How the timing of checks for understanding can impact what you learn about student comprehension.
ROBERTA LENGER KANG
Instructional Design Specialist
Great teachers want to be sure their students understand content information on a daily basis. They don’t want their students to wrestle with misconceptions, misunderstandings, or mistakes in their thinking that might set them up to struggle as the content unfolds throughout a lesson or unit. As a result, many teachers use small, formative assessments at the beginning, midpoint, or end of a period so students have an opportunity to practice their content and skills, and teachers can assess their understanding at different stages of the learning process. In an effort to ensure that all students have the right answers and a clear understanding of the lesson, many teachers review the correct answers to the assessment before moving on to the next stage of the lesson.
In both examples, we see the teachers making choices that elevate student collaboration, ensuring students have the opportunity to correct misconceptions, connect with one another, and leverage grouping and discussion strategies to process content information. In both examples, the teacher is using a formative assessment — or a check for understanding — with the goal of assessing student comprehension. And in both examples, the check for understanding may be giving teachers more misinformation, than information.
Check for understanding
Well-developed instructional design includes multiple checkpoints to assess student comprehension in real time. Highly effective assessment structures may include between 1-3 checks for understanding in a class period, with each check being an opportunity for students to independently demonstrate their understanding and skills related to the lesson objective or learning target. When we jump from the check for understanding task to the review of direct responses, some unintended consequences may emerge.
One likely scenario is that students who had a misunderstanding or a misconception when working on their own will likely copy down the “right answer” during the discussion. But copying down the answer doesn’t necessarily correct their misconceptions. The unintended consequence is that it appears that all the students have the correct answer, even though some may have simply copied down the answer during the discussion. For teachers using formative assessment data to inform their instructional choices, there’s no evidence that helps them know which students had the correct answer at the time of the assessment, which students had an a-ha moment during the discussion, and which are copying down the correct information but are actually still confused.
Another unintended consequence is that students discover that the right answers get shared immediately, before their work is completed. It’s a lot easier to copy down the right answers later than it is to work through the hard problem in the moment. Some students may begin to opt out of the learning activity altogether and simply wait for the correct answers. This phenomenon may not be noticeable right away — a gradual disengagement happens slowly over time, and can start with students who appear slow to start, or students who are easily distracted. For teachers feeling the pressure of time, it can be tempting to skip to the right answers even if some students aren’t finished. The challenge is that over time, fewer and fewer students finish the task because everyone is waiting for the right answers to be shared.
Creating space for small changes
The good news is that there are a few small changes that can make a big difference.
Add a reflection. In addition to the discussion of the correct answers, ask students to write a reflection comparing their first response to the correct answer, and share if they made any changes to their thinking or had any a-ha moments in the process. Consider creating a chart on their task that includes space for their individual work, notes from the discussion, and reflection after the discussion. Not only will this provide more insight for you as the teacher, but the students’ metacognition will increase their self-awareness, which supports recall in the future.
Have students share & give feedback. The standard share out often includes time for students to work independently, followed by the teacher reviewing the correct answers. This practice can be modified to having students post their answers in small groups at the same time, and then visiting other groups' responses and leaving feedback or asking questions. By turning this process over to students, teachers can increase the responsibility and accountability for students to work with their groups and think critically if different groups have different responses.
Leverage differentiation strategies. Building in differentiation as a result of a check for understanding is an effective way of structuring the lesson. Teachers can plan to use hinge point questions, where students receive a specific task as a result of their answer on a check for understanding question, or Four Corners, where students move around the room in real time to show their thinking and discuss with their peers. Both of these strategies leverage real-time responses and interaction to notice misconceptions and work to address them in the moment.
Checks for understanding are a very valuable touchpoint. Getting in the moment information about what is and isn’t clear for students provides insight into differentiation, student grouping, and tweaks to the next day’s lesson. When we reveal the “right” answer before we can gather information on what students know and can do, we might go for weeks before we realize that students have not been learning what they need to be successful on high-stakes assessments like unit tests, projects, or major exams.
It’s true: it is important to correct misconceptions, and we don’t want students to sit in frustration if we’re withholding information that can help them learn. And also, when we jump to reviewing the right answers before we’ve had a moment to collect the data or reflect on how students are processing the information in the lesson, we miss valuable insights that help us plan and prepare the learning pathway for students’ success.
