Students want to be assessed. It appeals to their emotions and egos. Find ways to assess them beyond merely awarding a letter grade.
By Adam Weiner, CFSE
There is a Jimmy Buffet song called “Fruitcakes” that contains the line, “We all got ‘em, we all want ‘em. Now what do we do with them?” We might not want assessments, but we all got them, and the question becomes: “What do we do with them?” I submit that creative assessments can be used to inspire your students to levels they (and you) thought they could never reach.
Whether you teach in a rich suburb, an inner-city school, a nonprofit vocational center or the top culinary academies in the world, you will always have less-than-ideal students in your class. Because of physical, emotional or mental problems, because of upbringing, because of poverty or substance abuse, or because of a myriad other factors, you will have students who need extra motivation, who need extra inspiration. The purpose of this article is to show how assessments can be used to accomplish these two goals.
At first glance we think of assessments as giving either letter or numerical grades to students. But assessments are not that limited. The bottom line is that you have to try to come up with formal and informal assessment methods that can be used on a day-to-day basis that make ALL your students want to push themselves to the next level. Here are some ideas:
1. Figure Out the Purpose of Grading for Your Program. Is the purpose of grading at your school solely to allow the “A” students to get the best jobs or get into the best colleges? If not, what about using grades to inspire? Start small: Give a student whom you suspect has not done well academically an “A” on a small project. (For example, what about an A when he/she gives you a pretty good chocolate-chip cookie? Note: It doesn’t have to be an A-level cookie, just a good cookie.) If she/he tackles the next project with gusto, then congratulate yourself—you have now used a letter grade as a motivator to make someone more interested in learning.
2. Give Oral Praise. Telling a student “Good effort” isn’t going to inspire him or her. For your lower-level students, you need to find something, anything, to be a basis of praise. Try something like, “Thanks for jumping in to do the dishes. I really appreciate it,” or “The floor looks great, I wish the principal could see how well you swept it.” That’s an assessment, folks. It isn’t part of their transcript, but it tells them you noticed the quality of their work, and more importantly that you appreciated their work. I guarantee that if you do this a few times your lower performers will start moving up the ladder.
3. If at Once You Don’t Succeed. Last month I had a student make a hollandaise sauce. The first one broke. I calmly said, “Do it again.” Second one broke. I calmly said, “Do it again.” Third one broke. Fourth one broke. The fifth one was perfect. I halted the class and we did a joint “Yeah!” I then had everyone grab a test spoon and try the hollandaise sauce. Guess who jumps in every time now to be the first to make a sauce? Guess whose sauces usually come out perfect the first time?
4. Be Humble. There are times when we do demonstrations and everything isn’t—shall we say—perfect. I had that recently with filleting halibut. My first one was good, but my second one lacked finesse. Next, it was time for the students. One of my lesser performers was actually doing a great job. I stopped her and had everyone watch. I told the students that she was doing a better job than I did. Guess which troublemaker became a stellar student from that moment on? Not a conventional assessment, but the student learned that doing something right would be rewarded in the kitchen.
5. Put Students in Charge. If you have events such as a faculty lunch or a graduation tea, put an experienced student in charge. Relinquish as much control as you mentally can and have him or her supervise and lead. Introduce her/him to the guests, and then write a thank-you note to the student. Put a copy of the note in the student’s file with pictures of the event’s food. A different form of assessment, but still an assessment. And, you will see a major change in not only the attitude of that student, but the others as well as they clamor to be the next one in charge.
6. Appeal to the Student’s Ego. We all talk about egotistical chefs. Well, why not use the student’s ego to increase his or her class work? If I have a student make something particularly good, I ask him or her to wrap up some for me to take home to my son for an after-school snack. For really great dishes, I ask the students to wrap up some for my wife. The students love that kind of assessment, and the next day they always ask if my wife liked it.
7. Rig a Test or Two or Three. We can’t drink wine in my class. To teach the subject I show a video called WINE WORKS. I have a 25-question test that goes along with the video. Each question is worth five points (125 possible). 90 points is an A. I give out the test before we watch the video, and we take turns reading each question out loud. I give one of the students the remote and tell the class they can stop the video, rewind it, play it in slow motion, etc. They can work together to answer the questions. It is a 90-minute video, and I give them nearly double that time over a couple of days to watch the video and to take the test. I stress that I want all the answers right and I’m not interested in speed.
Now, I did it this way the first couple of times because I was more interested in them learning the material than in their actual grade. They learned the material, but what surprised me was the excitement about getting an A on the test. Students were running down the hall waving their papers, screaming it was the first A in their lives. Some made me call their parents to tell them. Many of my older students got inspired to take a GED program on that A. Many others went on to community college after that A. If I had shown the video, then given out the test, I know that a few of my students would get Cs, but almost all of my students would get Ds or Fs. A grade of a D or F wouldn’t motivate them to study harder, but the A inspired them to move beyond my class. Many may feel that this isn’t a valid assessment because I rigged it for them to get an A. My response: “You might be right, but a D or F would not have accomplished anything. An A may be life changing.”
CAVEAT: Students, no matter what their limitations, know when praise is real and when you are just trying to praise them to attempt to build their self esteem. Don’t fake it. You can’t say you are going to take the cherry pie home to your spouse if it was terrible. If the floor looks horrible, you can’t state otherwise.
The bottom line: Students want to be assessed. It appeals to their emotions and to their ego. What you need to do is find ways to assess them other than just giving them an A, B, C or, worse yet, D or F. If you can do this you will inspire your students onward and upwards. You want proof of this? I have been teaching for nine years. Many of my former students are now sous chefs or executive chefs. Almost all of those people, if just assessed in a conventional manner, would have been D or F students. They are now calling me to hire my current students for their establishments. That makes them a permanent A in my grade book.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula.