Concept-based teaching and learning

A Research Focus in a Final Exam

Focusing on Research:

As a trained librarian, my primary focus is often research. I brought that perspective into my most recent challenge: teaching Individuals and Societies Year 3. Since November, I’ve been teaching two sections of the course, and I’ve learned more than I could ever put into words. The most recent success, though, was the final exam.

A few months ago, I participated in an MYP Chat about Assessment that expressed several questions about the Criterion B in I/S and how different teachers assess it. There were more questions than opinions, more uncertainty about this unfamiliar Criterion than ideas about it. With that in mind, I wanted to share my own recent success with an assessment about this Criterion.

When I gave the mid-term exam in December, I hadn’t been teaching long. My lack of familiarity with writing long exams for eighth graders led me to adapt a previously used exam, full of reading and writing tasks. While it covered the content of the course, it used only three of the four criteria, leaving out Criterion B completely, and focusing almost entirely on Criteria A and C. I noticed that many of the students became frustrated with this model, possibly because all of them are English as a Second Language learners. With almost 50 students, about half of them in Language Acquisition, I wasn’t certain that this was an accurate test of their abilities. They put in the effort, but the results weren’t favorable. I was determined to make an exam that tested the skills that we had covered, and one that would suit their language skills better.

The class focused on Migration and Human Rights in the spring, with an emphasis on interview skills, political cartoons/visual literacy, and research. During the human rights unit, students wrote their first academic research paper, presenting different arguments about a human rights topic of their choice. Many students chose women’s rights, or LGBT rights, or a historical look at the atomic bomb. It was a long process, focusing on several elements of the research cycle: writing a research question, citing, taking notes on sources, using library resources, and outlining their work. If I could do it again, I would also have focused more on evaluating sources, but we took time to focus on paraphrasing and plagiarism instead.

I worked with the Language Acquisition teacher, who was doing a similar unit, and we encouraged students to use the same topic (though rarely the same resources) in both classes to increase their comprehension and skills. This was extremely successful; the work that I received from the Language B students had more depth and critical thought than I had previously seen. With covering the material in more than one class, especially in a class that met twice as often as mine, they were able to dig deeper into the information and the concepts.

The final exam needed to be engaging, and needed to assess the different parts of the research process that we had covered. I didn’t want to rely completely on reading and writing, both for my students and for myself. I wanted to provide opportunities for them to utilize the skills they had practiced in class, using all four criteria. Plus, since the entire class never covered one topic, it couldn’t be based on content alone. We worked on inquiry projects throughout the semester, and while certain topics overlapped, there was never anything that we covered in depth as a class.

Here’s what I came up with:

The entire exam centered on protest. I chose the topic because it was an option for their human rights paper, which meant that many of them did preliminary research on it. The information I used was available equally to them all. Many of them knew about the Hong Kong protests because of our location, and our own country has had some recent turmoil that impacted their daily lives.

I created a packet of information about the topic for them to use throughout their exam. The information packet included two perspectives, a pro and con side to protest. I adapted the text from Issues and Controversies, a debate database that we subscribe to, using the ideas without the complex vocabulary and excess text. The teacher I worked with read it over as well, to ensure that there was nothing too challenging. There were descriptions of four protests: Women’s Suffrage, Vietnam Protests, Occupy Wall Street, and the Umbrella Revolution. The packet also included historical images and political cartoons about those same protests. I included the full list of Year 3 Criteria as well. The information packet was separate from the student answer sheet for ease.

The first part was comprehension from the text, marked on Criterion A: Knowledge and Understanding. There were six questions asking about what they read in the text. This is common in many tests, I find, and I asked them to add their own ideas throughout for comprehension.

The second part involved Research Questions, marked on Criterion B: Investigating. It followed a similar format to what we had done in class. They drafted a few research questions, then evaluated their best one with an explanation. They were also tasked with figuring out what criterion matched what they were doing, and how they could succeed, to allow the criteria to be part of their process.

The third part was a paraphrasing exercise, marked on Criterion A: Knowledge and Understanding. They chose two paragraphs (very short paragraphs) from the pro and con side to paraphrase in their own words. I marked this on Criterion A because paraphrasing, to me, means understanding and explaining in a new way, to demonstrate your awareness by adding different information to someone else’s ideas. This was similar to exercises done in both English and Humanities classes.

The fourth part was an analysis of political cartoons. They had to choose one of the political cartoons to describe and analyze using their knowledge and the information from the text. There were short answer questions about the cartoon that they had to answer with specific details, graded with Criterion C: Communication. I marked their other political cartoon assignment with communication, so I wanted to keep it consistent.

The fifth part was arguments and critical thinking. They were asked to create an outline that took information from the text and photos to plan out three arguments for an essay. This was graded with Criterion D: Critical Thinking.

The sixth and final part was a research reflection, graded with Criterion B: Investigating. They reflected on the process of research with guidance from the questions, for the entire semester. Every assignment I gave required research, so they looked at different assignments and how they compared to one another.

