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Archive for the ‘Assessment’ Category

I did a bad thing. I was snarky to a pre-service teacher on Twitter. At the time, I didn’t know she was a pre-service teacher, and she asked a loaded question. That question was about homework, which is something I have strong opinions about. None of that excuses my snark.

I’ll elaborate on my Twitter responses in a more respectful tone. If she’s not still mad at me, maybe she’ll read this.

The question was:

When HW isn’t graded most students don’t do it. Wondering how this affects the development of their study habits for college – any research?

Her question is one that I hear frequently when I do workshops on formative assessment. Many teachers more seasoned than her assume that if we don’t grade it, students won’t do it. I have strong opinions on homework of any kind, and even stronger when we talk about grading it. A long time ago I explained why I hate homework.

In most classrooms the purpose of homework is to practice. This article seems to suggest that practicing is useful in math (and not particularly useful in any other subjects). Practicing in math is like practicing in basketball. Some players are so good they don’t need to practice. Others could use more practice.

After 18 years in the classroom, my observation on homework is that the students who don’t need the practice are the ones who diligently do every single question I assign. The students who could really use the practice rarely do the homework.

To address that many students weren’t doing homework, I came up with numerous elaborate grading systems for homework. None of them worked. Some really good math students still didn’t do the homework and ended up with a lower grade than they deserved. Some weaker students got their parents, their tutors or their friends to do their homework and ended up with a higher grade than they deserved. I became highly reluctant to grade anything I didn’t see them do in front of me.

As I learned more about assessment, I began to question the appropriateness of grading practice, whether it was done in front of me or not. Practice is just that. It is to prepare for the big game. We don’t assess athletes or musicians on their practice, only their final performance. In math class, that means assessing students after they have completed the learning, not during.

Given the three things I’ve addressed here – that practice in math is useful, that I am reluctant to grade things I don’t see them doing, and that I am reluctant to grade practice at all – where does that leave me? It leaves me with a very different kind of classroom than I used to have.

I used to “teach” for 80 minutes and then assign 60 minutes worth of homework that most of my students didn’t do. Now I talk less and build more time for practice (in the form of formative assessment strategies) into my lessons. At one time I was collecting some of my favorite strategies to do just that. Check out the embedded formative assessment category on this blog for some practical ideas.

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In the spring, I was working on a series of posts about formative assessment in math class. I got sidetracked by starting a new blog, and kind of let it drop. This morning, however, I read this great post from Max Ray about questioning, and it brought me back to formative assessment.

One of Dylan Wiliam‘s 5 Key Strategies is “engineering effective discussions, questions, and activities that elicit evidence of learning.” From Dylan William’s book, Embedded Formative Assessment:

There are two good reasons to ask questions in classrooms: to cause thinking and to provide the teacher with information that assists instructional decision making.

Max is right. Good questions that cause thinking in math are tricky. Most of us lean towards asking recall and simple process questions. With practice, we can learn to throw out deeper questions as easily as we ask recall questions.

Max’s post contains a number (26 to be precise) of great questions that prompt discussion. My two favourites are:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder about?

Questions like the two above feel safe to students. They don’t have to worry about being wrong. They can think and respond without fear.

Sometimes, questions can be improved by turning your lesson around. I spoke to a teacher last year who was working on 3-D shapes with his class. He had the nets all copied and ready to have the students cut out, fold, and tape. It seemed more like a lesson on cutting, folding and taping, so he scrapped it. Instead, he brought out models of the 3-D shapes, and asked the students to create the nets that could be folded up to make the shapes. It ended up being an incredibly rich discussion.

One of my favourite conversation-extenders comes from Cathy Fosnot. When a student responds to a traditional question, extend the conversation by simply stating, “convince me.”

The more we can engage students in conversation with each other through effective questioning and planned activities, the more likely they are to come to their own understanding of the topics.

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I’ve been writing here about getting students to practice in class. Many of our students don’t (and probably shouldn’t) be doing practice math questions at home. We need to build opportunities into our lesson for them to do some questions. Kate Nowak has provided us with two great ways to get students to practice some questions in class in more compelling ways. This practice is formative assessment. I would classify both of her activities as activating students as instructional resources, using the language of Dylan Wiliam.

I have nothing to add to Kate’s work, other than to tell you I’ve used this stuff and it works. I’m just pointing you in its direction and making a link between what she has shared and the formative assessment I’ve been writing about in my recent posts.

Check out Kate’s Row Game and Speed Dating. She has several already prepared that fit our WNCP curriculum. It looks like she has been collecting other people’s Row Games here.

Both activities are easily differentiable, and allow kids to practice their math. They have built in accountability because students are responsible to each other. They are both fine examples of embedded formative assessment.

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An earlier post discussed how to use exit slips as practice. A great way to activate students as owners of their own learning (another of Dylan Wiliam’s 5 key strategies) is to use exit slips to have students self-assess.

I was in a classroom last week where the teacher had prepared a review activity for his Math 20-1 (Pre-Calculus 11) students on radicals. He prepared 5 stations and had the students set up in groups. He chose to group them so that each group had a blend of abilities. The three groups at the front of the room completed station 1 (converting from entire radicals to mixed radicals) while the three groups at the back of the room completed station 2 (converting from mixed radicals to entire radicals). Each station contained an envelope with 6 questions of varying difficulty. After a few minutes, when students were done, the groups got up and switched stations.

