It is no secret that it is a difficult time to be a teacher. In today’s test focused world many seem to try to whittle down student learning to a single number. Students are much more than that number. While I don’t believe that any test will ever be able to accurately measure learning with complete precision, I do believe that teachers can use formative assessments to help increase student achievement. I also believe to make this process even more successful, we have to find ways to put students in the driver’s seat as best we can. Below I will discuss a few ways of doing just that.
Today’s Just Try-It Challenge: In order to involve students in the assessment process help them to answer 3 questions:
Where am I going?
Where am I now?
How can I close the gap?
Where am I going?
Sharing Specific Learning targets with students: Telling students exactly what you want them to learn and why it is important to learn it is just common sense. It is difficult to hit a moving, or hidden, target. Writing the target on the board (I talk about this more here.) is a strategy to help with this, but if that is all we are doing, there may be a good chance students still can’t answer that first question. Learning Targets should be part of our conversations with students. We should create opportunities to make targets part of conversations with each other.
Clearly explain criteria for success: I mentioned moving and hidden targets earlier. Now picture a bulls eye. What can we do to help students hit the bulls eye? We have to show them where the bulls-eye is, and if possible make it easier to hit. In other words students have to know what success looks like. Likewise, they need to know what missing the mark looks like. Scales/Rubrics used well are a great way of clarifying to students what different levels of success look like. However, when creating these, be sure to include concrete and descriptive language. Adding examples to rubrics is a great way of making success criteria more concrete.
Use “anchor papers” and modeling to clearly distinguish strong work from weak work: The term anchor papers, as I am using it here, refers to student samples that represent each level of quality on a rubric or scale. Using these models helps students SEE what success and failure during the “input” stage of a lesson.
I have spent some time recently in math classes, I find most math teachers do this really well. They spend a lot of time modeling how to complete each step of a complex process. As a result students,when it is time to practice independently students have access to successful models in their notes. Many math teachers also use error analysis exercises to show students common misconceptions and what weaker work may look like. If we take the time to ask students to reflect on these models and error analyses, students will get a better idea of where they are going and what to avoid.
Sports Metaphor: Many coaches enter games with a specific game plan. We are going to focus on stopping the run(football), or we going to attack the wings, and so on. A lot of times these plans are designed to take advantage of an opponents weakness, or counteract their strengths.
In order to execute a game plan, the players need to know a few things:
- What is the game plan? (Communicating targets)
- Why is it going to work? (Communicating targets)
- How do we execute it? (Communicating targets)
- What does it look like when done correctly? (Defining Criteria for success)
- What happens if when not done correctly? (Defining Criteria for success)
If players are able to answer these questions in practice, chances are when it comes time for the game, they will be able to execute the game plan successfully.
Where am I now?
Co-create rubrics with students: Rubrics help students answer the question “What does success look like?” However, just handing students a rubric doesn’t guarantee they understand it, know how to use it, or really care about it.
Involving the students in creating a rubric can address all of these issues. This can be done by showing students “anchor papers” or examples of student work and asking students to analyze the work and determine the characteristics that lead to high quality work. Students will also be able to point out some “what-not-to-dos.” When students are involved in creating a rubric, they obviously have more awareness of what success looks like, but more importantly they have more ownership of the end product. Once these co-created rubrics are clear, students will be able to use them to peer/self-assess.
Post-test self assessment reflections: After formative or summative assessments, it is helpful to help students analyze and reflect on their own performance. Simply looking at the overall % of questions they got right doesn’t give them any actionable information. A self assessment would require students to reflect on their performance in regards to their learning targets. Ideally, students would be able to compare results to other assessments on the same target, so they could track any growth.
We want them to understand exactly where they were successful (this helps validate any efforts they put into the product) and exactly where they were not. When students know exactly what they need help on, they are more likely to make an effort to improve.
Sports Metaphor: Think of a team (any sport) that just lost a game. They obviously know they lost, but may not understand why they lost. A good coach can usually pin point these reasons by analyzing the game. A coach may have team watch film and discuss when the team effectively executed game plan and where they failed to execute (Co-creating Rubrics).
The next step for the coach would be to help each player understand their own strength’s and weaknesses in regards to the game plan (Post-Test Self Assessment). The players should understand the things they should keep doing, and the things they need to do differently. Just like athletes, students need feedback to help pinpoint what’s working and what isn’t.
How do I close the gap?
Small groups: When teachers and students are aware of weaknesses, addressing them in small groups can be beneficial. In a small group, a teacher can address a specific area of focus to only the students that need it. This has several benefits:
- It honors the learning of students that mastered the content.
- Small groups results in more repetitions.
- Small groups allows for timely feedback.
- Students are more likely to ask questions in small groups.
Independent practice using other resources: (back to text):
Occasionally, when students fail they may have the capacity to use resources to get them back on track. So, rereading a chapter (or more likely “actually” reading the chapter) prior to practicing may be the only intervention needed. Providing students with directed time to access proper resources and additional practice may help them fill the gap.
Student led conference: In some situations, short, verbal, student-led conferences can be the most efficient ways of addressing misconceptions. Student-led conferences occur when the student is in the driver seat and reflects on mistakes or misconceptions and/or explains to the teacher how they have improved their learning or addressed a misconceptions. These can take several forms, but ultimately involve the student being accountable for their learning by discussing how their work is evidence of mastery.
Involve parents: Parents can sometimes be an untapped resource. It is true that some parents struggle to be involved in their students’ education. This lack of involvement seems to increase as students get older. However, this does not always mean that parents aren’t concerned and do not want to help. In some cases, it may be that parents just don’t know how to help. By the time students are in high school, the subject matter is very complex, and most parents aren’t experts in the subject matter.
Rather than overlooking them as a resource, it may help to communicate with them exactly how they can help. This may be as simple as keeping them informed about learning targets, due dates, projects, and tests, but can also involve sending them simple practice exercises or questions to discuss their kids.
Sports Metaphor: Coaches are great at identifying specific areas of improvement their players need. Here are some ways coaches help players fill the gaps:
- While the team is working on something else, a targeted group of players work with an assistant coach on a specific skill (small group).
- Coaches may assign certain players to do spend practice time watching a speed/agility training video and practice independently using a speed ladder (independent practice).
- Coaches often discuss outcomes of matches with individuals and allow the player to lead the discussion asking them questions like “How did you do?” or “What do you think you need to work on moving forward?” These reflective conversations help players be accountable for their learning and provides them with a plan to improve” (student-led conference).
- Youth coaches communicate often with parents about their child’s progress and share quick, easy activities that parents can help their kids with at home. (Involving parents).
Closing Remarks: The most successful people have an idea of where they are headed, where they are currently, and what to do in order to get to where they want to go.
The answers to three questions are not easy to come by for all students. We may be tempted to simply give them the answers and expect them to improve, but the real learning occurs when we create situations where students answer these on their own.