Promising practices for assessing and adjusting your instruction to meet students' needs.
Data is often thought of as comprehensive spreadsheets consisting of numbers, graphs, and charts, representing scores from end of unit tests or standardized exams. It’s often analyzed to determine whether or not students have mastered content and skills, rather than inform instruction or translate into timely teacher moves in the classroom.
Quantitative data has its place; however, it alone does not suffice. In addition to charts and graphs, teachers need qualitative data to inform and adjust their instruction along the way — throughout the unit, and within particular lessons. So, what are some of the ways teachers can gather this kind of data and make use of it? What can it look like?
A portrait of practice
In a recent visit to a school in Georgia, a colleague and I had the opportunity to perform walkthroughs of select classrooms. One teacher I witnessed — a seasoned math teacher facilitating a lesson on solving equations with decimals — was doing a fantastic job of taking the pulse of her classroom and assessing the needs of her students throughout her lesson. I want to share what I observed as I think it can be a useful case study to help us answer the above questions.
She posed a question for the do now, and after circulating to assess how her students were doing, she addressed the class: “Okay y’all, I want us to stop for a minute. I’m noticing that what is tripping us up with this problem is rounding, and I would hate for this small detail to result in us getting these types of problems wrong!”
From there, she asked students to look back at their problem, particularly to see if they rounded correctly, while she prepared the next step of the lesson on her computer. After a few more minutes, she asked the students to go back to their seats, and informed them that they were going to engage in a Kahoot, to provide more practice with rounding. (Kahoot is a wonderful tool for not only offering practice, but also for gathering data quickly and accessibly. After each question, Kahoot offers a chart indicating how many students selected which answer and whether or not it was the right answer.)
This was a simple and effective way to gather and use data in the moment, in order to shift the plan for the day’s instruction. Rather than push forward, she took stock of what was needed, and responded intentionally.
And it didn’t stop there. As the lesson progressed, she continued to gather data while students were working, and made shifts based on what she observed. I watched her create a few different groups based on the information she had: one for students that needed more rounding practice; another group that focused on the original practice problems for the day; and another group that was pushed with some more challenging questions based on their strengths.
This case study offers some promising practices for gathering and analyzing data, and making in the moment adjustments to instruction. In addition to the practices I described, I want to offer a few more that I utilized while I was leading my own classroom.
Turn and talks
Turn and talks are an effective means of assessment that I leaned on heavily during my time as a classroom teacher. Given my large class size, turn and talks allowed me to check for understanding with more students than I could if they were working independently. I often used turn and talks as part of a do now, where I would pose a question and then have students talk to a shoulder partner while I circulated and listened in on their conversations.
Additionally, I liked to use turn and talks as part of a guided practice where I would model a strategy and then have students try it out with a partner while I listened and observed. I sometimes used a checklist to make note of which students seemed to be getting it and which students might need some more support, to inform how I might group my students for the lesson and inform who I might need to conference with individually.
Conferencing is another powerful formative assessment that can be very instructive for both teachers and students. Conferences, when executed effectively, involve looking at student work, asking some clarifying and/or probing questions to determine what a student needs, in the moment, as they practice a new skill. Based on this investigation, the teacher identifies a high-leverage strategy that can advance student learning, often models it, and then observes while students give it a try.
Collecting and sorting student work
Lastly, collecting and sorting student work is an effective means of assessment that can be particularly informative for sequencing instruction. As an elementary teacher, I would make it a point to collect student work once a week, whether it was students’ writing notebooks, their reading post-its, their drafts of writing, etc. I would look closely at the work to try and determine strengths and struggles, and then identify any common trends that could inform my grouping as well as the goals I should set for these groups.
For example, if we were working on a writing unit focused on non-fiction essays, I might review student work and notice common challenges related to students supporting their thinking with evidence, using proper citations, analyzing the evidence to make connections to their claims, etc. I would sort the challenges, and attempt to narrow them down to three or four that would form my groups, and then identify a teaching point for each that I would implement the following week.
It often felt like a lot of work, but when I did it, I always found it enlightening and I appreciated how it pushed me to ensure I was catering my instruction to what my students truly needed. (A twist of this for middle and high school teachers could be to collect and sort exit tickets, as they are likely more manageable than collecting drafts.)
As teachers, we need to understand and address our students' needs as they arise, as they engage in the learning process and acquire new skills. In doing so, we can reflect on and improve our instruction before it’s too late. What I hope I have provided are meaningful and manageable ways to gather qualitative data and make use of it in the moment and beyond.