All good learning tasks in our classrooms have three main roles:
- give student an opportunity to learn or apply learning
- give the teacher the opportunity to see how the learning is going
- help the teacher plan for what to do next based on what students understand, believe or can do
In order to create good discussions, activities and learning tasks to do all three of these things (and not all classroom instruction needs to) a teacher needs to pay attention to a couple of key principles.
Principle 1 – The teacher needs to see what all the students are doing.
Most of the answers in a classroom come from the strongest students, who are either confident they are right or want to check their thinking. Students who are not understanding at all typically hide that fact, as do the passively disengaged who want to be able to daydream in peace. In order to know where each student is right now, you need to check with everyone at once.
Principle 2 – Check part way through so you can still fix things.
Many teachers wait until they have finished teaching something to check to see if all students get it. A quick exit slip at the end of class, a response or a short quiz are common tools. However, by the time you are already through the class, students who did not understand have started to make errors and add them incorrectly to what they believe is true (learn more about errors and how to fix them in this post). Also, students who feel like they can’t get it start feeling it is much too hard for them or blaming you for not teaching it well. You want to catch things before the learning gets stopped by confusion or negative feelings.
Dylan Wiliam (2001) suggests ways to check is to use tools, like asking students to give you a thumbs up or down, or using colored cups to have students identify if they are getting it. A green cup on top of a student’s cup might mean “good to go” while a yellow might mean the student needs the teacher to slow down.
When you are checking to see what students know, you want to be able to check really quickly at the same time as students are learning. Great tools for checking this include:
- Concept maps – when students make concept maps, you can see at a glance what they understand and see as most important about a concept you have just taught.
- Digital tools for polling and microblogging that give you quick responses from students and written record of what they said.
- Hinge questions are used to give the teacher an idea exactly what the student thinks that is incorrect. There are several key principles of a good hinge question:
A hinge question is based on the important concept in a lesson that is critical for students to understand before you move on in the lesson.
The question should fall about midway during the lesson.
Every student must respond to the question within two minutes.
You must be able to collect and interpret the responses from all students in 30 seconds
For all three methods of checking to see what you should teach next, you can increase the power by having students compare their responses and try to agree on the most correct response. This allows students to think about their own thinking (metacognition), increases the likelihood of a correct understanding, and harness the power of cooperative learning.
Want to learn more?
- Watch Wiliam’s slideshow for sample hinge questions and the reason why we use formative assessment.
- Read other posts of the principles of formative assessment.