Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A few months ago, I wrote for Edutopia.org about the power of focusing on a few, high-priority standards as a strategy to improve student learning. Many other elements also need to be in play in a classroom in order to produce the results that we all want to see for our students.

To name just a few: The learning environment needs to be one in which students feel respected and safe to take risks; kids need to feel that their learning has a purpose and that the curriculum is relevant to their lives; and students need feedback on their progress -- they need to know what they're trying to accomplish, where they are in relation to the goal, and what they need to do in order to get there.

It is the teacher's role to make sure this happens.

The Multi-Tasking Teacher

Although to be an effective teacher it often feels like you need to be one of those Hindu gods with a dozen arms, I believe that educators do need to hold standards and objectives in one hand and formative assessments in the other. We then need to juggle them back and forth. It's essential to break down a high-priority standard into bite size learning objectives that are measurable and then it's absolutely critical to have a way to check, every single day, on how well students mastered that objective.

Having a well-written learning objective, in student-friendly language, is not enough.

This isn't easy. In fact, there's nothing easy about teaching. But it is essential that every time students leave our classroom, we ask a number of questions:

  • How do I know that they learned what I wanted them to learn?
  • How well did they learn the objective?
  • Who mastered it and who didn't?
  • Which parts of the objective did students struggle with? What misconceptions did they have?

If we don't answer these questions, all of our careful planning and breaking down of standards and creating a positive learning environment and making curriculum relevant is useless.

As educators, we are responsible for learning, not teaching.

So how do we do assess every day how well students mastered the objectives?

The Key: Formative Assessment

A lot has been written about on-going, formative assessments, but my favorite resource is Checking for Understanding by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey This book is a quick and easy read, very accessible and full of dozens of ways to thoughtfully and systematically monitor student learning.

Fisher and Frey define a formative assessment as one that serves to improve instruction and provide student feedback and which is administered throughout instruction. Students use the results to monitor their own learning; teachers use the results to check for understanding and then to plan their next instructional moves.

In contrast, a summative assessment is administered at the end of a course or unit, and is used to measure student competency. Teachers use these results for grades.

If formative assessments are used consistently, and used well, neither a teacher nor a student should ever be surprised by his/her final grade, and I would argue that the great majority of students should be successful.

A Few Examples

Formative assessments can be:

  • Questioning strategies that are used with the whole group or individuals
  • Think-pair-share, during which the teacher circulates and listens to students sharing
  • Individual mini-white boards for ongoing assessment during a lesson
  • An "exit ticket," which is a quarter or half sheet of paper where students write about their learning for the day, or answer a brief question or two
  • Hand signals, as a quick and easy way to check for understanding

I imagine that most teachers are familiar with these strategies and many others.

Recently I observed a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher who used a variety of formative assessment techniques to ensure that students mastered their objective (to analyze characters and identify the setting in a picture book).

As the teacher read the story, she instructed students to use specific hand gestures when they heard repetitive phrases and to repeat those phrases out loud. This engaged students, assured that they were following the language patterns, and allowed the teacher to check that all students heard and understood a repeating phrase (important oral language development for English Language Learners).

Then she had students talk to each other about the characters and share their ideas with the whole group. Finally, she distributed three response cards to the children: one card said "who," another said "when," and the last said "where."

The teacher named a character or aspect of the setting, such as "sheep," and students had to hold up the card that identified the literary element. In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and to provide corrective feedback.

Planning is a Must

When I write lesson plans, I have a column in which I write the activity that students will do or where I detail my instructional moves. Next to that is another column where I identify the formative assessment strategies that I will use during those activities.

In order for my checking for understanding to be as useful as possible, I need to carefully plan and consider which strategy will be most effective with the planned activity. If I don't plan, I tend to use a few strategies over and over, or I don't get the most accurate data. This doesn't mean that I don't throw in a spontaneous strategy now and then, but it assures me that I'll get the student data I need by the end of that lesson.

What have you learned about formative assessments from using them? Do you have a strategy to check for understanding that you find effective? Please share your ideas and expertise with us!

