Assessment for Learning
A blog for busy K-16 educators where we share ideas, strategies, and best assessment practices
that move the learning forward.
Cathy Box, PhD
that move the learning forward.
Cathy Box, PhD
One of the hardest things we do as teachers is plan our instructional units. Where do you start? How do you proceed? What should I teach? How long should it take? What is a good sequence for my activities? And if we're attuned to Assessment for Learning: What will mastery look like? How will I know they've got it? So many issues need to be addressed when planning. For YEARS in my biology classroom this was my approach: 1) Determine the topic or content that was to be covered 2) Start planning my activities (lecture, lab, fun group activity to review for test, test) 3) implement my plan. Then when test time rolled around - after instruction of course, I had to design and write my own test, or use one from the resources that came with my curriculum, or use one from previous years, or borrow one from a fellow teacher. I continued this approach for years and my frustration grew as students often did poorly on my tests and I just couldn't understand why. Of course there are many reasons students may underperform on a test, but I contend that I did a very poor job of planning and implementing learner centered activities that aligned with my assessment. It was top-down, teacher driven, curriculum delivery. As I grew in my profession and reflected on the success (or lack thereof) of my students, I sought ways to improve the learning for my students and came across Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe. They propose a very simple yet effective solution to planning. It's used throughout the world by curriculum designers and classroom teachers and has the research to back it up. It has indeed revolutionized the way I plan. It's called Backwards Design.
Simply put, you begin with the end in mind. What would mastery look like? I always say to myself, "if my students can do this _________________, I know they've got it!" Not the multiple choice test at the end, but an authentic task that demonstrates they really have an understanding of the concept and have the knowledge and skills to apply it. Once I determine what that final assessment activity looks like, then I can plan my instruction to prepare them for the assessment.
I highly recommend using backwards design for planning your units. For college professors it works beautifully for designing your entire semester! Let's say you are planning your Technical Writing course, for example. By the end of the semester, if they can write a business proposal that meets all the technical writing criteria that you know is critical to being successful then you know they've got it! Carefully plan your instruction to teach each component, preparing them for that final assessment activity.
Click here for a template that will help you get started. You can also follow this link to get the "Cliff Note" version of UbD.
Please share your experiences with planning. Do you use backwards design? We would love to hear your suggestions. We will discuss how to sequence learner centered activities in another blog so stay tuned!
So school is about to start. It's time to plan your lessons and think about structuring their learning activities. Where do you start? Once you get the managerial obligations out of the way, the temptation is to just jump in and start teaching. DON'T DO IT! We often make assumptions about what our students know and can do. We begin that lecture on the cell, or the Civil War, or whatever our content is, without having any idea what misconceptions, skills, knowledge, or understandings our students have (or don't have) before we begin. It's an easy mistake to make. The most precious commodity in the classroom is time. Time, or lack thereof, causes us to cut corners that come back later to bite us. It does you and your students a disservice.
I want to encourage you to start the unit with some sort of activity that reveals to you AND to your students where they are in the learning. What do they know and can do? What misconceptions do they have? Students come to us all over the place in the learning continuum and if we don't pay attention to that, we are starting on shaky ground (for more on prior knowledge read this chapter in How People Learn). Yes, we have to make some basic assumptions about their knowledge and skills, but don't assume too much! Do something to reveal their current level of understanding. It could be as mundane as a pre-quiz (please don't) or learner centered as a Quiz Quiz Trade activity. Google what misconceptions are associated with your concept. Don't presume to know - your expertise leaves a blind spot that makes it impossible for you to even imagine what they are thinking. I remember one time teaching a unit on moon phases and some of my middle school students believed that the moon actually shrank and swelled from crescent to full. Some thought that the sun caused shadows that created the phases. Unimaginable to me - real to them.
But a caveat here - if your classroom is not an emotionally safe place to learn, revealing their current knowledge will only happen once. If students are made to feel embarrassed or humiliated because they don't know something, the whole thing goes south - not just for that student, but for all the students in the class. Be kind. Let them know that they just don't know it yet.
Here are a few strategies that work well in revealing what students know before starting:
KWL - What I Know, What I Wonder, and What I Learned
The teacher allows students to think/pair/share “what we know” about a topic and discuss their ideas with the class. Ideas are listen in the “K” column of the table. Again students think/pair/share and generate questions about the topic. These are listed in the “W” column. At the end of the lesson, students list what they have learned in the “L” column. This strategy allows students to focus on the problem at hand and determine what questions need to be answered in order to solve the problem. It helps the teacher monitor student concept development and reveals misconceptions.
At the beginning of a unit, ask students to brainstorm what they know about the target concept. Give each group of students, three colorful index cards. On each card, they should write down one thing the “know” about the topic. Have the group work together to come up with three questions about the topic. Those questions should be written on a white index card. Tape each completed index card to a large piece of butcher paper in a patchwork quilt fashion. The white index cards can be used as starting points for classroom discussion or lessons, or they can investigate one of the questions of their choice. At the end of class each day, have students answer one of the questions on the quilt by replacing one of the white cards with one of the colorful cards. This activity allows students to verbalize questions that they have and then formalize their learning while allowing the teacher the opportunity to assess where they are in their knowledge on the topic.
A survey can be developed for any topic at any level. Prior to teaching a unit, determine what your students should know about a topic, and what you want them to learn. Create a survey that reflects those goals. Have the students take the survey prior to instruction, and again after instruction.
Quiz Quiz Trade
In this Kagan structure, students quiz a partner, get quizzed by a partner, then trade partners to repeat the process. Get feedback from the students to determine what they know and don't know.
Concept maps are drawings or diagrams showing the mental connections that students make between a major concept the instructor focuses on and the other concepts they have learned. This technique provides an observable and assessable record of the student’s conceptual development. To use in a formative fashion, brainstorm critical concepts associated with your topic and ask students to concept map them using sticky notes. Allow students to change them during the course of the unit as they learn.
There are many others: anticipation guides, Think, Pair, Share, etc. I hope you will share your thoughts below and strategies you use to reveal their current level of understanding. Happy planning!
I was a high school and middle school science teacher in Texas for years and have never worked harder in my life. The demands were great and the pressure that I felt for my students to be successful was overwhelming. But it was nothing compared to what teachers and students face today. The rapidly changing world in which we live, global competition, 21st Century needs in the workplace, technology demands and opportunities, and high stakes testing have changed what students need to know as well as how they learn, and therefore what and how we should teach at both the pre-college and college level. This compels us to rethink teaching and learning. I was a classroom teacher as I worked through coursework toward my PhD and learned some strong lessons about the classroom. My number one mantra: It's all about the learning. We often focus more on teaching, and less on learning. Brings to mind that old joke that school is a place where students go to watch teachers work. Ouch!
This blog is dedicated to learning. In particular how we (both teachers and students) can use classroom assessment to promote learning and address the needs of 21st century learners. Journey with me and share your experiences so that we can learn from each other and grow.
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I am a former science teacher and currently work at Lubbock Christian University in the School of Education preparing future teachers. I am passionate about helping teachers find practical ways to improve learning!