As I prepared the final quiz of the semester, I began to reflect on what my students had learned, not just about solar cells, but also about life. I teach engineering to high school seniors and while you might think that an engineering teacher at High Tech High must have a class full of future engineers of America, it’s quite the opposite. Engineering is not an elective at our school—every senior takes my class. The challenge is to convince my diverse students (a representative ethnic and socioeconomic cross section of San Diego County selected by lottery) that learning principles of design through the lens of engineering is relevant. I emphasize that most every modern career involves identifying problems, empathizing with clients, and creating innovative cost-effective solutions. But one of the most important life skills I try to instill is how to work well in a team.
Group work is a natural consequence of teaching at a school that practices project-based learning. As self-proclaimed progressive educators, we pride ourselves on constructing authentic multidisciplinary projects that demand a robust melding of students’ communication, technical, and social skills. We know that establishing clear objectives, meaningful roles, and student choice into every project is crucial for success. But we also know that assessing group work is littered with landmines. How do you recognize that most of the work may have been done by one person? How do you get that person to release the reins? How do you convince the coasting student to engage? Reflections, portfolios, and peer reviews are essential parts of the group assessment process, but I recently came up with a radical idea for my final quiz that seems to have touched a nerve.
The content revolved around building a solar cell from white paint and raspberry juice. The quiz was straightforward: draw a diagram of the solar cell, label the critical parts, and describe each part’s function. The problem was that I had unwittingly offered any student that participated in a Maker Faire project earlier in the semester a “free pass” for a quiz of their choice. More than half the students had earned the pass and saw this final quiz as the perfect opportunity to use it.
Fearing that my favorite lab would be summarily dismissed from memory by so many (an “old-school” weakness I find hard to relinquish), I devised a Stephen King-like plot twist. And all it took was adding one line.
At the top of the page just below their name, I added:
“The person for whom you are taking the quiz:__________.” Each student would pick their quiz-gift recipient out of a hat. I explained that in group work, it was important to be able to trust that everyone would do their best, work their hardest, and contribute their all to the project.
“If the group leader doesn’t trust her peers to do their part,” I continued, “she will be tempted to do their work for them. If the designer doesn’t trust the researcher to provide relevant design specifications, he will ignore the specs and design an inferior product ‘off the top of his head.’ Not trusting your teammates and not being worthy of their trust are two sides of the same coin.”
But it’s difficult to assess one’s trustworthiness. That is what I was hoping this quiz could do. “To see how trustworthy you are as a member of this class,” I announced, “you will gift your quiz grade to a random student in our class.”
As you might imagine, the startled looks of incredulity were everywhere.
“This isn’t fair!”
“Why should my grade go down if I learned what I was supposed to learn?”
“I might as well not even bother if my grade doesn’t depend on what I do!”
“Can I use my pass if I don’t like the grade I got?”
(The answer was no, but I offered that if anyone felt guilty about bombing the quiz, they could give their pass to the person for whom they were taking the quiz. Yet another thoughtful twist.)
In an attempt to clarify, I continued, “think of the solar cell lab as a whole class project in which everyone had the assignment of learning how a solar cell works by building one. Not learning the content lets down the class community. We just usually never bother to assess who was letting down whom.”
The “gift quiz” had in fact been inspired by real world events. Recently, my son had witnessed the unexpected firing of a team leader at work who had a reputation for doing not only his own work but much of his subordinates’ as well. On the surface, it seemed incongruous that the overachiever should be fired instead of the “slacking” subordinates. However, as we talked we began to appreciate the deeper principle at play: doing your own job and someone else’s is not sustainable. It not only leads to burnout, it also kills the camaraderie and growth we associate with effective teams.
Our conversation made me wonder how I can better facilitate deep teamwork in my practice? How can I get students to realize that each team member has a responsibility to build competency in and by each member. It’s not acceptable for one student to do most of the work. Neither is it acceptable for a team member to ignore learning their tasks. As I considered how to get my students to take the learning of their peers as seriously as they did their own, it came to me: have them take a quiz – for someone else.
The conversation with the class continued as we reflected on what teamwork meant and what their complaints implied about their commitment to the class. Here are some of the questions we discussed.
“Would you really not help someone who didn’t understand something as well as you?”
“What is more important, to learn how a solar cell works or to learn to not let a teammate ‘get by’ with an inferior understanding?”
“If you really don’t trust your quiz grade to one of your teammates, how will you ever trust your future colleagues with your livelihood?”
“When should we help our teammates and when should we ask for help?”
“How do we develop trust in our teammates and how do we earn their trust?”
In the end, they had to admit they appreciated the twisted logic of this assessment even if they hated me for thinking of it. They were right about one thing; it wasn’t fair to spring this twist on them last minute so I gave them 30 minutes before the quiz to review. You’ve never seen so engaged a group of students pouring over the details to sift the gross misunderstandings from merely superficial. I would clarify a principle to one student and watch expectantly as that insight percolated through the class. As I hoped, the prepared students jumped in and urgently tutored the less prepared. They were not about to risk their grade on some random misunderstanding.
What surprised me though was how earnest the less prepared were. They were terrified that they might be the reason a prepared teammate, perhaps a good friend, would be punished because they had neglected their learning. For the first time perhaps, they felt a visceral responsibility for their learning that went beyond the confines of their own mind (even if the circumstances were a bit contrived). After all was said and done, the average grade of the class was the highest of any of the semester. That is not to say that everyone aced the quiz, but that wasn’t really the point in the end. What everyone did learn from this quiz is that we learn both as a community and from our community. And that was a lesson you may not have expected to learn in an engineering class.