Assignments that Count: Goals and Assessment of Summer Work

Summer work

In the Jewish high school I attended, each year there was one book assigned for our summer homework. Some of us would read it, some relied on Cliffs Notes, and others would try to wing it. Now that I have become a principal of a Jewish high school, I find that while summer homework has expanded significantly, the challenges of engaging the students and keeping them accountable are still present.

Although summer work was previously limited to a reading for English class, recently we have broadened the scope of assignments. The math department now gives out packets for students to complete before school resumes, and our Advanced Placement (AP) classes give summer assignments as well. These assignments include focused review of previous material, readings of new material with accompanying essays and completing an online preparatory course. Part of the impetus for enlarging the scope of the summer work was an examination of the purpose behind summer work and a reexamination of our own practice.

What is the purpose of summer work?

Summer work may be a way to keep students engaged in the learning process. Research has shown that students lose a significant amount of academic progress over the summer. One study approximated the loss in reading over a summer as equivalent to a full month of school. These results tend to be mainly for those from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background; for much of the day school population this may not be as much of a concern, since most of our families have easy access to books. However, even within the Jewish day school population, there is still a variance of access to reading material and desire to read. Summer work can provide a basic level of engagement for all.

Summer work can also have more specific goals, such as retention of specific skills in a language, math or other academic area. Other summer work is preparatory, so that a class can jump right into learning in the fall. By introducing concepts and reminding students of previous material in the summer, less class time is spent on setting the stage before diving into a topic.

We have found summer work to be particularly relevant for advanced classes such as AP classes. Assuring certain prior knowledge helps relieve some of the time pressure in an advanced class, which has a more robust curriculum to cover and frequently needs to move at a quickened pace. Aside from academic preparedness, summer assignments can serve as a way to have students demonstrate the necessary commitment and effort outside the classroom that they will need to succeed in an AP course.

Assessment and challenges

Students are more likely to complete work when they know that they are accountable for that work. This is true of classwork and homework over the year and even more so in the case of summer work. Unlike the classroom, with summer work there is less supervision and less contact over the course of the assignment. For this reason, how the assignment is assessed is even more critical.

The manner of assessment should be directly connected to the goals of the assignment. The decision of how to assess the assignment can help to shape the way that many of the students will approach the activity. For example, the math packet has been graded to count as the first assessment of the new class, which provides impetus for students to complete the packet but does not discourage either rushing through the work or copying someone else’s answers. The online preparatory class, on the other hand, allows for more oversight and tracking on how long and over what period of time the work was done.

When all of the work is done outside of class and the finished product is handed to the teacher, there is increased opportunity for academic dishonesty. My own experience has been that it is challenging to verify if students have completed math packets on their own. Students have also plagiarized material for essays and prompts on books they were to have read in the summer. Some of my teachers have sought to avoid this temptation by having students write an in-class essay on the summer work as an assessment.

In-class assessment can also help to solve another issue. Frequently students are completing summer work for a teacher that they have never had before, and they find it difficult to gauge the teacher’s expectations. This can be especially true in a subject such as English, where to a certain degree students tailor their writing for each specific teacher. Having students pen the essay in class after experiencing the teacher for a few weeks helps to alleviate this concern.

Another challenge is to ensure that students spend the time needed to accomplish the teacher’s learning goals, instead of cramming the assigned work into the last few days before school begins. Requiring them to show the work as they go is one way to match the accountability to the goal; for example, having them annotate, comment in a journal or summarize by page or chapter for a reading assignment (Sarah Mielbye, “7 Ways to Make Summer Reading Count for Your Students”). A parallel strategy is having some way to track their progress electronically, such as an online course or other device that time stamps when they have completed specific steps.

Research shows that choice of assignment can increase interest, although it does not seem to help with cognitive engagement in the content. Choice can also discourage academic dishonesty (or at least make it easier to identify), since fewer students will pick the same method or topic, and similarities will be easier to spot. Another strategy to encourage students to think for themselves is to assign something that has a small footprint on the Internet. One of our English teachers assigns books that have been published within the last year. This guarantees that there will be scant searchable resources about this book, cutting off a frequent source of academic dishonesty as well as encouraging student-driven analysis.

Does this apply to Judaics?

As much as we may choose to expand summer work based on our goals, there is a need to balance school assignments against a real vacation, which energizes them and allows them to return refreshed. We all understand that many of our students’ summer experiences contribute to their overall growth in ways which complement their lives at school. Our academic goals should not impinge on these experiences.

For day school families, extending the learning into the summer may reap rewards, although we need to take into account the rich Jewish environments that many of our students enjoy at camp. There is a need for more experimentation and research into rewarding some Jewish engagement over the summer for our students. What experiences would we want our students to return to school with as the summer ends? Might there be Jewish family activities we could ask our students to experience and document before returning to school? Can we reward those experiences and encourage them in our missives to our students as they head into the summer? If summer work is about skills and consistency, then Judaics seems a natural place for such work.

Schools are complex machines with all sorts of interlocking systems. Each school has a culture and a set of practices, some of which have been followed for so long the reasons for them have been forgotten. As teachers and school leaders, we have all experienced the process of examining an aspect of the school and ensuring that it is in line with our educational, and other, goals. May and June can frequently be times when we are in high gear busily planning the next school year; summer work doesn’t always get the scrutiny it deserves. Taking a deeper look at our policies of summer work, and how we assess and monitor that work, is a worthwhile investment.

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HaYidion Summer Homework Summer 2017
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Summer 2017