Comments (69)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Teresa's picture

Hi Elena,
Thank you for examples. Before reading this I felt that I was checking for understanding enough. However, now I realize that I am not spending enough time providing student feedback. My district provides enough formal assessments along with our SMART Goal short cycle assessments, but not enough quality time is given to provide student feedback from these assessments. I will take action to implement more quality time to give my students feedback.

Nakeisha Brown's picture

Thanks for an amazing post. I am a third year kindergarten teacher. Your tips will be useful to me in the classroom. Some of them I knew but I am not using so after spring break I will try some with the students.

Chan's picture

I really enjoy reading these post and it reminds me that from other students' views I can improve on my assessment skills and then implement diverse methods discuss in these post to assist the students in the areas that they did not perform well on. I have introduce this blog to 11th grade students. They will be monitored and then evaluated with their responses. I want to compare this feedback with group discussion.

TaraCochran's picture

Thank you for your post. It was a helpful reminder to me, as well as a link to a good resource. The Book, Check for Understanding, sounds like a great read for this summer!

I will always remember something I had heard from a teacher long ago. You should never word things, "Today I am going to teach you...." Instead the learning target should be worded, "Today I want you to learn...." Our job as a teacher is for students to learn. It is not what we teach and how well we think we teach, it is in fact only important if our students actually learned it!

Laura Mathews's picture
Laura Mathews
Elementary Literacy Coach

This article was interesting and informative! Recently, I wrote a paper regarding Checking for Understanding and the connection to the phases to Direct Instruction. Below is a portion of that assignment. I am interested in more Checking for Understanding Strategies. Are there more strategies out there? Please share

My personal reflective practice has led me to the conclusion that I needed to revisit the Phases of Direct Instruction and all components within those phases. It is essential for my students that I improve on connecting all of my curriculums and Direct Instruction. Fielding, Kerr and Rosier (2007), sum up the process of Direct Instruction well, "Direct instruction is the dance between the instructor and his or her students to the music of the curriculum...It is eyeball to eyeball, highly energetic and highly interactive" (p, 1). The additional realization hit me that my students were spending an excessive amount of time working independently and I needed to teach more. Research shows that (Joyce, Weil, & Calhoun, 2008) "In the average classroom, students spend between fifty and seventy five percent of their time working on tasks alone"(p. 73). This does not match the time for independent work using the Direct Instruction Model; in fact, it is the exact opposite.
Direct Instruction consists of five phases according to Joyce, Weill & Calhoun (2008): orientation, presentation, structured practice, and independent practice. Each one of these phases has critical components essential to the success of direct instruction and student mastery. The key ingredient in each phase is the requirement that the teacher consistently check for understanding. Continuing reflection led me to my largest "ah, ha" moment, I was not checking for understanding during all the phases of direct instruction. I was having to reteaching an unacceptable amount of students and time because I was not checking for understanding during each phase of instruction. The third bullet under Proposition 3 of NBPTS Core Propositions states, "teachers need to know how to assess the progress of individual students as well as the class as a whole."
The opportunity to discuss strategies with my colleagues regarding checking for understanding was available recently. I met with numerous teachers from a variety of grade levels. The following are some strategies that were discussed: choral response, echo responses, Think-Pair-Share, random selection after a Think-Pair-Share, Thinking Maps, sign language, gesture, use of A, B, C, D cards, yes/no cards, true/false cards, flash cards, white board responses, quick sketches, and T charts. Additionally, Nelson (2009) discussed several strategies in her article such as; instructing students to compare work for accuracy or differences, teacher monitoring while work is be completed, and immediate small group formations to correct errors while they are occurring.

Laura Mathews's picture
Laura Mathews
Elementary Literacy Coach

Recently, I wrote a reflective paper regarding Checking for Understanding and its connection to the Phases of Direct Instruction. A portion of that assignment is below. Are there any other strategies for CFU?