Assess and address students' misunderstandings and misconceptions.
Imagine that you are grading your students’ summative assessments at the end of a unit or grading period. You are feeling extremely confident because your students have seemed engaged the past few weeks. But, as you start grading the seventh or eighth assessment, you realize that there are several questions that assess the same skill or content knowledge that no student has answered correctly. You may start thinking, what’s going on?
In my teaching, I experienced this exact situation. I felt frustrated and disappointed with myself and with my instruction. I thought that my students mastered the material based on their classroom engagement, but their summative assessments revealed otherwise. It led me to ask, how can I better identify and support my students’ needs before the summative assessment?
Formative assessments are an excellent, low-stakes way to assess and address students’ misunderstandings or unanswered questions. They can take many forms: short writing prompts, exit tickets, brief video responses, whiteboard questions and answers, conversations, checklists, etc. In any form, they serve as an opportunity to give both teachers and students feedback about progress towards mastery. With that feedback, instruction can be adjusted to better support students’ learning.
Receiving instantaneous feedback
Virtual tools are a great way to ask students focused comprehension questions and to receive almost instantaneous feedback — and many of them are free to use.
Socrative is an online classroom app that provides immediate feedback to teachers and students. You can use it to create and assign short, selected-response quizzes or open-response exit-ticket questions. Teachers can see students’ responses as soon as they are entered, and can quickly generate whole-class data.
Gimkit is a gamified-way to gauge students’ comprehension. Students answer selected-response questions at their own pace, earn imaginary coins, and shop for powerups and game features. Games can be set to last for a set amount of time, which makes it an easy addition to any lesson plan. Plus, students love the gaming interface!
Google Forms, which is integrated within Google Suites, allows you to adjust the settings of a Google Form and turn on the “make this a quiz” function. This will allow you to make an answer key for selected-response questions and to add points and automatic feedback to students. You can see automatic summaries for all quiz responses, including frequently missed questions, graphs marked with correct answers, and average, median, and range of scores.
Gathering invaluable student data
If you're looking for an alternative to digital tools, exit slips are a great way to gather information about students’ current understandings and/or questions. On a piece of paper or a document, ask students to respond to 1-3 questions that ask them to recall or apply information at the end of a lesson.
Student-led conferences, including conferences between student/parent, student/teacher, or among student/parent/teacher allow students to highlight significant areas of growth and to set goals for future learning. Ask a student to bring a sample of their recent work — it could be a summative assessment, a written piece, or a collection of classwork. Then, ask students to reflect on how these learning artifacts reflect their progress in certain skill areas. These conferences can be student, teacher, or parent initiated.
Color-coded student reflection can be a great way for students to reflect on the progress of their own learning towards a goal. When a student goes to turn in their practice work, ask them to highlight their name on the paper using a color-coded system: red to signify “I completely understand and could teach someone else this skill,” blue to signify “I think I understand, but need some more practice,” and green to signify “I don’t think I understand yet and may need some more support.” Keep the highlighters next to your turn-in bin for student work. For younger students, this can also be a great practice to remind them to write their names on their papers.
Thoughtful assessment practices
Listen and respond: whenever you give students a formative assessment, make sure to respond to students’ strengths and opportunities for growth. If a formative assessment only gets graded and handed back without an adjustment in instruction, that is a lost opportunity to provide student-specific and class-wide support.
Keep it brief: formative assessments don’t need to be long or multi-tasked. They are often most effective when they target one specific skill or piece of content, especially when there is room for misunderstandings. Experienced teachers often know when and where students may get tripped up and can plan formative assessments accordingly.
Encourage students’ self-reflection: use formative assessments as a metacognitive practice to get students thinking about their own thinking and learning. It can be great for a teacher to identify and offer support for a student’s misunderstandings, but it can be even better for a student to take that initiative for themselves.
Formative assessments are powerful tools for both teachers and students to reflect on the process of learning. Remember, they can take many forms and can still provide valuable insight into students’ progress towards mastery. Ultimately, formative assessments can help to shine a light on misunderstandings and misconceptions so that, as educators, we can offer necessary help and support to our students.
Understanding the connection between what is taught and what is learned is a vital part of your classroom practice.
