“Samantha, what are the five chemical reactions your teacher expects you to know?”
Samantha was often slow to answer questions. Think about how long it has taken you to read this far—that’s perhaps half the think time I would count off after asking her a question. I waited for 10 seconds, 15, 20.
I needed to turn an ear to hear her, so quiet was she in response: “Decomposition, combustion, synthesis, single replacement, and double replacement.” She proceeded to solve examples of each and then balanced the five equations.
This pattern repeated itself on exams and during class discussions: Samantha demonstrated a clear understanding of course content so long as she had access to more time to do so.
I thought of my experience working with Samantha when I read an op-ed in Education Week by Alden Blodget entitled “It’s Time to End Timed Tests.” Blodget writes, “Why do we bother with timed tests? Why do we believe that speed reflects intelligence? As teachers, we see all sorts of students who work at different speeds, which produce both intelligent and not-so-intelligent results.”
Blodget also refers to research conducted by Kurt Fischer and Thomas Bidell in 2006 that demonstrated that “children (and adults) show distinct levels of competence under different conditions.” If we want students to show their learning, I hope that we would try our best to optimize those conditions. Barring that, we may be able to avoid suboptimal conditions by giving our students time to think.
What strategies can we implement in our classrooms to give all students a more conducive environment to show their understanding?
Slowing Down When Students Respond to Questions
A familiar scenario: We ask a question of our students. Some hands are raised immediately. We call on one of these kids. That answer is close, but not quite what we’re looking for. We instantly call on another student whose arm flies into the air faster than a bottle rocket. This response is correct. Every other student is now done thinking, whether they understand or not.
To increase the likelihood of more learning of more students, I use a trio interconnected strategies.
Allow think time: Ask a question, offer a prompt, show a slide... and wait. No hands up. No chatter. Depending on what the question or prompt requires in terms of critical thinking, seconds or even minutes might be necessary—what is imperative is that everyone has some time to consider a response, formulate a question, make a connection.
To increase students’ retention, have them write during this quiet period, even if it’s just to jot down a brief answer.
Direct students to engage in a conversation with their elbow partner: Use a protocol that insists on both partners sharing, answering, querying, and listening. During this activity, students have still more time to think, process, and further hone their understanding in a lower-stakes environment than a whole-class experience would be.
Moving around the room, teachers can listen to these dialogues and gather a sense of who is understanding—and who might not be. As with the strategy above, a brief round of writing after the conversation time can make the learning stickier.
Call on students randomly: Having been provided time to independently consider a response and still more processing in conversation with a classmate, more students will be more comfortable with contributing. But despite our efforts to create a warmer classroom environment, those students who tend to shy from the spotlight might remain reluctant.
Still, we want to check their understanding. Call on students randomly—writing names on Popsicle sticks and then choosing from a name jar is one common method. A warm tone coupled with these inclusive strategies will hopefully encourage even the more reticent to share.
What About Timed Tests?
The three ideas above are good ways to make sure students have time to show what they know when teachers are asking questions aloud during class, but what to do about tests? It is essential that assessments be written to allow students to finish during the allotted time. This is easier to manage in elementary schools since students spend much of the day in the same space. For middle and high school classes, beholden to bells and schedules, determining the length of the assessment means considering how long it would take for the last person to finish the test.
We may need to recalibrate our understanding of how long it takes for all of our students to solve problems, write essays, and answer questions. In a 50-minute class, some students will finish in under a half-hour. Great. One or more might grind until the final bell. Equally great.
Again, we want to provide our students the best chance to show their learning. Rarely is this possible for all students under an inflexible time constraint.