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.
Reimagine your role in the classroom in service of creating more opportunities for authentic learning.
Although it’s a different building, it still feels like home, the place where I spent the first six years of my teaching career. As I am buzzed into the main entrance, I see students filling the hallway, getting ready to leave for the day. I sign in and take the stairs up to Room 209, Ms. Cunningham’s room. I’m excited to see my former colleague, who has been teaching here for eight years.
Her classroom is decorated with flags, posters of student work, and the desks are grouped in quads. The large windows are a breath of fresh air after teaching in a building with no windows, and I joke with her about the increase in Vitamin D. After a brief catch up, we started talking about how Ms. Cunningham’s teaching practice has changed throughout the years, defining what authentic learning means, and how her role as educator has shifted to teacher as facilitator.
Ms. Cunningham: I think authentic learning really relies on the students and what they bring into class, showing them that their experiences are what make this class. It’s not that I have any preconceived notion of what they need to learn or what they need for education, it’s that they’re bringing their passions with them. I’m just here to kind of bring that out. And in doing so, I bring that out of every student.
Did you always have this mindset?
Ms. Cunningham: I think for the first half of my career, I was very much of a control freak about my classroom and what I was doing. At the time, I felt like if I was leading things and I knew what I was teaching was what was aligned to the curriculum, I could have “control.” After attending the Stanford Hollyhock Fellowship, I began to question my role in the classroom. My classroom is not about me. Before, I was the source, and now, I'm a facilitator. I think that has inspired me to do a lot more group work with students, more individual conferencing, and more conversations in general rather than looking for a product. Even today, we sat in groups; in my first three years, I could never imagine seating my students in groups, but by adjusting my role as facilitator, I showed them that I trust them more and that they have power in their learning.
What do you think has been the most noticeable change in your classroom practice?
Ms. Cunningham: Fostering curiosity. It should be the students bringing forth curiosity and interest; the teacher is there to aid in that, not necessarily just fill them with what they think students need to know. Am I coming into the classroom with a notion of giving the students what I think they should know, or am I coming into this classroom genuinely getting to know these students as people and then navigating how they want to interact with their learning? Ultimately, I decided that what really means more to me is giving students the space and opportunity to be curious. Learning does not come from me. Learning comes from the students, and they should guide their learning; I'm just here to help out. My role as a teacher is to help them make the map or point them in the right direction. Students tell me where they want to go, and I hope that I can get them there.
The mindset shift
There are a few things that really stood out to me during my conversation with Ms. Cunningham. The first was that this new teaching philosophy was encouraged through a mindset shift. She questioned if she was the source of knowledge, leading her to question the idea of knowledge as a singular term. This is not an easy task — demonstrated by the word “knowledges” being underlined in blue as I type this article — but being the courageous educator that she is, Ms. Cunningham challenged what she had previously learned about the role of a teacher. One person should not be the “keeper of the knowledge”, and students all bring their own knowledges to the classroom, knowledges that should be welcomed and validated.
The curriculum shift
As we continued our conversation, I asked Ms. Cunningham for examples of how she enacts this mindset shift in her classroom. She talked about starting new units with notice and wonder protocols, allowing students to ask their own questions about the information provided. These questions guide their exploration throughout the unit, prompting reading choices and potential final reflection questions. Through these student-led explorations, she provides resources, suggestions, and teaches the students skills they need to master in order to answer their questions and communicate their findings. Rarely will you find her at the front of the classroom.
The classroom space
This leads to the physical classroom space; Ms. Cunningham has arranged the desks in quads on this particular day, encouraging students to discuss their ideas and explore together. There is a couch in the reading corner, complete with several bookcases. Students are welcomed to use the space as they need, moving desks or sitting in the reading corner when they want to get some independent reading done. This classroom setup invites students to use each other as resources and can mutate to fit their needs. Without flexibility of space, mindset and curricular shifts wouldn’t be enough to make this teacher-as-facilitator role possible.
As the sun starts to set, I thank Ms. Cunningham for inviting me into her classroom and sharing her work with me. Her shift from teacher-as-knower to teacher-as-facilitator is inspiring and by no means easy. It requires educators to do what we want our students to do; question what we know, build new knowledge, and enact positive change.
How can you implement instruction that's grounded in curiosity and collaboration? Take part in 21 Skills for the 21st Century to expand your understanding of critical capacities that will prepare today's students for tomorrow's changing world.
Engage meaningfully and gain insight that will support both your instruction and students' growth.
Elementary Education Specialist
Throughout my work as a teacher and a coach, I’ve come across many different interpretations and definitions of what it means to conference with students. At a minimum, conferences are 1-1 interactions between a teacher and a student. At best, they are highly meaningful and informative conversations. They are opportunities to get to know a student, to assess where they are and where they are going, and to provide highly customized instruction aimed at advancing their learning. As Don Murray explains in his book A Writer Teaches Writing:
“Conferences are not mini-lectures, but the working talk of fellow writers sharing their experience with the writing process. At times, of course, they will be teacher and student, master and apprentice, if you want, but most of the time, they will be remarkably close to peers, because each writer, no matter how experienced, begins with each draft.”
