an act of violence. Until you take the risk to say, "Yes. I know X, so now I can use that X to explore Y" you will never get to Y. That is not to say that you should never go back and look at X, I think you should, but you need to have the chutzpah to date to be violent, and that way you can grow as a learner. Michael, a graduate performing arts education student </pre> <p>For many teachers it is rare to experience this kind of learning with a student because their learning process is not shared with us. Rather, it seems to be that many teachers try desperately to make sure that the student has absorbed that which they have charged them with learning.


As professors of mathematics and theater arts education we believe it is critically important that pre-service and in-service teachers learn about teaching by being critical assessors of their own learning. This study was initiated asa result of our need to know if self-assessment did in fact enable our students to develop learner awareness and assist them in making connections among the divergent facets of their learning experiences as they think analytically about teaching and learning. As a result of this study, it is our shared belief that self-assessment was a vehicle for our students to bridge theory and practice, to become more aware of their learning process without being compliant "players of school" or working to get the "A." The questioning and self-reflection that is embedded in the self assessment model helped students to examine their learning beliefs and personally held images of classroom practice in order to rethink, redesign, or deepen their conceptions of learning and teaching. Evidence of this began to emerge as the power and responsibility for learning began to shift to the students and our roles as instructors became more collaborative and less all-knowing. The self assessment model shaped the classroom culture into one in which we encouraged students to share ownership of this assessment process with us. Rather than telling students what to learn and how to learn ir in order to get a specific grade, we became contemporaries who were constructing knowledge with the students, rather than for them. This is exactly what we hope our students will bring to their professional careers: an appetite for learning that stems from their own learning histories which they, in turn, will share and foster with their students.

As we reflect on our own experiences as teachers using self-assessment and portfolio review in the classroom, it is evident that the benefits did not end with the students. There is a great feeling of satisfaction when a student articulates her or his own learning in words that she or he owns and understands asa result of that meaning being constructed through lived experience, active learning, and self reflection. It would seem that this study should be enough to convince many of us to adopt this way of assessing. Is it feasible for most students to make these connections, have this sort of awareness, and exhibit this level of ownership? The answer is yes, but it requires a true commitment and a bit of courage on the part of the instructor. Herein lays one conundrum of the self assessment process. Self-assessment and portfolio review are time consuming propositions. The process requires an engagement and interaction between teacher and student that goes beyond the academic lecturer or even the academic advisor. The level of intimacy between the teacher and student is much higher than in a more traditional relationship because the teacher is working to know the student deeply and know more about where the strengths and weaknesses lie from the beginning. As such, the teacher can serve as appropriate guide for the learning, as mentor for the experience. Our students have reported their appreciation for this level of commitment and recognized we were not searching for the "right answers" by our standards, but rather, we were looking for them to find the strongest answer that they might locate for themselves.


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Linda Darling-Hammond and Milbrey McLaughlin. (1999). Investing in Teaching asa Learning Profession: Policy Problems and Prospects, In Teaching as the Learning Profession edited by Linda Darling-Hammond & Gary Sykes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Vye, N.J., D.L. Schwartz, J.D. Bransford, B. Barron, L. Zech, and Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1998). SMART Environments that Support Monitoring, Reflection, and Revision. In Metacognition in Educational Theory and Practice. D. Hacker, J. Dunlosky, and A. Graesser, eds. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Walcott, H.F. (2001) Writing Up Qualitative Research (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks: Sage. Ely, M., Vinz, R., Downing, M. and Anzul, M. (1997). On Writing Qualitative Research: Living by Words. London: Falmer Press.

Judith McVarish, New York University

Joe Salvatore, New York University

Judith MeVarish, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at New York University, and Joe Salvatore, MFA, is a Teacher of Educational Theatre, in the Steinhardt School of Education.
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Author:Salvatore, Joe
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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