My personal reflective practice has led me to the conclusion that I needed to revisit the Phases of Direct Instruction and all components within those phases. It is essential for my students that I improve on connecting all of my curriculums and Direct Instruction. Fielding, Kerr and Rosier (2007), sum up the process of Direct Instruction well, "Direct instruction is the dance between the instructor and his or her students to the music of the curriculum...It is eyeball to eyeball, highly energetic and highly interactive" (p, 1). The additional realization hit me that my students were spending an excessive amount of time working independently and I needed to teach more. Research shows that (Joyce, Weil, & Calhoun, 2008) "In the average classroom, students spend between fifty and seventy five percent of their time working on tasks alone"(p. 73). This does not match the time for independent work using the Direct Instruction Model; in fact, it is the exact opposite.
Direct Instruction consists of five phases according to Joyce, Weill & Calhoun (2008): orientation, presentation, structured practice, and independent practice. Each one of these phases has critical components essential to the success of direct instruction and student mastery. The key ingredient in each phase is the requirement that the teacher consistently check for understanding. Continuing reflection led me to my largest "ah, ha" moment, I was not checking for understanding during all the phases of direct instruction. I was having to reteaching an unacceptable amount of students and time because I was not checking for understanding during each phase of instruction. The third bullet under Proposition 3 of NBPTS Core Propositions states, "teachers need to know how to assess the progress of individual students as well as the class as a whole."
The opportunity to discuss strategies with my colleagues regarding checking for understanding was available recently. I met with numerous teachers from a variety of grade levels. The following are some strategies that were discussed: choral response, echo responses, Think-Pair-Share, random selection after a Think-Pair-Share, Thinking Maps, sign language, gesture, use of A, B, C, D cards, yes/no cards, true/false cards, flash cards, white board responses, quick sketches, and T charts. Additionally, Nelson (2009) discussed several strategies in her article such as; instructing students to compare work for accuracy or differences, teacher monitoring while work is be completed, and immediate small group formations to correct errors while they are occurring.

Kristine's picture
Kristine
primary teacher

I really enjoyed reading your post. Checking for Understanding is so important, and your post will serve as a reminder of some strategies for me. Can you tell me what A,B,C,D cards and how you use them?

Mandy Pence's picture

I enjoyed reading the initial blog about using formative assessments and focusing on the learning, more so than the teaching. That is actually the focus this week in my Master's class, so it tied in perfectly. I am also excited about two new websites that I discovered on here that I think will be extrememly useful throughout my Master's prgoram, and in my elementary education teaching career. I saved the links for the mind mapping site (http://conciselearning.com/visualmapping.html) and the assessment for learning site (http://salemafl.ning.com/). I am sure they will be valuable resources that I can also share with my co workers.Thanks for sharing!

Rebecca's picture

Elena,

Your post was extremely helpful and provided me with new insight about how to assess students' learning. As a new teacher I often wonder which ways will work to assess their learning so I know what I need to teach next or if I need to change my teaching in order for students to learn. I'm definitely going to get the book "Checking for Understanding" by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. I'm sure this book is going to really help me when I have my own classroom and prepare me for what is to come.

Rebecca's picture

Elena,

Your post was extremely interesting and provided me with new sight on how to asses students learning in the classroom. As a new teacher I often wonder which ways will work the best when it comes to assessment and which will show me what students are learning. I definitely plan on getting the book "Checking for Understanding" by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. I think this book will be helpful when I have my own classroom and prepare me for what is to come.

Discussion ACT State Profile Reports: College Readiness

Last comment 2 days 6 hours ago in College Readiness

Discussion Sharing Data with Students: Turning "Data-Driven" on its Head

Last comment 5 days 5 hours ago in Assessment

blog A Defense of Deeper Learning: Watch What's Working, Part 5

Last comment 2 weeks 1 day ago in Assessment

Discussion Extra Credit: Grade-Grubbing or Acts-of-Desperation?

Last comment 1 day 6 hours ago in Assessment

Discussion Mind the Gap

Last comment 1 week 5 days ago in Common Core

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.