How can we maximize our conferences with our students?
When it comes to conferencing, I have always leaned on Carl Anderson’s book, How's It Going? He explains that conferencing has a two-part structure: it’s first a conversation about the work the student is doing, and then a conversation about how the student can get better. As part of these conversations, the teacher and the student have distinct roles that help ensure they are meaningful and productive. Anderson explains:
When the teacher and student enact these roles, the conference becomes a true conversation, whereby the teacher and the student become equal contributors, dedicated to the larger goal of improving the learning.
Facilitating the conversation
In addition to establishing roles, Anderson offers what I think is a helpful structure to facilitate a conference. The structure, which consists of six parts, can also benefit from the use of meaningful facilitation questions that will help guide your conversation.
Launch the conversation
The goal of the launch is to ask: how’s it going? What are you working on today? What do you need help with? This allows the student to take the lead.
Look at/assess student work
It is so important to look at the work of our students in efforts of being able to analyze what they have shared, what is showing up in the work, and how the two compare. This kind of analysis is necessary if we are going to be able to accurately assess where students are and where they need to go.
Decide what to teach
This part of the conference is definitely the most challenging intellectual work. We need to decide what and how to teach during this particular conference. What helps me is to identify what I think is the most high-leverage area, the most urgent need, and not rely on a fix-it-all approach. To help with the decision we can consider things like:
In terms of how to teach a specific strategy or skill, Anderson offers some helpful tips:
Nudge students to have a go
After our teaching, Anderson recommends that we nudge our students to try it out! I appreciate this terminology because it supports the idea that we encourage them to put forth an initial attempt to talk through what they are going to do during the conference, while they have our support. This helps us assess their understanding of the conference, and what they will go do on their own.
Link the conference and stamp the learning
To promote the transfer of skills and strategies, we want to link the conference to students’ ongoing work and encourage them to do the work we’ve discussed right away. As Anderson states, we can ask things like: “What are you going to do now?” or “Tell me your plans for your work…” I like to think of this as stamping the learning.
The last part of the conference, while it can often feel tedious, is crucial. As educators of high numbers of students, we can’t possibly remember every conversation we’ve had with each individual. Each student is unique and has different strengths and struggles depending on the content, the topic, the genre, etc. I highly encourage the teachers I coach to identify a method of keeping conference notes that works for them, and something they can maintain throughout the semester (and ideally the larger school year). In my own work, I used folders and index cards and titled them by the unit of study. Other teachers I know use voice notes/memos, while others have used Google Drive where they created one Drive for the overall unit, and created a folder for each student. Keeping notes and records helps us cater our instruction, monitor progress, and celebrate growth.
Whereas any 1-1 interactions with students are valuable, finding ways to maximize our conferencing techniques such as those mentioned above can be transformative for us as educators. It can be challenging to find the time to conference amidst all that we do, but these highly essential and enlightening conversations can help us get to know our students on a deeper level. When we really know our students, we can most effectively cater our instruction and meet them where they are, which gives us the best chance at truly advancing their learning.
How one high school is constructing their own definition of rigor, in service of developing high expectations and meaningful work for students.
JACQUI STOLZER, Special Education & ELA Specialist & LAURA RIGOLOSI, Literacy & Special Education Specialist
After several years of prolonged uncertainty and hardship, a feeling of normalcy seems to finally be settling in, and schools want to refocus their vision for high expectations and meaningful work for students. As coaches, we’ve noticed that “rigor” has become a topic of particular interest for school leaders this year.
However, not everyone has the most positive associations with the word, and we can’t really blame them (just look at the dictionary definition — yikes!). What we mean by rigor in the educational context is often unclear, and it’s for this reason that we believe in the importance of co-constructing definitions and characteristics of the concept as a school community.
We’ve undertaken this endeavor with the Business Technology Early College High School (BTECH) — one of our wonderful partner schools in Queens, New York — and have been investigating the concept of rigor through a variety of entry points. Our inquiry around rigor began with a tool developed by our colleague, Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang, who envisions rigor as an odometer, a visual retake on Bloom’s Taxonomy. After working with the “Rigormeter”, the staff at BTECH engaged in inquiry around how to assess and establish criteria for rigorous questions. Here is a snapshot of how we explored this question and a look into the insights that were gleaned.
Assessing for rigor
What makes a rigorous question? The central way that teachers pursued this line of inquiry in our workshop was through a hands-on, minds-on activity. In small heterogeneous groups (mixed in terms of both content areas and experience), teachers were given an envelope of paper strips, each printed with a question inspired by real high school curriculum (How does the greenhouse effect work? What is exponential growth and where do we see it in our everyday lives?). Working collaboratively, teachers were tasked with sorting the questions into categories according to their perceived level of rigor. As we circulated the room, we heard teachers engaged in rich and lively discussion as they made decisions about how to rank questions according to their rigor level, and why.