As I gave the exam, and then graded the exam, I was quite happy with the results. There were some questions the students didn’t expect, especially with the outline. The style didn’t quite match what I had given them in class, even if it was a similar concept. The questions for the political cartoons gave them some trouble as well, again, because they weren’t expecting the style of the question. Overall, though, most students were able to successfully answer the questions and demonstrate their skills.

Upon reflection, though, there are a few things that I would change.

  1. The exam was almost too long, leaving some students just short of finishing. I would streamline some of the questions and make sure that the majority of students could finish on time, perhaps by clarifying the instructions.
  1. The political cartoon questions were too similar to one another, which created confusion. The task they did in class was annotating the cartoon, and I would go back to that. The instructions also needed to be clarified for more understanding.
  1. I would have liked to add a planning or interview piece in some way. Since they were working on protest, what other sources could they try? What would they look for? Or, if they had the opportunity, what interview questions would they ask? That would add a richer research feel and be able to assess both Criterion B and Criterion C.
  1. I gave too many choices. With the four different protests, there was too much information for them to sift through. Even though that was partially my intention, given the amount of information one has to sift through in every Google search, the time frame was too short for so many options.

Overall, I was content with the exam, and proud of the work that my students accomplished. I’m grateful for the opportunity to try something new, learn from it, and share from it. Hopefully, my experience will lead others to interesting reflections.

Article by Kelsey Hedrick
Image by: Kelsey Hedrick

Engaging conceptual dialog through lesson design

A student’s reflection recently illustrated how performance of understanding can emerge as a conceptual dialog between teacher and student.

In this Arts inquiry, the Key concept is creativity and the Related concepts are expression, boundaries, narratives. The unit’s Global context is Identities and relationships, framing the learning around building expressive skills for performance, requiring the actor to discover his center, his essence and thus supporting a better understanding of self. In studies of drama performance, the ensemble requires that the actor ‘give up’ their identity to the ‘group’ when working together. The fostering of relationships in the ensemble is of paramount importance. The lesson focus was to introduce the concept of neutrality through use of the neutral mask (see Jacques Lecoq, The Moving Body, Routledge, NY, 2001), with the objectives to develop expressive skills for performance, increase awareness of how actors use their bodies and gesture not just voice, to communicate (Whitaker, personal communication, November 20, 2014).

White neutral mask. Found on

White neutral mask. Found on

The specific inquiry in the series of lessons using the neutrality mask was to investigate the tools of the actor preparing for performance (voice, body, mind, imagination). The student, Gavin Liu writes, “Putting on the neutral mask puts the actor in a state of “neutrality” when acting. A neutral mask is a mask that everyone wears to hide emotions on the face, and it requires the actor to use their body to convey the emotions. In the past classes, we have been wearing these neutral masks and practicing conveying emotions with the boundaries of not being able to express our emotions through our faces but through body movement.”

The teacher intended for the neutral mask to be ” the start of a journey. It produces a physical sensation of calm. The neutral mask opens up the actor to the space around them, creates a state of discovery” (Whitaker, personal communication, November 20, 2014). Dialog in the class revolved around the intention to form conceptualizations of creativityneutrality, boundaries, and expression.

The students used two exercises with the neutral mask. Gavin describes one of the exercises, “Farewell to the boat.” “Farewell to the Boat” allowed us to express our emotions using only our body, without any narrations to the audience of how we felt when a friend leaves on the boat. Personally I found it really challenging because I speak a lot at school and having that boundary really challenged me to explore what I might express with my body. It used more creativity because we have to act like being water using the neutral mask. It adds more challenge to the activity and there is no right or wrong answer because anyone can interpret water differently, making it very creative (Gavin Liu, reflection).

The teacher reflects, “When students shared responses, what emerged was a sense of freshness, of new beginnings. The mask creates balance, calm and economy of movement, which the teacher will use as a point of reference for later work with expressive (Commedia) masks” (Whitaker, personal communication, November 20, 2014).

The depth at which the student experiences conceptual understanding emerges in the reflective dialog with the teacher. In Gavin’s reflection, he writes, “The reason we are doing these activities is that it is essential not to only rely on your facial expression to show emotions, sometimes you have to rely on your body to show those emotions when your face can’t. Therefore, having a neutral mask can explore creative aspects of our body because we are forced by these boundaries to think creatively more than usual.”

Gavin has achieved concept attainment in the few lessons at the onset of the unit, underpinning the importance of discovery through learning engagements designed to engage students in internal and interpersonal dialog and active inquiry into the concepts.

The depth of Gavin’s understanding emerges in this dialog. He writes, “This has helped me realize that sometimes there are things in life where there are boundaries that we can’t change. We have to work with what we have and try to convey the same intention we wanted to convey without the boundary. This helps me focus on what is most important, which is to convince the audience without saying a word and be creative about how to convince them into believing what you really believe.”

A valuable lesson suggested here is the student’s opportunity for metacognition and transfer, which were facilitated by the conceptual design of the lesson.


Thanks to Gavin Liu, Concordian MYP 4,  for permission to use his reflection in this blog post and to Clynt Whitaker for permission to study his lesson design!