George Lucas Educational Foundation

Essays in Math

Essays in Math

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I am currently enrolled in a masters class discussing assessments in the schools. I am a math teacher and I have tried many different types of assessments in my classroom. I am wondering what your thoughts are on essay tests in math. Instead of solving a problem students would be required to explain a concept or explain, in words, the processes they use. I would appreciate any thoughts!

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David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I've used this many times, although I call it a project/report instead of an essay, as this allows students to include diagrams, etc... instead of just text.

It is extremely difficult for students, and it takes time for them to be able to do it. While I wouldn't look at the actual calculations done in the project too much (I check a sample to see if they are done correctly), I find that the mathematical reasoning students use is much more valuable to me than the little bit of feedback I get from a string of answers. I use a rubric to grade the assessment, separated into Understanding, Communication, and Evaluation of Method columns.

I've also used oral assessments (I role-played being a judge, and the students were experts giving depositions using mathematics to justify their positions) successfully.

See for an example of some student work, and here a bunch of the projects I've used over the years with students (not all of these are mine, I've got a couple from my colleagues included as well).

As for students who are still learning English, they struggle with these assignments, so I recommend assisting them with the language, scaffolding what they are expected to produce, and being lenient with language errors, provided you can understand the process. Look for improvement rather than perfection.

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