Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday's Five: Ways to Use Formative Assessment

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We've all had students that try blend into the background.  They are the students who never raise their hand, sit there silently when you call on them until you choose someone else, and go through the school year determined to participate as little as possible.

We've also all been in the situation where several of our students have failed a test when we thought they knew the content.  Even though we recognize that they haven't learned what they were supposed to, we often feel we have to move on because of the amount of material that needs to be taught in a school year.

Is there an easy way that we can make sure all of our students, even the ones who try not to participate, are learning?  Is there an easy way to determine whether our students really know content before testing them?

The answer to both of those questions is a unequivocal "YES!"  There are several types of formative assessment - long term (like semester or end-of-year), medium term (end-of-unit, etc), and immediate (in-lesson).  It's the daily, in-lesson, formative assessment that is most important to increase learning for all of your students.  It also allows you to diagnose where you need to change your instruction so that your students learn what they are supposed to before they are tested.

Formative assessment is a way to diagnose the patient, instead of waiting for the autopsy.

Here are five simple ways to start using formative assessment to ensure all of your students are learning:

  1. Get a set of individual white boards and have your students use them.  Have your students constantly show you that they understand what you are teaching them by showing you on their white board.  A quick glance around the room will tell you who understands and who doesn't.  Make sure the students that need more help get it.  
  2. Stop having your students raise their hand to answer a question.  When that happens, you only get an answer from one student.  Instead, have every student write the answer to the question in their notebook or on an individual white board.  Maybe have them share their answer with a partner, and let the partner write it down, or have each student record an answer in a VoiceThread or Blabber.  It doesn't matter how they answer, just make sure that every student is responsible for giving an answer and justifying it.
  3. Use exit cards.  At the end of a lesson, pose one short question to the class that deals with the day's lesson.  Have them answer the question on an index card and hand it to you before they leave.  Take a quick look at the cards.  If all the students knew the material move on to something else the next day.  If many couldn't answer the question correctly, start the next day's lesson with a review.  If some of the students need more help, build in an intervention into the next day's lesson.
  4. Demand that students tell you when they don't understand.  I've found that colored cups work well for this.  I stack a green, yellow, and red cup on each student's desk.  If they understand what I am teaching, they show a green cup.  If the cup is yellow, they need me to slow down.  If the cup is red, I need to stop and re-teach something.  How do I make sure that they are telling me the truth? If someone has a red cup, I choose someone with a green cup to do the re-teaching. 
  5. Let them give you a "thumbs-up."  During your lesson, ask a few yes-or-no questions of the class. Have them respond with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  You'll be able to quickly assess which students are not understanding your lesson.  
Lately we've heard a lot about "Data Driven Instruction."  Too often it means sifting through standardized test data.  The data we need to be using to drive our instruction is the data we get from formative assessment techniques like the ones listed above.  That data is easy to understand quickly and allows us to make changes immediately to ensure that our students learn.  Dylan Wiliam had a great way of putting it when I saw him speak.  His quote went something like this:  "Teachers who do not use formative assessment and then wonder why their students failed a test are like pilots that never make course corrections and then wonder why they ended up in Cleveland instead of Miami."

Now it's your turn to share.  Do you use formative assessment in your classroom?  How?  Do you have other techniques or ideas to share?  Leave your thoughts on these questions, or anything else you want to add in the comment section below.