Challenge By Choice

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Learning is personal. For me, learning is on demand, relevant and about making connections. This school year, one of my major goals was to design opportunities for my students to authentically learn more about what they are passionate about. The result is one of my proudest accomplishments as a teacher.

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My students in AP Economics have the opportunity- and obligation- to submit assignments of their choosing on a topic of individual interest. This component of our course is labeled Challenge by Choice.

This work gives students the flexibility to choose a focus and application of course concepts. They can choose the format of the work they do (read a newspaper article, write a paper, conduct an interview, film a TV segment, conduct a debate, etc.) and each piece earns points relative to the size of the assignment (points are based on a combination of time, effort, insight, etc.).  Students must earn 200 points each semester.

The results have been astonishing and I will be sharing some of their work as we design a sort of online journal and digital poster session. A few highlights include an analysis of the elasticity of school spirit shirts, an investigation into gender inequality within the economics profession, a thorough analysis of the Philadelphia 76ers tanking and “The Process” strategy, interviews with family members who utilize economics, quantifying the profit lost by Ray Consella in “Field of Dreams,”and relevant topics in the headlines such as BitCoin and Net Neutrality.

More importantly, student work sparked in class conversations and dialogue.  One student had read the book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” which is one of my favorite books and I was thrilled to talk with a student who was not always the first to speak up in class; this helped him find his voice.  Students asked questions about Amazon’s potential move and the relevance of our work on the long term supply of competitive firms.  Beyond the work students put in outside of class, the ability to connect core curricular content to their interests and current events deepened their understanding- the ultimate learning outcome.

A few nuts and bolts: This has not been an easy ride.  Our Learning Management system Canvas has enabled me to receive submissions, but because these are not traditional assignments (i.e. the point values vary) the grading has been complicated.  Some students procrastinated and were on the verge of failing this component of the course. Most of the submissions were written work, which took time to grade and students did not always know how many points they had earned in real-time. I updated students every two or three weeks, but at the end of the semester students wanted to know each day where they stood.  I don’t have answers yet as to how to streamline the submission and motivate students’ willingness to move beyond written work, but I hope someone who reads this might offer perspective.

Implementing strategies: If I want students to take this seriously, I knew that I needed to properly incentivize this work.  I showed students the image posted above and told them they would be assessed for 40% of their final grade on their challenges (50% is AP style tests and 10% are small assignments).  I also gave students two or three days per month to work on their challenges and provided nudges to students in the form of a podcast to listen to or article to read, so students did not feel stuck and had some directive if they needed it.

I am lucky.  I teach AP Economics and am able to teach both the AP Microeconomics and Macroeconomics curriculum.  I am lucky because there is overlap between these two typically one-semester courses and instead of complaining that I don’t have enough time to prepare my students for their AP Exams, I find myself with a bit of extra time to allow students to deepen their understanding.  Ultimately, I hope my students build a foundation of economic understanding that they can apply to their lives.  Challenge By Choice is the means to reach that end.

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