What Do They Know?

February 11th, 2018

Why I Conduct Formative Assessments Early and Often

Midway through my first year of teaching 6th grade Math, I had a magical moment. I was teaching a lesson using the best technology I had available (a marker and transparency machine aimed at the wall!) and I was modeling problem solving for my class of 36 students.

And oh, did I model.

I gave examples for the concrete and the abstract, I shared analogies that connected to their lives, I had fun acronyms for remembering the steps.

I was in the zone.

I went on and on, filling my transparency sheet (no worries - I had another lined up and ready to go!) and - in my mind - filling their heads with knowledge.

Then I heard the voice at the door.

^^ Santos, on stage, clueless, circa 2006.

"Santos, that's great stuff. Too bad none of them are listening!"

It was the school's security guard, whose nephew was in my class. Sure enough, none of the kids were looking up at me - even after his interruption.

Disengaged. Disinterested. Dismissed.

I put on a great show, but I didn't engage students in it. They did nothing. And I had no clue whether they were learning anything.

You would think I'd learn my lesson, but the next year when I was teaching Science, it happened again. This time, after 2 weeks of hands-on labs, interactive discussions, vocabulary practice, reading, writing, and other great Science-ing... I gave the unit test...

...and almost everyone failed.

I could have improved a lot about that unit (and the test itself), but my most important mistake was this:

I had no idea anyone was about to fail that test.

No idea. None. It was a complete surprise to me. I taught great lessons. Why did this happen?

Turns out, calling on a couple of students per class period to answer a question or two is not a sufficient sample size to determine "they get it."

I also learned that gathering up 125 papers and stamping them for completion does not give me sufficient evidence that anyone learned anything.

Who knew? Well, now I knew.

Then came 1-1 devices.

Eventually I worked at a school that had 1:1 laptops. Now to be clear, you don't need a device to gather formative assessments. But they sure makes it easier! And for me, the technology was the difference maker.

I started with daily bellwork, delivered as a competitive game using 3-4 short questions that either a) reviewed yesterday's concepts, b) introduced slightly harder new concepts for that day, or c) gauged what students knew or thought about the day's topic - like a quick K-W-L chart.

This daily pre-assessment made it easy to predict exactly what to focus on in the day's lesson.

Next, I added a daily Exit Ticket.

These were short, too - 3 questions max - and specifically targeted to the day's objectives. I needed to know if students were getting it, so I could adjust my instruction tomorrow (or better yet, for the next class coming in). If I didn't have at least 2 objective-related questions, I could have students reflect on their learning from the class period, have them explain a concept from that class in their own words, or ask them to make a prediction that they would use the next day in class.

Not a day went by when I couldn't report on student progress - quickly and easily.

Then things got serious.

I started incorporating C4U's... Checks for Understanding. These are quick on-the-spot questions embedded in the lesson. They were usually 1 question, or possibly 1 multiple choice followed by 1 short answer to explain their thinking. I dropped these questions after short bursts of instruction, practice, or dialogue. The advantage of using technology was that instead of calling on 2-3 students while everyone else tunes out, I can gather everyone's thoughts instantaneously. Then, I could show them all to the class for discussion. I know what they know. They know what each other knows. And I can decide where to take my instruction from there. All with a few clicks!

My Ratios Skyrocketed

Students were more engaged - not because the tech was interesting (it was) - but because they were constantly being asked to do something. And that something involved answering questions, thinking critically, and discussing with neighbors. It became a natural part of class for them to share their knowledge and opinions, to the point where they were confused and disappointed if ever there was no Exit Ticket (a rare occurrence).

So how can I do this... tomorrow?

My next blog post will share 3 quick tools for making formative assessment a 1-click experience for you, so you can focus on teaching and let the tech manage itself!