Quizzes vs. Projects (Mass & Weight Edition)

Tests are evil, let them do projects.

That type of rhetoric frequently appears in my Twitter stream. My gut reaction is hell yeah. But some recent quiz results have gotten me thinking ….

Take for example, this learning objective:
The student understands the difference between mass and weight.

Here’s a student project (not mine) which clearly addresses the objective.

Here’s another project (also not mine). This one is very creative and totally adorable.

But those two projects are really just rehashes of the traditional explanation of the difference between mass and weight: “mass is the amount of stuff an object has and doesn’t change, while weight is the gravitational pull on an object and can change depending on location.” I wonder what would happen if those two students encountered quiz questions like the ones below. Would they make the same mistakes as several of my students did? I feel that even though my students can parrot back the difference between mass and weight (like in the above videos), they don’t really understand that difference if they miss these type of quiz questions:

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I did find one project where a student (again, not mine) gives a thorough explanation and uses several examples. I predict that this student should be able to answer those quiz questions.

What I’m trying to say is that I feel that teacher-generated questions and experiences (quizzes, labs, whiteboard problems, etc.) are important because they challenge students to think and apply in ways they probably wouldn’t if we just left them to their own devices.

But I also get that projects let students be creative and allow them to demonstrate their understanding in ways that quizzes simply can’t.

Perhaps the answer is just “all things in moderation.” Or perhaps the project parameters need improvement so students aren’t simply reciting Wikipedia definitions from a Powerpoint? Or something else?

What are your thoughts?


16 responses to “Quizzes vs. Projects (Mass & Weight Edition)

  1. Testing (in moderation, not standardized, but teacher-directed) can help in the learning process. When we’re tested, we find out what we know (about those test questions).

    We talk about weight versus mass in Calc II, your quiz might come in handy.

  2. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

    This reminds me a lot of the feedback cycle I have with my students’ videos/screencasts. it’s an individual feedback cycle that allows me to keep picking on them until they’ve really shown me mastery. With the first projects you show above, I’d say something like “great, you’re parroting back what we’ve talked about. Can you apply it to a different setting to really show me you understand?” Now, my question for myself (and you) is whether I could speed the process by seeding their thoughts with the types of quiz questions you show. I usually default to letting them try to find an approach that meets the objective, but it can take students a while to see why their first few examples aren’t really getting to true mastery.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Hands on does not necessarily mean minds on. Quiz does not necessarily mean rote learning. Like grant wiggins says, all soccer players must learn fundamental skills before they are ready to play a game! Your quiz looks like a nice assessment fur the skill of knowing the relationship between mass and weight. It is not the final arbiter of whether they can use it in a transfer / unknown situation. That is why goal less problems were invented! Thanks for all you do frank! And if you see mark Schober tell him hi! ( and tell us if he has a blog too!)

  4. A video recitation is not a physics project. A physics project involves doing physics, not talking about it. Adjusting the parameters of a trebuchet to hit a target is a project, reciting the definition of mass and weight is not.

  5. Students need opportunities to learn (and then show their learning) through multiple means (projects, papers, quizzes, etc.). Only utilizing one method, no matter its “fun factor” or supposed level of engagement, can actually be harmful if the students only see that particular context regarding the concept. True conceptual understanding (read: learning) needs to be able to be transferred to multiple contexts. Wiggins and McTighe have worked extensively with transfer and have some interesting ideas for curricular and pedagogical development. So yes, moderation in utilization for any particular approach is good advice.

  6. This is something I think of all the time when I’m designing projects and have to ask myself, “Is this actually project-worthy?” Doing the same tasks you would do on a project in a “creative format” does not necessarily make something a project in the way I want to think about PBL. But sometimes I don’t realize that I’ve fallen into that trap until after I’ve already done it. A lot of times I see quizzes etc, as the way to exhibit grasp of discrete pieces of understanding, and projects as the way to demonstrate understanding of applications and synthesis.

