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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

David B. Cohen's picture
David B. Cohen
English teacher; Assoc. Dir. of Accomplished California Teachers

Hi Elena -

Great post - useful tips for those who don't know, and useful reminders for those of us who ought to do this more effectively, more frequently.

Toni Krasnic's picture
Toni Krasnic
I help students learn and succeed in school and life with mind maps.

For a college professor with 100+ kids in a class, it's often difficult to give individual feedback to students on their learning. One tool that really helps is a student's mind map of the lecture within the broader topic. When I'm presented with those, I can quickly diagnose any misconceptions that the student has and help the student get back on the right track.

Kay's picture

We are responsible for "learning" not teaching--What does that mean? Don't they go hand in hand? How can students learn if I'm not responsible for teaching? When I am being evaluated, am I not expected to answer the question, what am I teaching and then how well are the students learning it? And how much of the "learning" is the responsibilty of students?

I think most articles on educators' craft are really well-meaning, but the language sometimes is too cutesy and catchy. We all have students who are learning, who are engaged, who benefit from our best selves, and we have students, sometimes whole classes of them who will not learn no matter how much we say we are responsible for "learning" and not teaching. In this great debate about the effective teacher I hope we take into consideration, the effective parent and the effective student. They do not come to us in a vaccuum without a past whereby we make their present and hoist them all onto bright futures.

Scott Habeeb's picture
Scott Habeeb
Author of The Ninth Grade Opportunity

Kay - the first sign of a teacher who is struggling is the "how-can-I-get-them-to-learn-when-they-are-unmotivated-and-have-weak-parents" argument.

I hear your frustration. Teaching is not all that fun when you're struggling. I would encourage you, though, to take the "cutesy and catchy" language to heart. If the students aren't learning then the teacher isn't teaching. We should not be judged on our teaching as much as we should be judged on student learning. Study after study shows that the most important factor in the classroom is the effectiveness of the teacher. The value-added (or value-subtracted) amount that the educator brings to the table is huge.

I would encourage you to really give Formative Assessment a shot. If done well, it puts the burden back on the student as the teacher provides the feedback students need to guide their own learning.

Don't let your discouragement get the best of you, Kay. Your students need you and they are worth it!

Assessment Geek's picture

[quote] If the students aren't learning then the teacher isn't teaching.

Some analogies that I think are helpful in the teaching vs. learning conversation:
1. The car salesman cannot say that he "sold" a new car if the customer didn't actually "buy" it. There is no selling without the buying, just like there is no real teaching without the learning.
2. If it's true that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," then we need to figure out how to put out the salt licks so they become thirsty.

Sue Davis's picture

Formative assessment is a must for administrators, teacher, students, and parents. If we are to be able to check regularly a child's measure of learning or rate of learning, we must know the best practice methods to do this. Teacher evaluations (RTTT) will now be guided through the process of measuring the each student's rate of growth, each grade level's rate of growth, as well as each districts rate of growth.

It is a simple way to be sure we stay on the right track to achieve better student outcomes for college and career readiness.

Gee's picture

Excellent! As a parent I am constantly looking for those salt licks.

Sherry Jenkins's picture

This is such a good post! I love your stories and find all your entries so useful. I wish you wrote more often. Even though I've been teaching for 8 years I still get many ideas and am reminded of what I already know (but forget to do). I am wondering if you might be able to write something about how you start off the school year, build community, set things up? I'm already thinking about next year. Thanks!

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