G. FAITH LITTLE
21st Century Learning & SEL Specialist
One effective tool we use when delving into new content is the resource It says...I say...So... With this tool as our guide, we can explore Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, 3d Using Assessment in Instruction.
Danielson 3d says...
“Assessment of student learning plays an important new role in teaching: no longer signaling the end of instruction, it is now recognized to be an integral part of instruction. While assessment of learning has always been and will continue to be an important aspect of teaching (it’s important for teachers to know whether students have learned what teachers intend), assessment for learning has increasingly come to play an important role in classroom practice. And in order to assess student learning for the purposes of instruction, teachers must have a “finger on the pulse” of a lesson, monitoring student understanding and, where feedback is appropriate, offering it to students.”
This looks like...
This is challenging, because...
Let’s consider formative assessments. They are most helpful to us when making instructional decisions. They are used to monitor student learning and inform feedback. They help give us an overall picture of a child’s achievement. Formative assessments are used throughout the lesson.
You can try...
Below are a few examples of practical pre-instruction assessments you can try in your classroom.
What are you trying in your classroom? What do you want to integrate into your practice? Tell us more in the comments! Learn more about opportunities to Design Coherent Instruction for your students.
In this episode
Discussions are an important component of 21st century learning in all disciplines; they help students process and communicate information, and help teachers better understand which concepts students are connecting with. 21st century learning specialist G. Faith Little joins us this week to unpack the benefits of classroom discussions, and how they can be a simple, authentic way to assess student learning.
Imagine you’re a teacher who wants to begin or refine the use of discussion in your classroom — what’s the smallest thing you can do to make the biggest difference?
Equitable practices empower students to recognize and develop their own talents and skills, and become agents of change for their futures.
CRSP & New Teacher Specialist
What is equity? How do we define and use it in education?
Whenever there is a buzzword at play in education circles, we like to unpack, define, and interpret how the term applies to educators and schools.
Let’s start with the difference between equity and equality.
A simple, working understanding of equity involves “trying to understand and offer people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives." In education, equity means truly striving to achieve the best possible outcome for each individual student.
Equality, in contrast, aims to ensure that everyone is offered the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. As educators, the notion of offering all people the same things immediately contradicts our understandings of differentiation. We know that not all students have the same needs. Furthermore, students from underserved backgrounds, generally low-income or students of color, may benefit from a variety of resources to succeed academically.
All students benefit from equitable practices. I’d like to suggest that we not only offer students additional opportunities or resources to “catch up” or to “level the playing field”, but instead create a new playing field in education. We can start with our own assessment policies and systems in our classrooms, departments, schools, and districts.
Creating equitable education and assessment practices doesn’t end with offering students what they need or deserve to succeed. Equitable policies and practices aim to empower students to recognize and develop their own talents and skills; to become agents of change for their futures. Equity means achieving lasting results for all people, regardless of their socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.
Examining our assessment practices
Equity work in any context may require seeing differently, thinking differently, and even working differently. Therefore, it may be helpful to start by asking ourselves some probing questions about our own assessment practices and beliefs. Consider discussing these questions at your next faculty meeting to norm understandings around assessments, or answering them individually, as a way to understand your own beliefs.
Creating equitable assessments
To work toward equity in education and in assessment, let’s examine our assumptions about educational achievement and assessment.
Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, explains how traditional testing policies perpetuate racist (and inequitable) ideas and policies in education. He explains that “achievement in this country is based on test scores, and since white and Asian students get higher test scores on average than their black and Latinx peers, they are considered to be achieving on a higher level.”
We may not have the power to single-handedly change high-stakes testing policies that use assessment scores to measure educational achievement, but we do have influence over our curricular decisions and how we assess and grade our students. We can create more equitable curricula and assessment practices and policies to create more equitable education. To do this, we must:
Assess what we teach & teach what we assess
There are some basic rules of thumb that we can use to create a more equitable foundation for assessing students. As a starting point, we can simply ensure that we assess what we teach and teach what we assess.
Backwards design, from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design model, offers a framing to ensure that we first plan our assessments — including all the key teaching points and skills needed for them — as a guide to our instruction. Next, we “backwards plan” our units and lessons to ensure that we are meeting each of our teaching goals as we work our way toward the end of unit assessment.