  7. Although both approaches have value, perhaps their strengths are not the same. I use quizzes to diagnose weaknesses in understanding, because, with carefully chosen questions, it seems to be the most direct and efficient way to do so. I do not emphasise that I am looking for 100%. In fact I don’t publish even the score, but only the mistakes, because the aim is purely formative at first. To this end, I have been known to suggest that 50% would be the optimum score for learning! The real work begins when we analyse and discuss our errors in class, errors that prompt students to tweak their understanding and annotate what they have achieved.

    The videos are a good, but there is little interaction; we are passive learners. True, to produce a video inevitably requires a degree of creativity and is no doubt fun to do, but if all the class were to do something similar, I fear that I would not finish my course! I would much more prefer to craft some form of open ended investigation for them to do. Of course in a perfect world we would have time to explore all avenues of discovery…

  8. I think assessing with projects is very different from quizzes, and should be used for different purposes.

    With projects, I feel that we are more interested in process, and these are more typical of real life situations. For example, typically in engineering we don’t know what the correct answer is ahead of time! So the important part of a project isn’t getting a particular answer, it is doing something that makes sense and is useful for the topic. I also think that “grading” a project is extremely difficult, in the case that the project (or problem) is authentic: the problem is ill-defined and with multiple solutions. One way around this is to allow for open-ended projects, with one or more mid-point checks. The teacher can give feedback at the midpoint and the student needs to show that they have taken the feedback and improved the project. At this point the project can be graded with a pass/fail. Of course we can also develop rubrics with overarching themes, but I always find that mine are annoyingly arbitrary (even if the kids don’t know this).

    Quizzes on the other hand typically assess an output. We can also assess a process, but leads down a path of part-marks, squabbling over what is truly required, what should be included, what can be safely assumed, etc. Last week at school I heard many complaints from teachers about students fighting over part marks. SBG and a more binary (mastery) system of grading really helps in this regard. With this in mind, we can assess/grade an output (a specific answer) by looking at correctness and if evidence of knowledge or understanding is included.

  9. These projects and that quiz are only barely comparable in the sense that they are broadly about the same topic. But the quiz has a lot of pedagogical content knowledge built in — it specifically brings to the forefront tricky misunderstandings. The projects, on the other hand, were seemingly in response to a vague “talk about mass vs weight” prompt that doesn’t necessarily bring out the richest understanding.

    The prompt for the projects could be better and then maybe have as much pedagogical content knowledge built into it too. What if students have to discuss a design for a Europa lander, with the constraint that you don’t want it to fall through the ice and the force (pressure really, I guess) that would break the ice is 3250 N/m^2 (made up number to match your quiz, could use a realistic number instead). Now they have multiple parameters to play around with (creatively). If you constrain the volume and mass by giving them a couple launch rocket options (and a budget!) then all the issues you’re trying to bring forward — plus more — come up.

    But of course I notice how much more had to be built into that project prompt to get it there. The quiz just builds those tricky points right in.

  10. Hello Mr. Noschese! I am currently a graduate student studying to become a secondary mathematics teacher. In my program, I have learned about a process called backward design where the creation of a unit or a lesson begins with the assessment. Perhaps designing a rubric that explicitly states the objectives you would like to see demonstrated through the project or during the design of the project would be a way to challenge students and have them think and apply the skills and knowledge we would like to see.

    A point of emphasis during my studies has been creating various types of assessments that promote equity in a classroom, so I really like how you suggest “all things in moderation.” I believe that there are students who may perform terribly on standardized tests, but have the potential to shine on projects. Thank you for your thought-provoking post. I really enjoyed your perspective on this topic. As standardized tests are constantly under fire from the public, I feel that I will be able to better justify their importance in the classroom after reading your post.

  11. I agree with gasstationwithoutpumps, a video recitation isn’t a project. But there’s still an important detail in these recitations — when left to their own devices to explain something, students aren’t going to think the same details are as important as experts do. I think we can all agree that’s because they’re just learning and they don’t see intricacies or small details like experts do. This is why the teacher-generated quiz is important. I’ve been exploring how I might incorporate quiz-like questions in a project and here’s what I have:

    1) build a pinhole camera (http://wp.me/p3P4Cx-77)
    2) based on object distance and image distance, calculate the magnification
    3) based on magnification, tell me the predicted image height

    This year, I didn’t do 2 or 3, so I’ll have to report back next November. I did however have plenty of quiz questions to the same effect.