Once they had done stations 1 and 2, the entire class did station 3 (adding and subtracting radicals) simultaneously. Groups that finished were instructed to get up and circulate and help those that hadn’t finished. Once the class was done station 3, they split up again. The front of the room did station 4 (multiplying radicals) while the back did station 5 (dividing radicals). Once completed, they all got up and rotated to the last station they had left. The 4’s moved to 5 and vice versa.

This is a nice, non-worksheety way to have students complete some practice before a summative assessment. It allows students to converse and help each other (feedback and activating students as instructional resources as defined by Mr. Wiliam).

The teacher greatly enhanced this activity by making students owners of their own learning with an exit slip.  He prepared an exit slip for them to track their progress through the 5 stations. As they completed each station, students self-assessed as Excellent, Satisfactory, or Limited. Based on their self-assessments, they left the class knowing exactly what, if anything, they still had to work on before the summative test.

This use of exit slips is an effective way to activate students as owners of their own learning. It allows them to articulate precisely where they are still struggling. The resources used in this lesson can be accessed below. Video of the lesson in action is posted on on the AAC website.

5-Station Cards

Exit Slip

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I take no credit for this one and I’ve never tried it. It’s all Rick Wormeli. He shared this strategy in a session I attended several years ago. It would certainly qualify as activating students as instructional resources for one another.

Rick works with one student a day ahead of the next lesson. He makes sure that student understands what is going to be taught the next day. That student becomes the “expert” on the material during the next day’s lesson. Students who have questions are expected to go to the expert first.

Simple. Shortest blog post I ever wrote. This strategy would be effective in showing students that support and help doesn’t always need to come from the teacher. Remember, formative assessment is about feedback. That feedback doesn’t always need to come from the teacher.

Rick has a great story about what he does when it is a weak student’s turn to be the daily expert. I won’t ruin it for those of you who haven’t seen him yet. And if you haven’t, I highly recommend him. He’s an engaging and compelling speaker.

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Providing feedback that moves learners forward is another of Dylan Wiliam’s 5 key strategies. Research has shown that feedback in the form of comments only, motivates students to learn more and ultimately improves their grades. Feedback in the form of a grade actually de-motivates students and has no effect on their performance. (Butler, 1988)

Slide1

In math class, the only things my students get back with grades on them are summative assessments. I have significantly reduced the number of summative assessments I use in high school math classes. Most courses are adequately covered with 5 to 10 well constructed summative assessments.  Everything else goes back to the students with comments only.

The feedback I provide instead of a grade varies by student needs. Some students simply need me to circle the place in a problem where they started to go wrong. Those students can take it from there and correct their work with little direction from me. Others need some comment on what the next step might be. I try to provide as little scaffolding as I can get away with, while still letting them have enough to move forward. It’s a fine line. I want them to take ownership without me giving them everything. I don’t spend a lot of time on written comments. Most of the time I look at things quickly and arrange my class so I can talk to the students personally, as I described in the previous post. Those kind of groupings also allow students to get feedback from each other instead of just from me.

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There are several ways to use exit slips as formative assessment tools. One way is to simply have the students complete 2 or 3 questions based on the lesson that was done in class. I use exit slips in this manner to avoid giving homework. I believe that some practice in math class is necessary. There are certain things I need my students to be able to do, and some students need to practice these things. I do not, however, believe that students should be practicing these things at home. Home is for family, community soccer, dance class, piano lessons, and all the other important things that our schools are eliminating.

I’m going to tell you a secret now. The students who don’t need to practice math will go home and do every single question you assign. It’s a waste of their time. The students who need to practice math will go home and do none of the questions you assign. Then you will argue with them, call their parents, and devise elaborate schemes to collect and grade homework. It’s a waste of your time. If I am not going to assign homework, I need to build places into my lessons for students to practice a little.

I do not grade these exit slips. I do not put any marks on them. I look at them and get feedback about how my students did with today’s material. I sort them quickly into three piles: Students that got it, students that partially got it, and students that didn’t get it at all. Based on Dylan Wiliam’s 5 key strategies, I would classify this use of exit slips as providing feedback that moves learners forward. Based on how the students do on their exit slips, I can adjust my instruction as necessary. I start the next day’s class with activities that allow the students also receive feedback.

Here’s how the old John’s math classes usually looked (based on 80 minute block schedules).

  • 20 Minutes – Go over homework questions on the board that a few students had tried. Some students listened and copied down the solutions.
  • 40 Minutes – Teach new material.
  • 20 Minutes – Students had time to work on questions. Those that didn’t finish were expected to take their math home and complete the questions.
  • Wash, rinse, and repeat 80 times per semester.

The old John typically assigned 10-15 homework questions. Very few students ever did more than a couple of them.

Here’s how exit slips as practice can really activate students, involve far more students in the practice component, and frankly, be a much more efficient use of class time.

  • 20 Minutes – Students are grouped based on the previous day’s exit slips. Those that got it are sitting in small groups working on a few extension and/or application questions. Those that partially got it are in small groups correcting the errors on their exit slips and then working on a few practice questions that build to the extension and/or application questions. Those that didn’t get it are in small groups working with me. We do some re-teaching as necessary, and some practice. I don’t make up those questions. I just assign them from the textbook like I would have before.
  • 40 Minutes – Students learn something new. (Notice that the old John “taught” something new, but the new John gets students to “learn” something new.)
  • 20 Minutes – Students complete an exit slip with 2 or 3 questions based on what they were supposed to have learned. These slips are sorted quickly and used to begin the next day’s class.

In a method like this, every student does between 3 and 8 practice questions. That’s far more practice than I used to get them to do when I assigned homework regularly.

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