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By Anthony Armonstrong

Anthony Armstrong is an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Del Mar Middle School in Tiburon, Calif.

One of my goals as an instructor this year was to nurture a “growth” rather than a “fixed” mindset when it comes to my students and their learning. The idea of the “growth mindset” comes from Stanford University Psychology professor Carol Dweck who believes that students can be taught that their intellectual skills can be cultivated through their hard work, reading, education, and confrontation of challenges.

One of the biggest impediments to students developing and maintaining a growth mindset in my classroom is testing. A key component of the idea is getting students to understand that the outcome of their test is simply a reflection of their current — not permanent — abilities.

Understanding this, however, can be difficult, if not impossible, when students typically get only one chance at passing an exam. If they pass, their intellectual skills and learning capabilities are validated. If they fail, it’s the opposite.

If students get a single chance to take the exam, results are permanent and reflected in their grades. There’s little reason for students to hold out hope that they will do better on the next exam. They’re also relieved of any responsibility in going back and actually learning the material they had previously missed.

Imagine if you only had one chance to getting a driver’s license, for example. In California, more than half those who take the written driver’s test fail. While that would surely alleviate traffic problems, not having the option to try again and pass would cripple many aspects of life.

A few weeks ago, I talked about using Quia as an online tool for testing. Quia keeps scrupulous records of each test and delivers detailed reports immediately so I can find problem areas.

In addition to making test-creation and test-taking easier, this school year, I’ve decided to use it to allow students to demonstrate that they’re motivated learners with a growth mindset. I instituted a new rule in my class: If a student scores lower than 70%, they have to take it again until they score above 70%.

The way I see it, this way, students who work hard in class have the opportunity to keep trying. I’ll know that they want to learn the material, and that they just need more opportunities to do it. Those who don’t do well the first time can study more and come back on their own time – either before or after school, or at lunchtime – and retake the test as many time as they need to, and I’ll take their best score.

Having Quia as my testing tool has made the process much easier. Creating tests is time-consuming work, but the program has made it much faster to create and to deliver tests to students. (It must be noted that we have 1-to-1 here, meaning every student has access to his or her own computer in class, which makes the online test-taking possible.)

The result has been tremendous. I can email parents when students are having a hard time, and they’re becoming more involved in the process too. Other teachers are also using Quia to offer retakes.

And on a professional level, the retaking process is challenging me to teach the material in a way that students will truly absorb. I have to help students solve their learning challenges, because if a student studies more and tries to do better but can’t, whose responsibility does that fall on? This pushes me to be more accountable.

But I want to be clear: this is not just about passing a test. I’m using this as a way to measure learning so students can apply what they’ve learned to a higher level of thinking.

For example, we just finished learning about the Declaration of Independence. But rather than just test students on the material, I’ve asked them to incorporate what they’ve learned into writing declarations of independence for other countries, like Myanmar, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan.

To me, this method is the difference between being smart and knowing how to learn. I want my students to think, “I can acquire these skills, I just don’t have them right now,” and become motivated lifelong learners.

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