    This project idea doesn’t scale, though. I’m fairly certain I’m not good enough to build a project around every skill I want kids to have.

  12. I want my kids to do meaningful projects that explore the topic and apply the concept to multiple situations. Instead I get less demonstration of knowledge than I get on quizzes that I write myself. Maybe if my school was part of a system that promoted understanding I would get good projects. But until then, I’ve sworn off projects as showing mastery. “Projects” that I do now have the low low expectation of the basic application of a principle.

  13. I just had an extended conversation with a colleague here at St. Andrew’s on projects. I like the idea of projects, but am invariably disappointed by the implementation (in fact, I am now part of an interdisciplinary group here that is launching a collaboration to dig into projects and how to implement them). The “projects” above are just video explanations, which (as others have said) doesn’t make them projects. I don’t want to “prompt” my way to a standard product, though. My prompt to my seniors recently was “find something interesting and do physics.” I had to approve the ideas, and there was only one idea I thought was lame and needed to be changed. Projects ranged from video analyses of outrageous superhero feats to computer simulations of space craft re-entry, to bouncing different balls on different surfaces. Final “product” ranged from annotated calculations to video presentations to verbal presentations.

    Mostly it was all ok, some of it was really, really astute, but I was still left disappointed. Why? Because it wasn’t enough to be really worth the time. My expectation was that after a week of doing these projects, I’d have to give the kids some time off, because they’d be exhausted by the effort. I really wanted to do that. But, instead, the students had a nice little break from physics (“Yay! Projects! Easy street!”). They didn’t get much done outside of class time. They didn’t stretch in terms of endurance and understanding. They didn’t make themselves stronger. Dang it, projects should do all those things, right?

    In the end, I gave them a few more days, and this was a mistake. Nothing got pushed much further, and the holiday from physics was extended. All the best intentions to push on after class would evaporate every night as they tackled math and Beloved and Latin. The students were very honest about viewing the project as a holiday from out of class physics work.

    • And in this busy modern world, perhaps we can’t expect anything else. Those with a passion for the subject will put in extra time; everyone else will heave a sigh of relief that they have some time to follow their natural inclinations for a few more minutes each day, instead of being completely swamped with schoolwork.

      We teach our subjects because we feel passion for them. Each of a students’ x teachers is hoping to pull that student in and get them to voluntarily spend their time on that teacher’s subject. Hmm… What if all the teachers were doing project time at the same time? What if it was something the students knew about ahead of time? If the school had a particular week where none of the teachers would give any homework, and the students could do a project in any one class, that might be interesting. (It would be hard on math teachers. Fewer students would choose math projects.)

  14. In response to Mark Hammond’s comment:

    I wonder if your students’ projects would be more productive if you required students to use models that they had previously developed.

    Model-based learning is a powerful theoretical foundation for project-based learning.

    As you know, David Hestenes, an internationally-known physics education researcher, poses model-based learning as of central importance in science. He has written about it in several publications, but especially in “Modeling Games in the Newtonian World” (1992). (You can download it at http://modeling.asu.edu/R&E/Research.html )

    He says,
    * “One model solves an infinite number of problems.”
    * “The model(s) should guide the projects.”

    Brant Hinrichs, a modeler & physics professor at Drury College wrote: “the key is to have several modeling cycles under one’s belt before doing a project so that all the power of modeling (models, whiteboards, whole group discussions, multiple representations, etc.) can be employed in the solving of the problem.”

  15. I believe that students need both hands on learning experience and quizzes. In my opinion, hands on learning gives the students a better way of learning things verses sitting in front of a power point and a teacher lecturing. In reality they have had enough of that style of teaching. Allow students to have fun without them realizing that they are learning. However, an exam in any form or fashion will allow the teacher to see if that hands on approach to that subject was successful or not.

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