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Do You Check for Understanding Often Enough with Students?

| Elena Aguilar

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!

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Comments (69)

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I agree with Jane’s post. It doesn’t matter how good the teacher is when students don’t care about what she is selling. I feel that some times I’m a loser, but I always say tomorrow is going to be a new day. The next day I come to school fresh and carrying a backpack full of new strategies for the class. Again I encounter the same issue “No one cares”. Nonetheless, I will keep trying new strategies, until I reach everyone in the classroom.

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Yes, I think formative assessment is important however it is not the only measure of a student's success. Unfortunately we are currently in an environment that places so much emphasis on formative and standardized testing. In my school, it seems as if the formal testing never ends. They are tested in September (a formative), October (SRI), January (formative), March (state test), April (SRI), and finally in May (formative) not to mention the unit test required by the district. The structure, lenght and environment that is created around these test are such that students become desensitised. In an effort to help make this over testing environment tolerable, I must come up with alternative ways of conducting my own assessments.

It has gotten to a point that the students moan when they are told that it's a testing day. Several pupils have even asked why there is so much testing. I candidly explained that testing won't go away and that even when you get older there are yet more test to come. (driver's test, SAT's, professional test, etc.) This explanation seemed to make it more palatable. In truth, I feel that these children are tested because of the demographics of the district and past performances. Neighboring counties within the same state don't administer nearly as many assessments.

So okay, testing won't go away but is it fair to tie teacher evaluations to it? Measure the growth of the student and not whether they are proficient. Yes, proficiency is key but is it truly realistic? What about our special ed population they too are part of the equation. Not everyone is equal in all areas. That's like saying that everyone is suppose to be proficient at everything they do. I can't draw to save my life and though I have tried, if given a standardized test on it I would fail beautifully.

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This is the time of year where I needed to be reminded that there are many different ways to check for student understanding and they don't all have to be long and overwhelming! It is so important to constantly be aware of which students understand, which do not, and what their misconceptions may be. If we can use more quick check methods frequently I believe we will feel more in control and in the know about our students' learning.

I certainly agreed with you

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I certainly agreed with you that students need to be felt comfortable in any learning situation so that they can express their views very openly.Formative assessment helps to promote independence. Since formative assessement moves the students from stage to stage this independence can be progressive as students become more confident in their own abilities from the different learning stages..

I have only recently become

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I have only recently become very interested in formative assessments. I may have learned about them a long, long, tie ago, but I apparently forgot about them. I went to the National Science Teachers Association conference in Philadelphia a few weeks ago and attended a workshop in which this shortcoming was made obvious to me. So I went to some other workshops and purchased some books to help mw with this aspect of my teaching I feel I have had some success in this in the past couple weeks.

I have to agree with another post, however, that no matter how hard I try to be an effective teacher, I have no control over whether I am dealing with the effective student and the effective parent. And if I were a car salesman, no matter how good I am at my job, if the person is just not interested in buying a car then I am not selling one. That doesn't mean I'm not an effective salesman. Effective salesmen are trying to get you to buy from them as opposed to buying from the other guy. And if you're interested in buying then they try to get you to buy something more expensive. Students bring a lot of baggage to school with them, things teachers have no control over. I wish it was different, but it never will be.

I really like this post. I

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I really like this post. I agree that students need a safe environment where they are not afraid to take risks. For some students, even if they know the answer, they are afraid to say, scared that someone will laugh, or the answer is actually wrong. They need to feel that it is an environment that promotes learning. I try to make formative assessments fun. I teach third grade, and the student really love the "summary ball". We pass around a ball and the students tell something they learned during the lesson.

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Hi Elena,
I enjoyed reading your post and the comments about your posts as well. i found your ideas interesting and as a teacher it sounded so right. I like how you write your formative assessment plans right on your lesson- great idea! This makes sure you are doing that refletive teaching at the end of the day and can see what the students got from the lesson based on hard facts. i plan to use that idea- thanks
Gina

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Yes, Ken I do agree with you that many times, teachers do not speak the level of language to students when teaching and we need to teach with focus on learning rather than language. Teaching can be more productive with doing rather than speaking. Have the students engaged in discovery methods of finding information through guided questions. Students will show their interest instrinsically and be self motivated rather than forcing them to learn. It demands more time and effort in lesson preparation but definately, it will also help with some of our classroom mangement problems that we discussed last week.

Teaching is becoming a very

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Teaching is becoming a very difficult task but with the use of collaborate effort it can be mastered as highly skilled professionals. My concern though is: How can we incorporate some public and private stakeholders into the educational system and have all working as an educational community?

I have to agree that we often

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I have to agree that we often get caught up in the language, but their is a difference between teaching and learning. Too often we spend most of our time simply talking. I believe the learning experience is more effective if we don't "teach" but rather give the students to opportunity to explore and learn on their own with us as their guides. The planning in much more labor intensive initially, but the students are more eager to learn and the material seems to stick better.

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