August 31st, 2008

Developing an Alternate Assessment Exercise for an Introductory Chemistry Course

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At the recent Teaching Professor Conference in Nashville, a session titled “163 Alternate Assessment Ideas” caught my eye. It was presented by Eileen Buckley from Western Michigan University. To be honest, the use of alternate assessment techniques is not something I completely embraced before attending this workshop. Although I have used group work and peer-led activities, they were for the purpose of helping students prepare for quizzes and exams. A theme in the workshop was that alternate assessment activities should be graded and used along with traditional testing methods to evaluate student learning in a course.

In recent years, my desire to teach students more than chemistry content has increased considerably. I now want my students (even those in nonmajor, introductory courses) to learn how chemistry connects to their daily lives. Learning the nomenclature rules for monosubstituted amides helps students in the introductory course on their content-based standardized exam at the end of the semester, but it does not help them appreciate the relevance of chemistry across various disciplines. I have also struggled with how to use traditional exams to measure students’ ability to integrate chemical concepts with the larger issues of health, environment, and society. I have had students write papers, but the content of those papers bored me and the students, and preparing papers like this takes little advantage of student creativity.

With this in mind, I hoped the workshop would help to identify at least one alternate assessment activity I could adapt for use in this course. When the workshop began, we were placed into groups based on related disciplines and asked to choose and develop an alternate assessment that could be implemented in one of our courses. More than a few individuals in my group jokingly suggested that we could just give a test (it was on our list!).

The assessment activity that caught my eye was a news report. Many topics addressed in introductory chemistry, such as fats, hydrocarbons, and alcohols, are frequently discussed on TV and in the popular press. During the workshop, I put together a rough plan for having my students produce a short news report to demonstrate the application or integration of c hemical principles discussed in class. After the workshop, I refined my plan and implemented it in my course this summer.

I had my students assume the role of reporters for Action 10 ChemNews and contribute to a series titled “Connecting You to Chemistry.” To produce the stories, students put together a PowerPoint presentation with the appropriate visuals and script for each slide. Students were encouraged to maximize their creativity and minimize the amount of text on the slides. To create the report, the “reporters” used my tablet PC running Camtasia, screen recording software with audio capabilities. Students read the script into a microphone while showing the appropriate slides on the screen. Camtasia recorded the audio and screen activities and was used to create a Windows Media File (.wmv) of the news report. The tablet PC makes it very easy to draw chemical structures and diagrams on the slides. The news reports this summer dealt with topics such as trans fat, low-toxicity antifreeze, birth control, and ozone depletion.

Students created the reports in my office, which gave me the opportunity to provide some editorial advice and technical assistance. Once produced, the news stories were played for the entire class and scored according to a rubric modeled after the one provided at the workshop. Some examples of the news reports have been placed online. Their educational value is best appreciated by viewing the clips. (See http://campus.murraystate.edu/academic/faculty/ricky.cox/106clips.html.) I decided to make the first-generation news reports short and gave students a great deal of flexibility in producing them. Although these news reports will serve as a valuable resource for future students, it will be easy to modify the format as needed.

Overall, I am quite pleased with my attempt to better connect my students to chemistry by using an alternate assessment activity. I strongly believe that a balanced approach to instructional and assessment methods will improve my course.