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
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!
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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!