In addition to planning for end of unit assessments, we can also plan our formative assessments, which will help us understand students’ mastery of each discrete skill throughout our lessons. This will also create space to reteach concepts as needed, as well as ensure that we are offering students a range of possible opportunities to learn throughout a unit.
When formative assessments reveal or confirm for us which students are struggling or need to revisit a concept or skill, we can differentiate how we reteach or review. If the teaching didn’t stick as we’d hoped the first time around, why would we teach it again in the same way?
These practices can help us take initial steps toward ensuring our students are offered fair assessment opportunities, and we can build equity from there.
Traditional assumptions about assessment may lead us to believe that asking students to complete different assessment tasks to demonstrate mastery may not feel fair — but it may actually be more equitable. I admit that early in my teaching career, the concept of differentiated assessments took me a while to grasp and to actually believe in.
Many of us use differentiation expert Carol Ann Tomlinson’s helpful framework to guide our daily planning and instruction. We plan differentiated processes using a variety of scaffolds, tools, extensions, student groupings, pacing and modalities. We differentiate content in the form of offering or using a variety of “levels” of texts, math problems, and complexity of tasks. We strive to create a supportive and differentiated learning environment to meet a variety of students’ needs. But, when it comes to differentiating products or assessments, it is a little more complicated.
Here are a few simple ways to differentiate assessment products to create equity:
Make assessments rigorous, not rote
Research shows that, especially in marginalized or lower income neighborhoods, lessons for students often focus on rote skills and procedures. Often, this means that students are not expected to achieve, nor learn more rigorous skills and content, when compared with their peers in higher income communities. As we know, rote and procedural learning tends to be boring, and when learning is boring, we often disengage or act out. This may become a serious equity issue in marginalized communities, especially for students of color, where, when students opt out of learning or act out, they may face harsh (or criminalized) punishment. Either way, students lose.
Instead of focusing assessments on acquisition or mastery of rote skills or procedures, we can aim to emphasize reasoning and problem-solving skills. Research consistently proves that opportunities for supported, productive struggle can motivate students to stick with a task and to stay engaged as they learn. We all do better when we can engage in productive challenges.
Make assessments relevant
Culturally relevant curriculum and instruction create more equitable education for all students. Zaretta Hammond, in her wonderful book Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain, defines culturally responsive teaching as “encompassing the social-emotional, relational, and cognitive aspects of teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students.” She believes that when we teach with these concepts as our guiding lights, we create more equitable education.
Similarly, we can create more equitable assessment practices if we offer students experiences that are adapted for their cultural and linguistic diversity and are cognitively appropriate and engaging.
Here are a few simple ways to make assessments more culturally relevant or responsive:
Develop and maintain a growth mindset
We often think about how important it is for students to develop a growth mindset, yet, as educators, we need to take a hard look at our own biases and assumptions that things may be “too hard” for students. As Carol Dweck points out in the The Power of Yet, with scaffolding and high engagement tasks, we may find that students surprise us and we can reframe our thinking to become, “they don't get it yet.” Many factors contribute to a student’s mindset and development of a learner’s stance, especially a teacher's language and perspective.
Here are a few simple ways to support a growth mindset for assessment practices:
Cultivating strengths and talents
As educators, our job is to cultivate students’ strengths, as well as help them develop in areas of struggle. All students benefit when teachers recognize and cultivate their passions, talents, and skills. Students also benefit when teachers recognize that a class or subject is an area where they need some extra support and that simply making progress is an achievement, even if their skills have not met or exceeded standards.
When students are not achieving in a particular subject area, it may be time to think differently about how we assess them. It is possibly a waste of talent and potential if we expect students to spend academic time and energy striving to achieve in an area that continues to be a struggle for them. Instead, we can think more holistically about each student, in an effort to balance supporting improvement in areas of challenge with sponsoring soaring success in areas of strength. We can continue to cultivate and encourage a student’s passions and talents, even when assessing them.
Measuring and recognizing ongoing progress and effort are important components of assessing a student’s learning.
Many of us were educated within systems that housed traditional or standardized assessment and grading systems. As educators, we have all consciously or unconsciously based a grading policy or assessment practices on the modeling we learned as students. It can take a leap of faith to imagine new and innovative assessment practices — but we must rethink our notions of fairness and begin to think about developing practices that are equitable for the students in our care.