Education is a process based on feedback. Students complete homework or coursework and receive feedback – sometimes in the form of grades, sometimes in comments, sometimes both – on how well they have demonstrated knowledge or a skill. In an ideal system, teachers help students understand this feedback on small assignments, and make adjustments or reinforcements; this process goes on until students are asked to complete a larger assessment, where they are again given feedback on their performance. This cycle builds again until the final exam or project, and at the end of a course, the final grade serves as the last marker of this feedback loop.
Three pillars have emerged from our work around teaching and learning these past 18 months — connectivity, depth, and assessment. Our new Experimental Learning Groups are thinking about the connections between subjects, how to achieve a depth of understanding on a topic, and assessment in terms of the feedback loop described above, but our our faculty as a whole is also thinking about assessment in terms of course evaluation and reflection.
At the 2016 ISACS annual conference, I attended a session on the Wellington Engagement Index (WEI). The WEI is a course evaluation tool that was developed by The Wellington School in Columbus, OH. The WEI is based on two simple ideas — that students develop a love of learning when they feel engaged, and that the best student engagement lies at the intersection of challenge and enjoyment.
The WEI looks a little different than traditional course evaluations, too. Instead of asking students to rate various aspects of their classes on a scale of 1-5, students see a grid. The vertical axis represents challenge, and the horizontal access represents enjoyment. The grid looks like this:
Midterm Results from University High School
In October, shortly before midterm, University High School students were asked to plot a point on this grid for each of their classes. Here are our results:
Each green dot on this chart represents a dot placed by a student for a class. The blue diamond represents the school’s average placement (an average of all the X/Y coordinates).
As you saw above, the WEI categorizes the upper right quadrant (Q1) as “engaged,” meaning students feel challenged and enjoy those classes. ‘Grind’ refers to the upper left quadrant (Q2), meaning students feel challenged but do not enjoy their experience in those classes. Dots in the lower left quadrant (Q3) are labeled as ‘bored,’ meaning students do not feel challenged nor do they enjoy those classes. And dots in the lower right quadrant (Q4) are ‘entertained,’ meaning students do not feel particularly challenged but they enjoy those classes. The following chart represents University High School’s distribution of dots in the four categories:
Analyzing University High School’s Data
To have an engagement level of over 60% puts University High School in the top tier of schools currently using the Wellington Engagement Index, and to have a boredom level of only 3.4% is remarkable! So, what does all this mean? Notably, we have a very engaged school. A majority of our students enjoy and feel challenged in their classes. And, a very small percentage of our students feel bored in any given class. These are significant indicators of the type of academic program we want to have — one where students feel recognized and valued and where classes push them to excel.
That said, an easy trap to fall into with this instrument is believing that the school’s expectation is 100% engagement. It is not. A student may be challenged in math and simply not like that subject, thereby recording their experience as a “grind.” Another student may be a technology master for whom some of our tech classes will be enjoyable, but not very challenging. The experience of a heterogeneous required freshman class will likely be more varied than that of an upper-level AP elective. The WEI is only a snapshot of experiences; it is not the total indicator of a successful class.
While I am proud of the results of our first WEI assessment, we are still learning how to best use the tool to inform teaching and learning at University. Teachers are now meeting in departments and individually with Dave Vesper and me to discuss this data, student narrative comments on challenge and engagement, and the overall experience of their classes. We will administer the WEI again in December, and then twice next semester as well. After each time, we will reflect, refine, and try new things. In this way, we are continuing to expand our feedback loop, and helping make our school the best it can be.