Special Needs - 2- Creating Products to Assess Mastery in the Online Environment

posted Oct 28, 2019, 5:18 AM by Emily Kroutil
I teach science, so I have a experience with science assignments. The most recognizable assignments in my course are labs. I currently teach AP Environmental Science, so my students are frequently asked to write lab reports, which prepares them for the free response part of the AP exam where they need to be able to express themselves clearly and succinctly in written form. If they are not clear with their writing, they will not earn points on the AP exam for their response and if they are not succinct in their responses, they will not finish the three free response questions in time.

We have one assignment in my course that explores the concept of LD-50, which is the dose of a chemical that will kill 50% of the sampled population. The students are asked to test brine shrimp by exposing them to herbal tea, which is not toxic to humans, but can be toxic to brine shrimp. The handout gives them detailed instructions on how to create the different concentrations of tea brine (very salty tea water). The students are given mortality data on the lab handout. This means that they do not have to directly interact with brine shrimp for their experiment. 

This assignment explores the concept of LD-50, which is a required concept that often appears on the AP exam. The students have exposure to LD-50 data and are asked to make a graph (dose-response curve) with a trend line (another important skill for science and the AP exam). The students are asked to summarize the procedures in the lab handout, analyze the data in their "experiment", and write a conclusion. All of these are important skills, so I would consider these strengths of the assignment. 

The assignment provides data for the students: 
This, to me, is both a positive and a negative. I like how if students have an ethical complaint about harming brine shrimp or have difficulty getting access to brine shrimp, for whatever reason, they can still complete the lab. However, I do think that when students complete a hands-on lab, they are more likely to remember the concepts covered in the lab. A better option would be a virtual lab, where they could manipulate the virtual experiment to collect their data, but until I learn how to do vector drawings and make web applications, this is not something I can realistically create (although I've asked my husband, who writes web apps, to work this...). Some students have commented on my end of course survey about their likes and dislikes, that they think this assignment isn't very useful because they aren't "doing anything" for the data. Other students have expressed that they are thankful that the lab did not require them to kill brine shrimp because their religion is a peaceful one and they cannot eat meat, nor kill living things. So, while the assignment is not perfect, it does serve the purpose of getting the students to create a dose-response curve, which is an essential skill for any study of LD-50.

For this lab, the requirements of the final product are pretty set: writing an introduction, testable hypothesis (essential skill for the AP exam), summarize the methods, calculating percent mortality and creating a graph (also an essential skill), analyzing their results (essential - reflecting on their data), and a conclusion (essential - succinctly summarizing their results). However, the way they present this information is not set. Right now, the students typically present this information in paper format, which means their final product looks a lot like an essay. However, they are not required to adhere to this method. For example, I have one student who submits a PowerPoint for her lab reports and has a slide for each section of the lab report. I'm not sure if this helps organize her thoughts or if she likes adding creativity and personalizing her submission with color and backgrounds. Either way, she is providing all of the required elements, so she earns full credit. I never explicitly told her to make her lab reports like this, she just started doing it. I think I could do more to let the students know that they can submit their lab report in different formats (Prezi, PowerPoint, Glogster, etc.), as long as they include the required sections.

I think this lab has a great opportunity for choice. Because the handout includes detailed methods and brine shrimp (sea monkeys) and tea are easy to obtain, students are given the choice of conducting the experiment at home or using the provided data. Right now, the vast majority of students use the given data because it is easier, but for those students that prefer hands-on experiments, they are encouraged to do the lab at home.

A lab report typically requires two pieces of software - a graphing program and a word-processing program. Typically, I do my graphing in my lab walkthrough videos using Excel, because their virtual school tuition includes access to Excel on both computers and mobile devices. Usually, I recommend Word for their lab reports, because their virtual school tuition includes Word too and this is the traditional method for completing lab reports. However, I have many students that use Google docs to complete their assignments. As mentioned above, I could also let students know they could use PowerPoint/Google Slides to complete their lab report. And, if they want to get really creative, they can make a Prezi or Glogster or some other type of "Poster" method to create their lab report.

This final product of this assignment is designed to directly prepare the students for the written portion of the AP exam. This is almost as important as the actual concepts covered in the lab because one of their three FRQs asks them to design an experiment, one FRQ asks them to do calculations, and they can also be asked to create a graph on their free-response section. Additionally, the AP exam is increasingly asking students to analyze data and graphs and come to reasonable conclusions given the data/graphs presented. All of this is typically done in written format. The College Board is very strict about their requirements and rarely provide accommodations for students. When they do provide accommodations, they are typically large print or Braille exams, computers for essays, and extra breaks. For this reason, AP teachers are encouraged to have students complete assignments as closely as possible to the AP exam. For example, our exam does not have a spoken portion, so allowing students to present their lab report as a video or audio assignment would not be advised, because they need to practice the format they use on the AP exam. This is even more important for students that are not comfortable with this method, because they need as much practice as possible. However, as long as the students submit the required information in written format, they receive credit. This means that they can write an essay-like paper or presentation, like my student that uses PowerPoint. I also let the students write their methods in numbered format as opposed to paragraph format, which is how a traditional lab report would ask for this information. The same goes for the analysis section. Students are typically given questions to answer in the analysis question. I allow them to include the questions and/or number their responses. 

In an online classroom, they can submit their final product in any sort of written format that allows me access to the following aspects of their lab report:
  • Introduction - background, purpose, and hypothesis
  • Methods - can be numbered, summarized
  • Data - data tables and graph; does not have to be discussed
  • Analysis - can number their responses
  • Conclusion - how data supports/does not support hypothesis, any errors present, what they'd do differently next time
The written requirements of the final product are pretty set, but this lab does allow students some additional hands-on experience with the concepts for those that would like that type of learning experience. For those that do not or cannot, they can use the provided data. My lab walkthrough video walks them through making the graph for this assignment using Excel, so they can follow along to make the graph. The video also works through some of the required calculations in the analysis section, so they can also follow along with that part. 
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