Establishing criteria for rigor
After teachers spent some time engaging in the question sorting activity, we asked the small groups to reflect and discuss together: What criteria did you use to distinguish more rigorous from less rigorous questions? Then, when we came back together as a whole staff, we asked teachers: so, what does make a rigorous question? Here are some of the defining characteristic they articulated:
A rigorous question...
After teachers generated their own ideas, we as facilitators offered a few additional criteria that worked to amplify and elaborate on the group’s working definition. The criteria we offered were inspired by some of the dispositions of competent readers delineated by Dr. Sheridan Blau in his article Performative Literacy: The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers (2003) — with the thinking that if these dispositions allow for readers to make meaning of texts and “enable knowledge” (p. 19), then questions that inspire the cultivation of such dispositions will in turn cultivate meaning-making in general.
We proposed that a rigorous question also:
The importance of complexity and flexibility are also explored in Robyn Jackson’s How to Plan Rigorous Instruction (2010).
After generating their own collective definition of a rigorous question and considering the Blau-inspired characteristics as well, teachers were given the opportunity to apply these new insights to an upcoming lesson. Teachers left the session with a new Do Now activity or slightly tweaked questions that asked for justification, for example. Most significantly, they left with clarity on what counts as a rigorous question.
As we continue working with this school, we are designing next steps in the professional learning process. Our upcoming sessions can focus on when and how to use rigorous questions, specifically, at what point of the lesson, and how to assess student response. We can also explore activities or teaching moves that pair well with investigating rigorous questions. We might also reconsider our essential questions and check how they measure against our “rigorous questions” criteria. There are many possibilities for moving forward with our inquiry cycle.
While there are plenty of resources and frameworks out there for teachers on creating compelling and meaningful questions, both facilitators and teachers found great value in doing some first-hand discovery, and in trying to articulate the nuance in what distinguishes rigorous questions from the rest.
Low-stakes, high-reward discussion practices you can bring to your math classroom.
Elementary Education Specialist
Most teachers I know recognize the importance of discussion in their classrooms, but often struggle with how to best facilitate student-to-student discussions, particularly in a content area classroom like math.
As a former elementary educator, I was responsible for teaching all subject areas — Reading, Writing, Math, Science and Social Studies. Math was always my most reluctant subject. When it came time to teach math, I was guilty of sitting in front of the whiteboard, doing practice problem after practice problem with my students, asking if they had any questions, and then sending them off to their desks to do more practice problems in their workbooks. I could tell they were bored (heck, I was bored), but I was unsure how to shift my teaching to make it more engaging and student-centered.
I was compelled by the idea that practice makes perfect, right? So the more problems they practice, the more likely they’d be to get it. But the drill and kill approach is not adequate, especially in classrooms today, and as we think about the necessary skills of students in the 21st century. We know they need much more to acquire skills and knowledge that will serve them in real life. They need to be able to talk about math, reflect on their processes, and collaboratively problem-solve.
What is Math Talk?
One of my recent areas of focus and interest is helping math teachers incorporate more discussion in their classrooms and move away from the often well-intentioned chalk and talk approach.
“Math Talk,” while a rather new term, is gaining in popularity, as research suggests that when students talk more about their math thinking, they are more motivated to learn and they learn more. It is one of the mathematical practices of the NGS that supports students in clarifying their thinking and understanding, constructing mathematical arguments, developing language to express math ideas, and increasing opportunities to see things from different perspectives.
How can teachers promote this challenging yet crucial mathematical practice in their classrooms? What I share below are three simple, yet effective strategies that can promote math talk in meaningful and manageable ways.
Turn and Talks
Turn and talks are a well-known and commonly used strategy. They support oral language, speaking, and listening skills in a low-stakes way. Math can often promote a lot of fear, and fear of getting it wrong. But because students are talking to a partner, there is often less hesitation than if they had to speak to a larger group. Turn and talks can be a great entry point to promoting discussion.
Gallery walks are another simple yet meaningful technique to support discussion. These support students in being actively engaged as they walk throughout the classroom, and they can be highly effective in problem-solving within a math classroom.
Similar to a turn and talk, a gallery walk could be the focus of the Do Now, as part of guided practice in preparation for independent work, or it can serve as the independent work after some explicit instruction.
Think - Pair - Share
Think-Pair-Share can support students in working together to increase understanding and explore multiple perspectives. Like turn and talks, it is a partner strategy that can be a nice entry point to promoting discussion as its low-stakes and a bit easier for the teacher to manage participation of students. It can be done as part of a Do Now, to review a particular skill, to assess work that is already completed, or as part of independent practice as students apply what they’ve learned.
By no means do I consider myself a math expert; however, I do have extensive experience in promoting discussion in all disciplines. While these strategies are not new or revolutionary, I have witnessed how even small moves can shift instruction to allow for more student interaction and application. I hope you find them helpful as you consider how you can maximize discussion in your classroom, and remember that any of these can be a starting place — as you boost your confidence and experience success, I encourage you to consider your own twists and share them with others.